And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Cor 12:7-10
Before we get started, I think it’s necessary for me to warn you that I am going to be talking here, in a very public way, about some very private things.
Some of you, no doubt, will be horrified. Others of you, I’m sure, will be relieved, as I know I would have been if only I could have found some ready help. But instead of solace in wise words of counsel and company from the ubiquitous books, blogs, and articles on Christian sexuality, I have found a disturbingly gaping hole, a bewildering lack of advice, and not a single book that gives more than a cursory few paragraphs on relevant “Troubleshooting.”
Most of you probably don’t know what vaginismus is. Spellcheck sure doesn’t recognize the word. Neither did the Catholic Ob/Gyn I went to for help. So, I’ll tell you in clinical terms, avoiding any polite and clarity-confounding euphemisms. Vaginismus is a condition where the muscles of the pelvic floor involuntarily contract whenever touched, closing sphincter muscles and preventing intercourse. Sometimes it can be the result of past sexual trauma, sometimes the result of injury in delivering a child, and sometimes, as in my case, it happens for no immediately apparent reason.
I always thought it was strange, growing up, that no matter how many times I tried, tampons just didn’t work for me. I could never put them in. But it didn’t bother me too much, because I wasn’t planning on having sex anytime soon, and I figured that if there were a real problem there, it’d sort itself out eventually. So I politely declined the annual Pap smear, year after year, and endured the belittling attitude of the health care “professionals” who clearly didn’t believe I could possibly be a virgin.
And then I met The Guy, fell in love, got engaged, and decided I should probably get things checked out to make sure all was well before the wedding. Luckily, by now, I had found a good doctor, and when she couldn’t get the speculum in, and I burst into tears because it hurt so much and I felt so violated, she didn’t put me down or make me feel foolish. Instead, she gently suggested that everything would be okay when the actual time came, and then kindly handed me a box of tissues.
I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t happen on our wedding night; I had read enough about how tired you can both be, and how it’s a lot to get used to all in one night if you’ve never been there before. But by the end of our honeymoon week—a week full of a great deal of happiness, but also of entirely unanticipated tears, frustration, pain, and genuine terror—we both knew something was really wrong.
I’ve gotta hand it to my husband: he has been the absolute model of perfection on this from day one. We were reading one of those troubleshooting sections that first week, and a woman was talking about how it had taken her four months to get through it. I blanched. “Oh, honey. Four months?” And without hesitating, he said, “I can wait four weeks, four months, four years, however long it takes. And that’s okay.”
So now we get into it. There are a lot of books out there from secular doctors about medical reasons both for painful sex and for show-stopping vaginismus, books about the psychology behind what can often be a psychosomatic issue. But none of them provide a fail-safe cure-all (because there isn’t one), and none of them talk about how to handle this struggle on a spiritual level. And that’s probably a good thing, because they’re medical doctors, not spiritual doctors, but sheesh. Seems like none of the “spiritual doctors” do either. And I read Three to Get Married, and Holy Sex!, and A Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, and Real Love, and Marriage: A Path to Sanctity, and Lord only knows how many other books on how to do everything right and for the right reasons, and how to understand my husband in all facets of our life, and not a one of them said anything about this. And, because clearly they left it out to wound me specifically, I felt betrayed by them. Fulton, I thought you had my back! And so on. . . .
In lieu of The Greats, then, let me tell you what I have learned because of this struggle, and what about it continues to be a gnarly battle, and how the only reason it makes sense is because my husband is—and was, right from the start—my ideal helpmeet.
We Christians understand, as much as anyone can, the sanctity of sex. We know why foreplay intentionally without consummation isn’t a good thing, we know why condoms and birth control mess things up, and we know that intentionally compromising the integrity of the whole sexual act turns us into mere playthings for each other, cuts God out of the picture, and places limitations on love—love, a thing that in its very nature is unlimited, and is therefore violated by being cut short in any way. Jesus, of course, is our perfect example of this. He didn’t give most of his blood. He gave it all. Down to the very last drop. Just so, a man and a woman aren’t supposed to titillate each other without actually giving it all, risking it all, being entirely open to each other, to the fruit of their love, to God, to children.
And boy, was I all geared up to give it all. And I don’t just mean I was ready for sex, but yeah, that too, ’cause waiting was really hard. As long as I’m sharing so much with you, I will go ahead and tell you that it was not at all a mistake that I was ovulating on our honeymoon and that we were married on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of pregnancies. My mother had eight children, and my sister had a baby nine months and one day after her marriage; I was ready for it, and my husband and I had already picked out some truly glorious baby names.
But, I couldn’t. I couldn’t and I couldn’t and I couldn’t, no matter how many relaxation exercises I did, how many glasses of wine I drank, how many baths I took, how long my husband rubbed my back—nothing worked, and I couldn’t have the fullness of sexual love. The integrity was broken, was never there to begin with, and the whole thing was a paltry sham. And God didn’t love me, because I was too weak to give it all.
We’ve been married almost nine months now, and though we’ve had a few bright days, where it seems like we’re almost making progress, really things are not any better in any substantial physical way than they were on our honeymoon, despite (at long last) our having found a care provider who specializes in treating vaginismus. And I wonder whether we will ever have children, and I enjoy answering the oft-repeated query of, “So, when are you having a baby?” with a frank: “I have a medical problem and I can’t.” How they squirm in discomfort at the truth they asked for and have no right to know. So much of the time, the sense of loss and deprivation is overwhelming. And the anger and confusion is profound. And I get tired of being reminded that we live in a fallen world, and that heaven is a long ways off.
For that is really one of the only goods I can see in this. Married love is supposed to be a mirror of the love of Christ; we are supposed to be Christ to each other, and learn to know him better through each other.
And this is what I have learned: Christ wants us with him, and we aren’t there yet. He yearns for us, and he can’t have us yet. And despite all of that frustration, all of the times we are closed to him, all of the times we can’t seem to get past our roadblocks, and all of the time that we have left on earth before union with him in heaven, he’ll be right there waiting for us, telling us he loves us, that he’ll wait as long as we need, and help us when we need help. That he doesn’t hold our weaknesses against us, and that he’s almost glad of them because they give him another chance to be kind to us, to show us his love and his care of us.
And, even when we’re mad at him because his patience is infuriating, we see his love and have no choice but to be humbled and profoundly grateful. Once we’re done punching holes in the walls and screaming with blind fury into the pillows.
It’s been three months since I wrote that first part. Which, I know, isn’t very long in the grand scheme of things, but, as you know, a lot can happen in three months. Why, might you ask, has it been so long and I haven’t “put it out there” yet? Well, I had to sit on it for a while and make sure it was the right thing to do. And then send it to some wise friends, to double check, and to get some advice.
I’m glad it’s taken so long, because I was lying awake a few nights ago and realizing that we, my husband and I, have come over a hurdle. And no, I don’t mean all is as it should be; I just mean that somewhere along the way, we’re not as angry and sad and frustrated as we were. Somewhere, somehow, we found a way to cope, a way to accept the way things are, and to see and actually know the good in all the brokenness.
Some of my friends and fellow-editors, when they read Part I up there, suggested that I end it more softly, and take out, among other things, that part where I talked about feeling like God didn’t love me. Make it more positive! they said. It isn’t good to be so negative! they said. Respectfully, I disagree with them. Everything was not okay. Tying a bow on a big pile of steaming you-know-what only makes it more distasteful. It would have been a lie to deny that helplessness and fury, and it sure wouldn’t have helped anyone else who was in the same place.
One of the things I think people are getting better about these days is admitting weakness. What a terrible, inhuman lonesomeness it is to think that you are the only one who has ever experienced a struggle that seems to be entirely consuming your life. That, my friends, is the devil’s playground. It is there, and there most profoundly, that he fosters despair, the ultimate tool by which he keeps us from light, freedom, and God. It is not good for man to be alone. We all of us want to be known, to be seen for what we really are, and to be treasured and loved—especially with all the mess and problems we tug around with us. It’s a lie to say there isn’t muck, and a lie to say you’re okay with it when you’re not. And it doesn’t help you, and it doesn’t help anyone else, either. So wallow in the muck if that’s where you are, and don’t be ashamed of it, either.
But. But. . . .
One day, you will wake up.
And when you do, you’ll find a new pink scar, and the skin will pull and pinch, and be slightly stiff and tight, but it’ll be clean, and a little miraculous, and fascinating, in its shiny novelty.
For Jamey and me, part of figuring things out was asking for guidance from a few wise old priests. His spiritual director (incidentally, the priest who many years ago helped him get a job and recover from homelessness) was the one who opened the window for us. “When you’re composing a piece of music,” he said to us, “you might find yourself in the middle of a passage that doesn’t fit—a sour, clashing note. So, start over! And then write the symphony that belongs with that note.” I remember laughing a little bitterly when he said that. Oh! Of course. Just, write a new symphony! I’ll get right on that. . . .
Our original symphony was fairly typical, given who we are: Get married, have a baby about once every other year, live out in the country, and eventually be entirely supported by J’s writing and be surrounded by a full home of five girls, five boys, lots of cats and dogs and music and Shakespeare and some pretty gardens, with maybe a mountain in the backyard. If we couldn’t have a full ten kids, six would work, too.
What’s our new symphony? Not everything has to change, and many of our dreams are still the same, and still possible. But the heart and soul of it has had to change substantially. For as long as I can remember, I thought I’d be the mother of a large and healthy family. I thought that that would be the main work of my life, and I was eager and impatient for it to start. Now, realistically, I know that there is very little chance of that happening. The “fruit of our love” will not be in sweet fat faces and sweaty blonde and red curls and utterly dependent, clingy, sticky hands. And it hurts to think that might never happen, and that even if it does, it will surely never be as much as it might have been.
But you want to know something? I see the fruit of our love every day. Love has to produce, you know, or it dies. So when I was realizing that children might not happen, I panicked. What the hell kind of a marriage would that be, anyway? But oh my word, the ways God has let our love bear fruit. And, yes. Of course we fight, and we hurt each other, and the new young priest at our church has actually giggled a couple of times in spite of himself when I’ve confessed the petty misunderstandings that have tripped us up. It’s hard work, and an intentional uphill struggle, but guys, it does actually work. “Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy, and perfect love can make it a joy.” How, then, have I seen the fruit of all this sacrifice, this love?
I see it when my J’s shoulders relax at the end of a stressful day, simply because he sees my face. And I feel my shoulders relax when I see him.
I see it in the little ways that generosity has become more natural to me, and criticism less natural (Jamey is a much kinder, gentler person than I; he’s a good influence on me!).
I see it in a growing undercurrent of mental peace and actual joy in both of our lives, when, for so many years, depression and anxiety overwhelmed us both.
I see it when I watch him pray, and when he washes the dishes, cleans the upholstery, and scrubs the toilet, because his bachelor self wants to make me happy.
I see it in his overwhelming and selfless, repeated and abundant patience with me, when he might have married somebody who didn’t have vaginismus.
"Yes," you might say, "but you could still do most of those things for each other and have sex like normal people and have kids. You’re missing out!" True enough. And don’t I know it! In response, allow me to say:
First, for everyone out there who is struggling with this same condition or a similar one, know that as I’ve gradually and in spite of myself come to accept the indisputable limitation we’re dealing with, I’ve also been able to enjoy incalculably more the delights that we are given. And when my husband sees me actually happy instead of miserable, he is also, believe it or not, pretty freaking happy. Words of advice from a wise woman: "In the meantime, I bet you and Jamey have become much closer and better friends and lovers than most couples. Enjoy it, revel in it and have confidence in it—it is a rare gift." Turns out there’s actually some harmony in this new symphony, after all.
Kids. One way or the other, we are going to be parents. In fact, we already are. My sister and her husband asked us to be the godparents of their beautiful baby girl a few months ago. I don’t think they realized at the time what that would mean to us, but we love that little girl tremendously, and are very proud of her. And when J talks about her happy little eyes and multiple chins, and mystical character and higher level of existence (she’s only four months old), and when his eyes get a little damp looking at the latest picture of our beautiful spiritual daughter . . . well, you better believe he’s a Dad. So, if you are close friends with a couple struggling with this, maybe consider asking them to be the godparents of your new little one. I really cannot overestimate the gift and joy it has been to us.
Adoption, of course, is definitely on the table. We’ve talked about waiting a couple of years till we’re more settled and, quite honestly, more eligible to take on the financial aspect of adoption. And, since we’d be getting a bit of a late start (I’ll be in my early 30s and Jamey in his early 40s by the time we’d be ready to adopt) we’ve talked seriously about trying to adopt a large sibling group. Start in the middle of the process to make up for our tardiness, you know, and, more importantly, help out some kids who probably will have a harder time finding a home than a lot of adoptees might.
In the meantime, I recently found out about baby cuddling. For one thing, the name! For another, it is as fantastic as it sounds. Newborns in the hospital who, for one reason or another, are all alone, need to be held, or they literally cannot thrive. (Talk about a metaphor for life. But I digress.) You can go volunteer to hold babies! Get in touch with your local hospital, and see if they need help. One step up from this, something we’re talking about trying to start doing in the next year: babies who are going to be adopted can’t always be placed with their forever family right away, but the hospital can’t necessarily take care of them for however many weeks it is till everything is ready to go. So! There is a need for people to take in newborns for a few weeks or a month at a time. Lots to think about with that one; not sure if we have the emotional stamina for that, but definitely looking into it and thinking on it.
This has gotten quite lengthy. Sorry about that. . . . But, you know, a year’s worth of coping and struggling and figuring adds up. I guess what I want you to know, in the end, is that there is light at the end of the tunnel, even if that light isn’t what you thought it would be. And the tunnel will overtake you, again and again, when you thought you were clear of it. And sometimes you need to just rest in the tunnel, because if you try to run out of it you’ll smack your head against the wall and make a mess everywhere. And then your poor husband will be left cleaning it up, on top of everything else he's doing for you.
And then one day, you’ll realize that your little reptile mama brain has been fostering plans all along without you, and they might still be foreign to you, but you realize that they actually make sense, and that they’re not just a replacement for what might have been. When God’s plans for us are different from what we had planned for ourselves, chances are His ideas are better, even if they’re initially a bitter disappointment to us. And, even if we still haven’t exactly figured out why He changed the game on us in the first place.
Do you want to talk? I’m here, if you do. And, guys, so is my husband, if you want advice from him. He’s really pretty good at the whole advice thing.
In the meantime, peace be with you.
P.S. For now at least, Jamey and I think we're going to leave this a one-post blog. The original article grew into something far too large to go through a regular outlet, so, this was our solution. Or, credit where credit is due, his solution! If there seems to be a need for more on the subject, we'll definitely add it as we (hopefully) get a gradually better understanding of it ourselves. Just, you know, let us know if you want or need more. Or, if you have hard-earned advice you can share! We can use all the help. Like, all of it.