Saturday, March 4, 2017

 By night I sought him who my soul loveth: I sought him, and found 
him not. I will rise and will go about the city. In the streets and 
the broadways I will seek him whom my soul loveth. 
Song of Songs 3:1-2 

Delight in the Lord: and He will give thee the requests of thy heart. 
Commit thy way to the Lord, and trust in Him: and He will do it. 
Psalm 36:4-5

Part III 

When we shared our story last fall, we never anticipated the enormity of the response it would receive. Truth be told, I was utterly emotionally overwhelmed for weeks after the fact, as heartfelt letter after letter came in with kind words of advice, solidarity, prayers and encouragement. Your openness and love benefited us both more than you know, and we are so very grateful. 
In our original post-script, we said that we would add to the blog in the future if it seemed necessary or appropriate. And now, four months later, after many happenings and much thought, it's time to do a little updating. And please, bear with me as I get to the point. (It's a kind of complicated issue, after all.)
I always knew, theoretically at least, that my relationship with God would change in some way when I entered into whatever my main vocation in life would be—marriage or religious life. And so, when I could get myself disciplined enough to do so, I would spend time with a prayer journal, doing spiritual reading, going on retreats, keeping a Holy Hour in an adoration chapel, or going to mass throughout the week. I knew that one day, my time would not be as much my own, and that I needed to build a foundation that would sustain me in a time when daily prayer might mean kneeling by the couch while I'm folding the laundry, or getting up early to pack a nice lunch for my husband while he made my breakfast, instead of getting up early to go to mass.

What I did not imagine was the degree to which my relationship with Christ would change. I can remember the first time I felt God’s presence when I was a little girl, and the overwhelming sense of being utterly swaddled in the warmth and protection of his fatherly love. And I remember another time, when I was in my early 20s, that I felt the erotic desire of God’s love for me, as I was no longer a little girl but a young woman. And if that sounds strange to you, just go read the Song of Songs. You better believe that God loves and wants us in all the ways. Or, you know, check out Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa if you want a visual. 
Positively indecent!

Both of these experiences, and all the less striking ones that happened on a more mundane level over the years, were meditative and reflective in nature. They were quiet, happened in moments of peace especially set aside, and took time to develop. I am a romantic and a dreamer by nature, and it has been in romance and day dreams (and sometimes actual dreams) that God has made himself known to me for the better part of my life.

But about the time I got married, something changed. And it took me a while to notice it, but holy smokes. God’s gone all practical on me. Say what now?! Like, I’m talking, specific things, that He has just bent down and plucked straight, given me an answer, a kick in the pants, and said, now get moving, girl. No more hours of contemplation, because it’s time for the practicalities. He’ll take care of the big stuff, as long as I keep to the basic prayers, read some financial planning books (the old me would have rather died), and keep my responsibilities in decent order.

And how does He do this, you might ask? Well, let’s look at some examples.

Starting back at the beginning. . . . We almost didn’t get engaged, because Jamey was having a really difficult time finding work in DC. After months of working odd jobs and having frustrating and seemingly fruitless interviews, he was moving to Minnesota where some of his family had a job waiting for him. Twelve hours after he left, he got a phone call offering him an interview as the maintenance director for our parish church and school. Monday of that Holy Week, two days after he’d left (my birthday, by the way), he was offered the job. Did I mention that our parish is St. Rita’s? And that she, together with St. Jude, is the patron of lost causes? We got engaged three months later. 
Skip ahead to last November. The vaginismus midwife we’d been going to had run out of treatment ideas, and there hadn’t been any improvement in my condition. But in the days following the sharing of our blog, so much practical advice came in. Overwhelmingly, woman after woman said, “Go to the Women’s Therapy Center in Plainview, New York. They know what to do.”

We looked into it, but the program cost $10,000 (health insurance generally covers male sexual dysfunction, but not female---don't get me started), and that didn’t cover food and lodging on Long Island for the 2–3 weeks of treatment. And the waiting list was as much as 6 months, and how on earth could we get that much time off work, even if we could somehow magically afford it? And did it really work? Was it worth all that time and money?

I was sharing these concerns with a friend, and she said, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll make it happen.” And without us asking, with us protesting that she couldn’t and shouldn’t possibly do such a thing, before we knew it she had started a chain reaction, and friends and family just up and gave us $10,200 within a matter of days. Because God wanted us to know not just that we could afford it, but that we should go and have a nice dinner while we were there. Michelle B., Bill G., Joey P., Mom & Dad, Jean & Michael K., we know that the seven of you didn’t do this for public praise, but boy do you ever deserve it. Your unquestioning generosity is astounding, and we are so grateful.

And then I got a Christmas bonus to cover the cost of food and lodging.

And then the treatment center unexpectedly had an opening in two weeks, right during the time that we were planning to move, and during the only time that Jamey would ever have weeks off of work as he’d be in between his old and new jobs.

And then it turned out that I had saved up enough sick leave over the past four years that I could just take a full three weeks of sick days, and my boss told me it would be no problem.

And then I watched testimonials of couples who had been there, and in particular one Christian couple who had been married for 12 years without being able to have sex, and she was cured in a matter of weeks (scroll all the way down to the bottom of this page to hear their story).

And then I started crying, because we were moving from VA to NH and looking for a new home and a new job for Jamey and all at once there was a chance that maybe we’d actually be able to consummate our marriage, and having kids no longer seemed like a distant dream. And it was all happening in the next four weeks! And it all clicked neatly and tidily into a schedule that I couldn’t possibly have planned better myself (I'm wicked good at planning schedules, incidentally), and we could magically (providentially) afford it all.

When it came time to make a $1,000 deposit, a check from a friend came in the mail that day for exactly $1,000. The day I had to make the $460 hotel reservation for the first week of treatment, I got an unexpected check in the mail for some old freelance work I’d done for $462.

Guys, look at those numbers. “Oh, you need some practical help? Here! I gotcha covered! GO.”

Believe it or not, my bookshelf didn't use to look like this.

So, time for the big reveal: it worked. Praise. Be. To. God. And we were babies compared to the couples who were there at the same time. We'd only been married a year; one couple from Western Canada had been married three years. Another Catholic couple from Malta had been married almost four. A sweet couple, also from the States, had been married for ten years. And all of us, before we came, unable to have sex.
I’m sure you’re wondering, especially if you are struggling with this yourself, what it’s all about. Well, I can tell you now, because now I know!

It turns out I have major anxiety issues (and a few other things) that, contrary to my belief, were never resolved. Our doctors in New York explained vaginismus succinctly as a panic attack in the pelvic floor, one that builds on all its previous occurrences and further cements itself each time it happens. And it can happen to women from all walks of life; they said that over the 20 or so years they’ve been treating this, they’ve seen and helped cure Muslims, Jews, Christians, Agnostics—and, as is clear from the people I mentioned up above, women come from literally all over the world (they said they get a lot of New Zealanders?) because these ladies in New York are the ones who know what’s up.

I won’t get too much into the details of the treatment here (get in touch if you’d like to talk more), but Xanax, Prozac, physical therapy, psychological counseling and a difficult balance of letting go and taking charge are what did the trick for me. The doctors told me at the beginning, “You think too much and you’re a control freak; just, try to be stupid and do what we tell you.” You see, I didn’t realize this initially, but if you coddle and try to “handle” the anxiety, you’re giving it a place to exist. Learning to trust them enough to realize that tough love was the only way to teach the anxiety that it didn’t belong was really, really hard for me. I was there for the first week by myself, and I called my husband in tears more than once and said I wanted to leave, that I didn’t like them and I didn’t trust them. Thankfully, he had the wits to encourage me to stick it out, to take it one day at a time and be patient. And all at once it started clicking, one epiphany after another, and I began to understand why their method works so well, and even why I had mistakenly mistrusted them in the first place.

Going through that program was easily one of the hardest things I’ve ever done (definitely let the anxiety win multiple times during the physical therapy, and dissolved into a hyperventilating-panic-ridden infant), and I wasn’t and still am not thrilled with the amount of maintenance work required. Because you see, the foundation is well and strongly built, but things are still far from normal. I still have my PT exercises to do regularly each week, am still taking Xanax, and expect to be on Prozac for at least a year, if not indefinitely. I have to go to cognitive behavioral therapy to learn the tools of dealing with anxiety, depression, thought-OCD and anything else they might unearth, things I thought I had tidily bundled up and left in my past along with my bulimia and migraines. And, once a week, I write to my doctors in New York to give them a status update and to receive their unfailingly kind advice and encouragement.  

Because you can't spend three weeks on Long Island and not go check out the Gold Coast
grounds and mansions that inspired Gatsby's West Egg.


It’s a lot of work. And like any uphill battle, there are days and sometimes weeks when regression feels a lot more evident than progress. And because Xanax causes birth defects and I’m still at the point where I really need to have the option to take it, we also have to throw all the NFP* scheduling into the mix. Because THAT makes things easier.

In terms of cost, although $10,000+ seems like an astronomical sum, when we did the math and broke down how many times we had appointments with them over the three weeks (multiple times most days), and then factored in that for the rest of our lives we can write, phone, text or Skype them whenever we need help, and we thought about the astronomical benefit to our marriage, it started to seem pretty darn reasonable. Do you need to go there? Talk to me about fundraising. I want to help you.

Now, what can you do with all this information? Please, share it. Don’t be afraid to talk about it with your sisters, daughters and friends. Remember how I said that some of the couples we met there had been married for a decade or more without being able to have sex? That’s because this is a big, huge problem that people don’t talk about. There are not enough resources, not enough discussions, and there is way too much shame and/or fear that manifests in hiding something private instead of knowing where to ask for help. If we hadn't shared our story last fall, I never would have found the cure. Be bold. 
Whom can you share it with? Well, do you help with marriage prep in your community, or know someone who does? Are you sufficiently acquainted with your parish priest or local rabbi that you could talk to them about it? Are you a marriage therapist, or are you seeing one? Do you have a gynecologist? In short, identify the leaders in your community, and let them know about this. Because I guarantee that if they haven’t been asked about it already, they are sure to have a couple come to them in tears, confusion and anger. And they should be able to help them.

***

Looking back over the past 15 months, it doesn’t always spring to mind immediately why all of this has happened, why something that I thought was supposed to be so easy and natural has been such a struggle. But when I think about the particulars of how this monumental problem has been and is being solved, and reflect on the degree of respect, care and consideration that Jamey and I have been almost forced into showing each other because of it, the reasoning starts to surface.

Remember how I said that the doctors identified me as an obsessive control freak (my words, not theirs—mostly)? Guess what? I am not the one running this show. I can’t be the tank charging around and making things happen how and when I want them to happen (their words, not mine). Since I was 17 and left home, my life has pretty much been about what I’m doing. My schedule, my priorities, my way of doing things. My spiritual life, my time with God, on my terms.

Bring that mindset to a marriage, and all hell breaks loose. I needed something really big to cut the legs out from under me, to humble me, to make me rely on others, to make me surrender and simply trust that other people have the answers. To make me know it’s not all about what’s in my head and my desires. And vaginismus is just what the doctor ordered.

For one thing, it has forced me to examine some of my fundamental character flaws under a microscope and start to learn how to change them. It has forced me to trust my husband, when I want to be the one in charge. And all of the little details of how this solution was handed to us—the timing, the money, the life stories of my fellow patients—made it very clear that God has it all under control. He’s the boss, and He’s looking out for us in more ways than I ever imagined, but I have to get out of the way and let Him do His thing. I have to trust Him. Even when I feel like curling into a fetal position and going home and I don’t understand why He’s yelling at me.

On our last morning in New York, we went into the city and visited St. Patrick's Cathedral
(incidentally, one of the places we went on our first date back in November 2013). Whom
should we find but Our Lady of Guadalupe! A perfect, full-circle ending to a wildly transformative
few weeks. I'm really glad we got married on her feast day;
she's keeping a good eye on us.

I said earlier that a strong foundation has been built for our sex life. Surprise! Sex isn’t just about sex. It’s the physical manifestation of our relationship, sure, but that means that if something is wonky in the rest of our lives, it will absolutely manifest itself in the physical arena. And, it’s not just about our relationship with each other. God is an integral part of it; spouses have to be Christ to each other in all aspects of their lives, including the physical. Remember how I said God has erotic love for us? He is right there with us in the bedroom, teaching us surrender, teaching us trust, teaching us love (and yes, teaching us how to relax and be silly and have a good time!), and none of that can happen properly if we don’t go in with the foundation of a non-sexual relationship well and strongly built ahead of time.

And if it takes Him arranging a few dates and dollars and everything just so for us, well then that’s what He’ll do to show us, to awaken our eyes to trust Him. Because He desperately wants us to know how much He loves us, and all of the surprising and shocking ways that that’s true.

This is exactly the first year of marriage we needed. I’m exceedingly glad it’s behind us! But I couldn’t have asked for anything more.


-------------------
*The Women’s Therapy Center has a blanket recommendation that all couples recovering from vaginismus wait at least three months (maybe more, depending on the couple) after consummation before trying to conceive, a very sensible idea from our prospective, given the nature of the problem. This means that if you’re doing NFP, let them know before you attend the program. I mistakenly thought that I’d be done ovulating by the time we were ready to try, and I was way wrong. After much explanation and back and forth, we were able to communicate with the doctors that condoms and contraception were not an option we wanted, but it definitely threw a big stressful snag into what was already a difficult time. Let them know the schedule of your cycle well before you go so that they can work with you (which they will gladly do!) to plan your treatment schedule accordingly.

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