Vulvodynia and the power of the vulva

Click on this image for the history of the vulva in many cultures as a power symbol of political change and protest

Vulvodynia is a medical term for having persistent pain in your vulva that isn’t explained by the usual causes.

You know what is so wierd? I just had gotten so used to the burning, itching and periodic pain, that I thought it was relatively normal. I’d gotten used to having to have sex in very limited ways and to feeling pain after and sometimes during. At times it hasn’t really seemed worth it. No wonder my sex life has fizzled.

Vulvodynia comes in two types. The first is where the woman experiences pain with intercourse, or inserting a tampon or similar, and afterwards, but not the rest of the time. The second kind is when the woman has the first kind of pain, sometimes not as severely, but also a persistent pain or itching at other times.

That’s the kind I have, and now that I know what it is, I can access the wisdom of women all over the world who have it too. Unlike the pain I had as a child, I’m not alone.

I found a list of things that are thought to be involved in vulvodynia and things that make it better and worse and I’m trying them. It’s actually helping.

One of the things that doctors believed about vulvodynia was that it is psychosomatic, caused by being a sexual abuse survivor.  I think that’s demeaning. Of course there are physical effects of being raped, I’ve got the scars to prove it. And of course there are psychological effects that affect how the vagina and vulva feel and perform, particularly in how relaxed and open we feel.

What is demeaning and insulting to the brave women warriors who have survived rape as children is to dismiss our complaints as if because we know the cause it doesn’t need to be cured, like it’s some kind of hopeless case to have a vulva that feels healthy and good, and it is some kind of hopeless case to have a healthy mind and spirit after being ‘damaged’. It’s like we’re in some feudal culture and we’ve been ‘ruined’ by losing our virginity in an unsanctioned way.

I went to see my nurse practitioner, the one who showed me my rape scars last summer. I wasn’t there specifically about my vagina, but after she looked into what I was there about I asked her about the pain and itching. She told me all her tests had been negative for infection, that everything looked fine.  I said “you think this is psychosomatic?” She didn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no. She said “we’ll you’ve had a hard life”. I said, I had a hard childhood, I’ve had a pretty good life, for the last 20 years, actually”. I hate it when people assume I’m some kind of lifelong victim.  I’ve never been in an abusive relationship as an adult, I’ve never done drugs or abused alcohol, I’ve not been raped or beaten as an adult and I’ve made good choices for myself. 

After I got home from my appointment I did some research. Vulvodynia is thought to be caused by chronic tightening of the muscles of the vagina, which restricts blood flow, causing the pain and itching. There are of course other theories, but I like this one. It looks like everyone wins – psychological: clenching of the vaginal and vulval muscles – physical: restricted blood flow causing persistent pain.

So what part of this allows her to dismiss my valid medical issue?

I’ll tell you what does. Her discomfort with having to help someone who was raped as a tiny child having persistent pain her whole life as a result. In her vagina. People don’t want to think about it. They want me to be crazy. They want it to be something they can discount. It makes it less scary for them.  That a man can rape a child and get away with creates enormous cognitive dissonance for people. It’s nothing that should happen. It’s nothing he should get away with. I agree. But rather than trying to ignore or brush away the effects, I want to resolve them. I’m one of the sanest people I know. I know how to face reality in ways they don’t.

My wife and I are coming up on our ten year anniversary. I joke that it’s actually 40 years in ‘het years’ – kind of like dog years. Because lesbian relationships get little social support, a ten year anniversary is the equivalent of 40 years for a straight couple who have had help and approval from their culture from the beginning, going back as far as high school. How does this apply?

Life is a lot harder without social support. By shunning survivors of abuse, in all the ways our culture shuns us, we inhibit and restrict the healing and change that is necessary to make child rape obsolete. My ally, my nurse practitioner, well meaning and educated, does it, I’ve had a lover tell me, upon looking at a cute picture of myself as a child that “no wonder my father loved me so much”.  I broke up with him soon after. It’s not love. I’m not a victim. Let’s just fix the problem, shall we?

So I’m working on relaxing those muscles, in various ways, on my own and with a little help from my wife. It’s working.

Now was that so hard?

Linear time – Age 1-7

I was told that it was good to tell your survivor story from beginning to end, as part of integrating it and setting it to rest.

Part of the problem with that is that I have some gaps  and some memories that are still in dissociated states, but I’ll try. I’m going to ‘bold’ the memories where I remember what it felt like to be ‘inside my own head’ for that memory, to be the girl having those thoughts or experiences.

My first memory is before the age of 7, since it is in the front yard of the first place we lived in, one side of a duplex. For some reason I don’t know who lived on the other side, but the neighbours in the next house had a daughter a few years older than me who I adored and looked up to. Her mother was also nice, but looked more like a grandmother than a mother.

In my first memory I’m making mud pies sitting under a tiny weeping willow or similar tree, which had long dangling drooping seed clusters that were green and then would dry to a caramel colour. When they were dry you could crumble them into the seeds, which were like roundish flat stars. I put them on top of my mud pies like sprinkles and my memory is of being delighted with discovering their beautiful star shapes and deciding to use them to decorate my mud pies. I could hide under this tree and it felt like a bit of a fort.

I also remember being outside in my front yard when I came home found out my dog had been put down. The front yard was covered in small pools of yellowish vomit. I think he must have had a heart condition. They didn’t tell me beforehand so I didn’t get to tell him goodbye. I still think this was wrong, although I can understand why they did it.

I can remember almost the entire path to my elementary school from the duplex, which was black and white on the outside. We walked through a forest trail we kids called “the path” which ran in a cut between two rows of houses. I liked the path.

I remember sledding on that street one winter, with my dog Tony pulling me behind him on the sled. We thought he was a very strong dog.

I remember learning to ride a bike with training wheels, it was a blue bike I think, and my dad was helping me, and when he let go I crashed into the neighbours yard two doors over, which was on a slight hill. I landed on the grass so it was a good place to crash. This lady and her husband both smoked, which smelled bad, and had a daughter with bad asthma who had to have oxygen tents and go to the hospital, but her parents wouldn’t quit smoking. I wrote some of my first word ‘mom’ I think, when I was four years old, at her kitchen table, to much approval. I felt very smart. I also remember helping change her baby daughter’s diapers when she was little, this is the one who had asthma,  and the beautiful pink drapey stuff on her crib.

There was another lady who I think lived nearby as well although she moved before we did, who had a son exactly the same age as me with my same birthday, so sometimes his mom and mine would have birthday parties together at their house, which I didn’t like.

I remember a chair in the front room, the living room, which me and a friend rocked on together until we crashed it over and I had to go to the doctor for stitches. I remember this because we were trying to experiment with trying to rock it side to side and around in circles at the same time.  I remember the stitches felt stiff, like someone had laid a strip of glue on my skin.

I don’t remember my bedroom at all. I don’t remember much more than the hallway, where my dad, drunk and angry, ranted at my brother and I for awhile about what a terrible house cleaner our mother was, herding us around and showing us the dirt and dust bunnies. Our mother wasn’t home and we were scared.

I remember seeing my father ‘asleep’, passed out from alcohol, on the kitchen floor, which had a kind of U shaped cabinet with a sink and window and then another area with kitchen table and a red rotary phone placed high on the wall. I don’t know if I remember this phone directly, since it’s in a picture I saw as well. I don’t remember my mom there at all, except maybe at that garage sale we had.

I remember I had to stay home all summer and not go out and play at all, although my younger brother could go out (he would have been only 2 or so?) because I had to be there in case he needed me. This just doesn’t make sense to me now, since I would have been too young to babysit, and surely they didn’t let a 2 year old run free in the neighbourhood? Anyhow I wasn’t allowed to go outside and play with friends all summer. But when I remember it, I remember the duplex, not the later house, so I think that happened then. Now I think that perhaps this was a ruse to keep me inside while I was healing from the rape.

I remember having an elaborate cool-aid stand in front of the duplex that I ran with a much older boy (about 10 or 12) who tried to kiss me in his basement. Around the same time I was at a Halloween party at his house and saw someone sit up out of a fake coffin and got very badly scared, in a reaction that was much more extreme than warranted. His sister was about my age. I remember a girl named Carla who was relentlessly teased for being fat, who lived at the other end of the U-shaped street, across the street from the boy. I still feel sorry for her and hope she is now happy and grown up. I remember my kindergarten room at school.

I don’t remember the basement at all, although I have a vague recollection that it had a window that looked up into the back yard. The stairs led up and down from the doorway at the side of the building, down to the basement and up to the main floor. Apparently there was a play room there, chock full of toys. I think it was where I was first abused, although my bedroom is also a good candidate. How come I remember the yard so well and the inside of the carport, where we had a garage sale once, in front of the house, and a lilac bush my mom liked just behind the side door, but not my own bedroom or playroom? This is of course a rhetorical question, since it is likely where I was abused. I have fairly fleshed out memories of places in my front yard or neighbourhood, but not the back part and lower levels of my own house.  I also remember my neighbours garden really well, and exactly where she planted the rhubarb that my neighbour and I would eat sometimes with sugar. I also remember my neighbour friend’s bedroom a little.

We moved from that place when I was 7, and to another house where we lived till I left home at 16 to go to university (yep, I’m kind of smart).

I remember the day we moved my parents brought us over to the new house and we waited in the basement, watched I think by my older brother, who would have been 12, while they did the final cleanup of the old place. This was during a brief prosperous time where they bought the house.

I was afraid of basements, and had a persistent fear feeling walking up stairs from the basement, especially if the light was turned off, as we were supposed to do when we left the basement. I would always run up the stairs, taking two at a time, in the new house, which had the same sort of entrance door that opened onto a landing between the basement and upper floor.

I know now that I was raped during my time at the duplex, probably in the basement. I have two abuse memories from that time, one of the pain of the actual first rape and belief that I was dying and afterwards,  had actually died , a persistent terror of basements, and one of trying to climb frantically up the stairs at the duplex and being pulled down by someone bad, probably my father, by the ankles. Now perhaps I have no memories of certain places in the duplex because I was in shock so much of the time there.

There was a babysitter we used to go to named Mrs. L – she had a day care in her basement, and I didn’t like her. She was rigid and strict and unfriendly and English. My older brother didn’t like her, and my mom apparently stopped taking us there when my brother wouldn’t let go of her legs one day when she was dropping him off. We stayed with Mrs. and Mr. L one time when my parents went away on holiday. Mrs. L had nothing she considered age appropriate for me to do, she said all her toys were too young for me, and I was permitted to file my nails and clean them, and I think watch a half hour or hour of television, but otherwise had nothing to do. Mr L could watch TV, but we weren’t allowed in to bother him.

This is almost the complete set of memories from zero to 7. I have no way of knowing if that’s normal, but I suspect it is a bit sparse. I had a babysitter who would do crafts with us, a girl, who we liked. Once coming home from school a person (lady?) asked us if I wanted a ride and I said no, since you weren’t supposed to take rides from strangers. She wrote a note on a brown paper bag for my mother, since she actually was my mom’s friend as she’d noted, but everyone said I was good not to get in the car.

What I’m trying to make sense of, integrate, is the incidental non-traumatic memories of the time and the abuse ones. I’m looking for holes and for some bits to fit together to make others make more sense. Was my father the only one to abuse me, or did he get his friends involved? Were my brothers abused as well? My older brother hinted at some things he had to go to therapy for, triggered by me disclosing abuse. I’d really like to know what those things were. I shared a bedroom with him at that house, so he might have been abused or witnessed abuse. It’s frustrating to have gaps, and it’s also frustrating to have so few memories that feel ‘in the first person’ like I can remember experiencing the event and not just the details or that the event happened.

the great divide

I can’t sleep so I’m writingthis in the middle of the night on my mini-laptop in bed. What a modern gal I am. My wife is sleeping next to me, and I”m hoping the dim light of the screen doesn’t wake her.

I’m thinking about taking a break from my therapist. It just doesn’t feel lik I’m making any real life positive changes as a result of therapy any more. If anything I’ m a bit more ashamed,a bit more depressed than has been typical, and I can’t seem to shake it. \I feel like I need to do some present day life housecleaning to feel better, to get on the physical level and her approach isn’t really that style.

I need to get this feeling of general dissatisfaction, confusion and shame about my job sorted. \I’ve taken on too much and am just not ableto do the stellar job for all my clients that I once was.

I feel overworked, anda bit burnt out. My father is still not dead, stinking Father’s day is looming (I don’t know exactly when it is, but the media is putting on more positive stories about fathers and someone tried to sell me a robot controlled helicopter today at the mall for father’s day.I didn’t tell him my father is an evil bastard and the only way I’d buy him a helicopter is if it could be reliably expected to hasten his death.

My marriage is a bit better than usual lately, and I’ve seen some of my friends more. I’m thinking I could get a nice long aromatherapy massage every two weeks for the same money as seeing my therapist and probably more benefit to my mood.

It’s not that I don’t like her or that she’s doing a bad job or anything like that, it’s just that I don’t feel like I’m getting anything done,or that seeing her right now is improving my mood or life. She’s become like a friend I complain to, and that’s not cutting it.

I need a mom, nurturing or life skills instruction. I need a small business coach or a priestess to bless me. I need to feel that it is all going to work out okay. I need to know it, with help to create a rational plan I can reasonably believe will do the job in a reasonable time span. I need hope. I need someone to tell me what vitamins to take and what exercise to do to make me feel better, who isn’t flaky or expecting me to take their advice on faith with no evidence.

I have no mother or father or big brother to believe in. I have no family but my wife and she seems fragile and overburdened herself half the time. She loves me. Today was her day off and she popped into my office to bring me snacks andvitamins and juice smoothies at intervals,did my filing and looked after the dog so I could concentrate. She’s a good person and gives me practicalsupport that I find nurturing and helpful because she loves me. does she talk abou tfeelings with me? not so much, but she doesn what she can.

The great divide is between the physical and the emotional, or perhaps both of those and the spiritual. It should all be one seamless whole, but it feels unbalanced.I need to be in my body more, I think that will help with the shame. What do I feel shame abuot? Really I’m not sure. The loss of my older brother and mother, realistically, finally, is something I’m still grieving. Their rejection seems like a rejection of some child part of me, like my inner child just can’tfigure out why my adored older brother, the safe one, the hero, treats me like I’m craxy and bad, and my own mother won’t do me the courtesy of responding to a letter I sent more than a year ago.

the great divide is between holding on to my reality, the true reality where there is actually nothing inherently wrong with me and their reactions are their own gunk and nothign to do with me at all, and the fear that somehow they are right, or perhaps just me bargaining with the loss. If I accept their premise that it really is me that is wrong, that I need to just shut up about the abuse and behave as if it never happened, then I don’t have to accept that I’ve lost them both. However, since they really do believe that, I really have lost them both. Perhaps I need somesort of grief ritual for more than my father. Perhaps it is not just him I’m burying.Like most of the survivors I know, I have finally lost my family of origin.

I was talking to an old friend of mine who I ran into yesterday. He was saying how his family had basically disowned him for being gay, but that his mom had told him years ago, that as you get older it’s your friends that matter more than your family, that your friends become your family. Perhaps this is true.

I’m a pretty intense person. Apparently us creative types, and highly sensistive people often are. I like the richness of my inner life, the depth and the interconnection of symbol and spirit that I feel and wouldn’t give it up. It’s what helps me write,what makes me care about my job, and have compassion for other people. It’s what  makes me who I am. But  being true to myself can sure make me lonely too, realising that very few people see the world as I do.

Turning it over

Okay, I’m going to get a bit religious below, so if that stuff doesn’t appeal to you, I won’t be offended if you skip it. You’ve been warned.

I was feeling so overwhelmed yesterday night. I had a two hour meeting with a really unpleasant client who is associated with one of my best clients, and was putting me in a position where I felt pressured to do something I didn’t feel was fair or right. She was so pushy and demanding that I didn’t really realize what was going on until afterward (and hence didn’t have an assertive response in the moment), as I tried to convince her to do the right thing, but not alienate her. I compensated by working into the evening (I’m self employed) and feeling tired and yucky, and like I’d had some kind of workaholic anxiety binge.

When I finally stopped, I hung out with my wife for a bit, and we walked the dog and then I had a bath before going to bed. She and I have been sleeping separately, because she has been having problems sleeping and we thought we could get a handle on it more easily if she slept alone for a week or so. This makes me feel a bit lonely, and frankly, we’re not doing well, relationship wise. She’s sleep deprived most of the time (I think she has sleep apnea, which she’s not taking as seriously as I’d like) which makes her cranky, and well, frankly a bit slow witted. I need her to get this handled so I can figure out if the problems we’ve been having are due to her being so sleep deprived or if we’re really not a fit any more. Divorce would suck, to put it bluntly.

So anyhow I decided to take a bath before bed and realized “I can turn this over”. I have a little ritual I do when I’m feeling overwhelmed, where I take some salt representing whatever problems I have and put it in a bowl of water representing, well, actually, water, which is considered sacred in my religion. So I’m giving my problems over to the waters and to the Goddess, by extension.

So I’m sitting in the warm bath water, holding a bowl full of water with salt in it. I felt so overwhelmed, and prayed to the Goddess and had a cry about my marriage and my life and my client’s troubles. I started thinking, “but the Earth is so under siege by all the assholes that dump oil and garbage and plastic in the oceans, and pollute the air and cut down old growth trees and all that, how can I give her my problems, dump even more on her back?”  Unlike the believers in gods you can’t see and touch, I’ve got no illusions about my deity being untouchable and omnipotent. And then it came to me – the Universe is broader than that. What is sacred about the Earth is sacred about the sun and planets and the whole universe.  Who is to say that the consciousness of the entire universe isn’t focussed on slowly evolving us on near geologic time toward Good? Maybe things are turning out in the best possible way right now and I don’t have the perspective to see it.  I’m just a part of Her, my consciousness is a part of the web of life on this planet, and in the organism that is Gaia, it’s my responsibility to be a positive part, like some sort of special immune system cell, rather than a cancer cell or a virus infected one. (Okay, I realize I’m mixing the metaphors a bit much here, but I’m trying to capture something that wasn’t in words at the time.) I thought about this book I read “The Conscious Universe” which gave some quite credible scientific validation for certain kinds of psychic phenomenon. It showed for example a large series of studies, evaluated by skeptical scientists,  that during the Olympics, when a huge amount of people were focussed on the opening ceremonies, for example, random number generators generated non-random numbers, but then went back to being more random after the program ended. So it seems credible to me that our beliefs and mind-sets, what realities we hold, have an influence on what happens. Maybe not a big one all the time, but like that butterfly in Brasil in the chaos theory example, may have a bigger impact than you’d think.

Photocredit: Greenhem

I thought about a tree or plant and how the branches and leaves seem randomly placed and yet are so beautiful. They grow where they grow to share the sunlight that falls, so that each can have it’s share. I thought of myself as a leaf on that tree of life, or a plant in a forest canopy, all growing toward goodness like sunlight. The Goddess creates beautiful families of plants in this way, all self organizing in their reaching for sunlight. It made me feel that all I have to do is grow toward goodness and believe that things can work out well, and the rest will sort itself out.

My shoulders relaxed and I felt the stress melt away into the water. This morning I took a sip of the ‘solution’ my spell had made of the water and salt to accept my responsibility for making it happen, and put the rest down the drain respectfully. I may have to do this ceremony more frequently – I forget how healing it is for me.


I haven’t posted for awhile because I haven’t been inspired to write anything on this topic. I’ve been reading other people’s blogs and commenting a little but that’s about it.

I’m actually pretty proud of how I’m doing lately. I was feeling depressed on the weekend – crying easily and not finding pleasure or interest in anything. I researched what I could do about it, and settled on some science based self-help:  vigorous exercise, pharmaceutical grade Omega 3 fatty acidsand changing the sheets on my bed to improve my sleep (I’m allergic to dust mites). As an additional health thing, not directly brain related, I’ve been trying to drink more water.  

Here’s the skinny on Omega 3’s –  2 grams a day – 2000mg – is the consensus on the recommended dosage – one high dose capsule with every meal – according to some researchers who spoke at a conference I attended recently if you are recovering from a mental illness, 1 gram (1000mg) for everyone else, but Omega 3’s don’t have any downside for taking too much. They are good for your brain and your heart. Since I’m vegetarian now, I’ve been dosing myself with flax oil in a fruit smoothy each morning, but I bought a bottle of the fish oil based capsules to try anyhow. I’m still looking for other good vegetarian sources. Wheat germ (which is usually removed from wheat products because Omega3’s go rancid quickly) is apparently a good source.

I’m already feeling better. I have a treadmill and I’m doing ten minutes on it first thing in the morning. I figure I can do almost anything, no matter how unpleasant, for ten minutes, and first thing in the morning I seem to have less resistance, although I’m definitely not a morning person. Vigorous exercise is apparently about as effective as antidepressants for mild depression, and since I’d rather not mess with my brain chemistry if I don’t have to, I chose that as a first try. It also has the side effect hopefully of helping me lose some belly fat.  I can’t find the exact links I found again, but you have to believe me, it was credible evidence.

I also researched sleep apnea (which my wife has) and found some evidence-based self-help for that too. I know you’re supposed to go to a doctor for sleep apnea, and we live in Canada so we don’t have to worry about affording it, but my wife isn’t keen on going to the doctor so we tried the stuff I could find out, which was: 1) sleep on your side, not your back and 2) make sure you do what you can to not be stuffed up (which to mean means avoiding allergens – dust mite dander isn’t good for anyone, even if you’re not allergic.)  Wonder of wonders, just by trying to sleep on her side and changing the linens, she slept well and woke up without pain. She seemed to me to breathe quieter too.

We have special covers for the pillows, mattress and duvet that seals off dust mites, but you still have to change the linens that go over them regularly, and I get lazy about that.

The first day on the treadmill my asthma kept me from breathing as deeply as I needed to so I was dizzy from lack of oxygen by the time I finished my ten minutes. Not good. However this morning after sleeping in the dander-free zone, I didn’t have that problem.  I emailed my doctor about making an appointment to look at asthma controller medication too, just in case. I think it will help with my singing too, to have full lung capacity again.

My therapist today came up with a reasonable explanation for the ‘monsters’ – kind of ‘hallucination lite’ experiences I had as a young adult, unfortunately quite drug unaided.  She said they were probably like body memories, but emotion-memories dissociated from most of the other information – just fear, all by itself, or rage, that my mind put images to to make them make sense. That fits for me, because unlike true hallucinations (which I’ve read about but not experienced) they went away when I recognized and expressed the feelings stored in them (usually anger).

So anyhow, things aren’t perfect, but I’m actually coping pretty well. I feel resilient.  Which is a good thing because my rolfing session this week will for the first time be working on areas of my body that are likely to trigger me a lot. Fortunately I like my rolfer, he’s young and unthreatening to me, and he says helpful things like “you’re in control” so I think it will be okay. If not, they’re just flashbacks… I mean really, if it didn’t kill me then, it won’t now.