“Every girl goes through this!”
“You just need to relax…”
"Come on! Just do it!"
Thoughts akin to the above hummed through my mind as I sat in the GP waiting room, minutes away from my appointment with the nurse. I was somewhat anxious…and somewhat optimistic – after all, every girl goes through this. They wear tampons. They have sex. They give birth. I could do this one simple thing. This being the smear test I was supposed to have had 1 year earlier: a procedure whereby a speculum was to be inserted into my vagina, the handles widened, and a sample swabbed from my cervix to check my health. In the UK, females over the age of 25 are invited to undergo this procedure every 3 years.
I admit, it had taken me a year to get here: from that very night when I opened the dreaded smear test invitation and gingerly thumbed through illustrations of practically-terrifying-instruments-of-medical-torture. But here I was. I could do this. I was certain. A few days earlier, I’d even spoken to the GP receptionist…
“Erm, hello, I’m going to have a smear test in a few days. And I would like to have a conversation with the nurse about it.”
“Oh, sweetie, you don’t need to be embarrassed. It only takes a few seconds, and you will be fine.”
And therein lay the problem: the assumption that I was just embarrassed about stripping off, about having a stranger check me out, about the smell.
“Oh, no, it’s not that…I know I’m 26…but I’m a virgin. I’ve never worn a tampon. I’m scared I won’t be able to get through the test.”
So, I spoke to the nurse.
“I’ll use plenty of jelly. You just need to relax.” Fine, I thought.
Except it wasn’t.
I lay on the bed and removed my underwear. The nurse selected the smallest speculum, applied some lubricant and looked me in the eye. I breathed in…and out.
The nurse proceeded to insert the speculum, and an uncomfortable sensation washed over me: the feeling of pressure and stinging, burning pain…like a hot poker forcing its way through my flesh. My screams were
bloodcurdling. I was a squealing, shaking animal. But despite my screams, the nurse persisted.
“It’s in. I just need to widen the handles.”
With hyperventilating tears streaming down my face, I howled at her to stop.
Once the speculum was out, the nurse turned to me in utter bemusement. “I was like you once upon a time. I was scared to have sex. Now, look at me…I have three children. You need to have sex. You need to have children.”
I smiled through my tears. It wasn’t the first time the genuine anxieties in my mind had been belittled and mitigated by someone who didn’t quite understand. Yet again, I felt like I’d failed at functioning as a female.
Let’s rewind 7 years to the summer of 2013. I was 19. I’d just finished my first year of university, and I was seeing a handsome young man. One thing led to another, and before we knew it, we were back at his place, and I was adamant that this would be my first time; I would lose my virginity. And perhaps I wasn’t that aroused. Perhaps I wasn’t relaxed enough. Perhaps I should have just withstood the pain. (After all, I had been informed
by one of my girlfriends that it would hurt the first 10 times.) But as soon as I felt that stinging pain, I told him to stop, and we didn’t try again.
I didn’t care at that point. At 19, I was still young enough. Sure, I hadn’t had sex. I didn’t need to. I breezed through the next few years, avoiding penetration and clamming up at the mere suggestion. I wore sanitary towels. I was fine. I didn’t have to have sex. I was fine. But occasionally, I did feel abnormal. Seemingly every girl could do those simple things I could not: wear tampons, undergo smear tests, have sex.
By the time I was 24, I felt the months tick by like an insidious stopwatch. My 25th birthday was fast approaching. And with that, I would receive the dreaded invitation to have my smear test.
But when that fateful day arrived, I put the letter in a drawer, and it gathered dust for the next 12 months.
Over the course of those 12 months, my guilt accumulated in increments. I hadn’t been brave enough to undergo such an important medical test. My doctor’s reminders made me feel guilty. The smear test uptake campaigns made me feel guilty. ‘Failing’ as a female made me feel guilty.
Back to where my story began. After my failed smear test at 26 years old, I decided I needed to do something. I couldn’t avoid penetration anymore. I wanted to overcome my anxiety and have my test. But I still didn’t
know the cause of my condition. So, I discovered the term, vaginismus: the involuntary tightening of the vaginal muscles, which results in painful or even impossible penetration.
Fast forward to January 2021. My new year’s resolution had been to overcome my barriers to penetration, so I contacted my GP to start psychosexual therapy. And in April 2021, I started my therapy.
To begin with, I received four plastic dilators, all of varying sizes (the biggest being 5.5 inches in length and 1.25 inches in diameter), a detachable handle and some lubricant. Following the guidance of my therapist, I was tasked with exposure therapy: various exercises to complete three times a week.
In the first couple of sessions, I eased into therapy with progressive muscle relaxation exercises. The aim? To feel in tune with my body as a whole. This was something I was already familiar with.
In my third session, I used a pocket mirror to examine my vulva (the medical term for the genital area as a whole), learned where the vagina is located and looked around (something I hadn’t done before). That was all manageable.
In the second week, I practised pelvic floor exercises to gain a sense of control over the vaginal muscles. Again, manageable.
In my third week, it was time to use the dilators. I needed to get used to the touch of the cold, hard plastic on my skin, a few minutes at a time. My first task was to dab the tip of the smallest dilator (3.5 x 0.75 inches) around my vaginal opening and the surrounding areas. Fine. Then I moved on to dabbing the dilator tip (as before) and resting it on my vaginal opening. Cool. In my third session of the week, I simply rested the tip on the opening. Doable.
After my third week, I moved on to the full gig: applying lubricant, dabbing, resting, insertion. Uh-oh, insertion. After the initial success of my first few weeks, I had reached a stalemate.
For months, I was unable to make clear progress. Inserting the tip of the smallest dilator was not an issue. But after some movement, I would hit ‘a wall’ within my vagina, which felt like a set of very heavy swinging doors. I needed to push past the sensation of stinging pressure (which is the first third of the vagina) and then I would be past ‘the doors’ and into ‘an open corridor’. But my mind and muscles were not cooperating. As soon as I hit the wall, that was it.
In my first few months, my therapy sessions were a clinical, icky chore I had to do three times a week. Session after session, I had a negative mindset: I won’t be progressing today; I’d be stuck at inserting one measly inch of my SMALLEST dilator.
Oddly enough, I didn’t want to be aroused while dilating, as I thought I would be ‘cheating’, and it would make it harder down the line if I was practising from such a state. I wasn’t going to be aroused when having my
smear test, so that was a nope for my dilator sessions. I know, I know. Little Miss Stubborn.
Somehow, I persevered. Starting off with a warm shower, moisturisation, relaxation videos and pelvic floor exercises, I would dig out my smallest dilator and try again – session after session.
Then, one day, I had a breakthrough while dilating on my period (4 months after the start of my therapy). Before that day, I didn’t dilate at all during my period. But it was like magic. My vagina felt less tight. It felt longer and wider! Maybe it was the extra lubrication (one positive to having your period), but I was able to insert the full length of the smallest dilator. I was ecstatic!
Then, slowly and surely, I started hitting milestone after milestone. Over the space of a year, I progressed through all four dilators, wore a tampon for the first time and had my smear test. Pure elation.
One full year after starting my journey to overcoming vaginismus, I felt confident enough to be discharged. I hadn’t had sex at that point, but I’d reached all my personal goals.
I felt compelled to write about my story, as there are so many case studies from ladies undergoing therapy with the love and support of a partner, and I was unable to find one from the perspective of a single lady. But I didn’t have a partner. As a single girl, I think what mentally helped me was having a pen pal. My pen pal was in a long-term relationship and had already had sex, so she was able to offer tips from ‘the other side’.
You will see I have entitled this article ‘Sex and the Single Girl’ because sex is often thought of as the end goal for this form of therapy. I want to let others know they don’t need a partner to motivate them through overcoming vaginismus. I did it. It was hard. It was lonely. I craved the touch and feel of a partner. And I nearly gave up so many times. But that internal motivation was there. It’s certainly something to want to overcome something purely for yourself and no one else…especially something so intrinsically linked to intimacy, love and togetherness.
Even today, I’m still not fully comfortable with penetration, but I’ve got all the steps down to be able to overcome any and all situations where penetration arises.
So, I want to say…don’t wait until you have a partner. Start now.