Art by Autumn Rain
“Just take hot baths, leave it alone, and the pain should clear up eventually.”
When I woke up around Christmas 2018 with a clit that felt like a bee had landed a particularly vicious sting dead in its center, I had no idea what had caused this sudden pain. Sure, my garbage boyfriend at the time had gone a little rough on it the last time we had seen each other, but that had been a week or two ago. I hadn’t bothered it much since then, so I couldn’t figure out how this sudden abused-fun-button feeling had come about. When it hadn’t dissipated after a few weeks, I saw my first gynecologist. She was a deeply disinterested woman with exquisitely long, fair eyelashes who swabbed me for infections and told me the quote that began my little story. Two months later, when I went back to her after the dagger between my legs hadn’t abated, she said noncommittally that “sometimes these things take time to clear up.” Discouraged, I limped back to my new normal of avoiding most of my tighter pants, wincing during sex and struggling to sleep comfortably.
I suffered for the entire summer.
In October of 2019, finally tired of spending my life curled into one big cringe, I saw a different gynecologist in the town where I attend university. This doctor did what the other one, for reasons I cannot fathom, failed to do—she examined me. Imagine! Truly revolutionary! During a full pelvic exam, my doctor, within seconds, drew back and told me that my pelvic floor muscles were alarmingly tight. I needed to enter physical therapy straight away. What a miracle, I thought, to find a doctor that actually looked for a problem and wanted to fix it. I’ve increasingly felt that women often settle for dismissive doctors because our health issues aren’t examined with much interest or scrutiny by the medical community. Or, if a shabby doctor isn’t clueless, they may simply create an atmosphere that makes their patients feel uncomfortable questioning diagnoses or having balanced conversations about treatment. Either way, I was put in the hands of a local physical therapy office. I hoped the struggle would be over in a few weeks. I was not correct.
At physical therapy, a cohort of incredibly knowledgeable and gentle women unpacked the disaster that was my lower body. My friends had often teased me in my early twenties for being “the friend who always has to pee.” No, sweet child, the physical therapists told me, your muscles are so tight you can’t empty your bladder normally. Your lower back is hyperflexible, your hips utterly intractable. Your pelvic floor is a clenched fist, so tight that—can you do a kegel? No? Well, that’s because the muscles simply can’t flex anymore than they already have. Is having sex comfortable for you? Not particularly? Well, with how angry your muscles are, it’s no wonder.
Pain and troubles that had plagued me for years suddenly started to make sense, pains I had accepted as normal and learned to tune out. At 23, I had accepted very placidly that my body was one big ball of aches and pains. The issues in my pelvic floor had been building under my skin for years and years; the clitoris was the first thing I noticed, but only because my body had reached such a level of bad that I could no longer tune out the warning light that was blinking. When after several months the regular therapists could not fix me, I was shipped to a pelvic health specialty clinic in a nearby town. There, too, gentle therapists performed well-meaning but humiliating internal massages to try and tame my raging pelvic muscles. I began to feel like less of a woman. Something my shitty ex had told me shortly before I dumped him often played at the edges of my mind: “Well, baby, I guess I’ll have to hire a hitman to put you out of your misery, since you’re never going to get better."
But as demoralized as I felt, the warfare that my newfound medical family was waging against my pain escalated, and I was sent to the Women’s Institute of Sexual Health in Nashville, where my brilliant doctor examined me, chuckled a bit and said, verbatim, “Girl, your muscles are jacked up!” There was something wrong, and I had no doubt that the doctors at WISH would find it. I was given the life-changing comfort of valium suppositories and medicine for nerve pain while a friend-with-benefits with the patience of a saint whisked me to vaginal ultrasounds and MRIs. A blip finally appeared on the diagnosis radar. A cyst had made itself at home in my pelvic floor and needed to come out. I was sent to a surgeon, pleasant but terribly businesslike, who grilled me about my desire to have children during our surgery consultation in the event that she had to remove reproductive organs. Unprepared to answer such big life questions at an early morning consultation for what I believed to be a lowkey procedure, I expressed my uncertainty and she nodded sagely and continued the conversation. Beneath the blades of a Da Vinci surgical robot piloted by the surgeon’s capable hands, a necrotic fibroid cyst the size of a chicken’s egg, lurking amongst a mass of scar tissue between my right ovary and my pelvic floor, was carved out of my body on July 29th of 2020. It took two or three months for me to feel remotely normal, but after a slow recovery, I galumphed back into physical therapy confident that this time, by thunder, I’d be better!
I wish I could say that was the case. Sadly, it’s not that simple.
The surgery certainly cleared up some of my problem, but the pain I went to the doctor for two years ago has not abated. Deep-seated tension in my pelvic floor keeps me awake at night; vestibular vulvodynia haunts my bedroom when I have a partner and aches constantly when I don’t. I’m still spinning my wheels at physical therapy, and my therapists are beginning to suspect something is deeply and badly wrong with me. The most recent stab at a cure was a series of ten steroid-lidocaine shots in my vagina in January of 2021. Ten fiery bee stings in my most intimate parts, another procedure in a long line of pain and embarrassment I have undergone to try and feel normal again. They have made a slight dent in my muscle tension, but I cannot say that I feel better overall than I did when this all began. I have other options for treatment, but at some point, they’ll run out. Until then, I won’t give up. I mustn’t. Sometimes all the hot baths have ever done for me is cheer me up, but sometimes what we need most is a little cheering. Lying in a steaming pool of hot water, I almost feel normal again. I can’t wait to be able to say that I don’t need a hot bath to feel like a real human anymore.
Maia is a grad student working to complete her Master's degree in Public History.