How my body tried to protect me from trauma
Happy Monday, Carefree fam,
My hope is for a good week ahead of you! At the bottom of this email, I’ve included a few Black girl tings I’ve found gallivanting around the web this week. If you liked the storyletter, hit the like button at the bottom, and leave us a comment to let us know what you think!
This Week’s Story
It’s interesting to think about which experiences shape and stay with us. There’s no knowing beforehand which ones might manifest in our bodies, or how. And often, what we’ve been taught about ourselves or made to physically endure impacts the decisions we do and can make about our bodies. This week’s story explains the way one writer’s body processed a traumatic experience that had gone unaddressed and forgotten—until the issue continually hindered her sex life and affected her self esteem. Ultimately, our storyteller realizes that to experience her body the way she wants to, she may first need to treat the problems of her heart and mind.
There’s power in reconsidering and releasing what we know and have held on to—in order to heal and feel safe in one’s own skin. I invite you to hold and honor your body in a way that feels right to you, in an effort to ensure that your body can always feel like home.
Associate Editor of Carefree Magazine
When Your Doors Don’t Open
Content Warning: Sexual Assault, Sexual Trauma
My first sexual encounter happened while I was in college. As my then-boyfriend tried several times to penetrate, I felt this stinging pain in my vagina that would not stop— he couldn’t enter. I didn’t give it much thought. In fact, it felt normal. After all, I was a virgin, attempting to have sex for the time. I had read plenty of books and articles that insisted first-time sex is, in many instances, accompanied by pain and discomfort.
My first experience did not deter me from trying again. Sadly though, each time the feeling was the same. I could tell my boyfriend was struggling, as he was a very sexual person. Eventually, the sex troubles led to constant arguments and cheating. The relationship became too toxic, and we eventually parted ways.
After a string of failed relationships, I decided to remain celibate. I had never experienced any pleasure from sex and honestly, it felt like I was living in a different world from my college peers who were busy engaging in casual sex. I simply gave up. The love for it turned into hate. I could not stand any form of intimacy. I even refrained from taking part in any conversations that involved sex. I concluded that maybe I was not a sexual person.
Once I completed college, I decided to take a leap of faith and began another relationship. After a long hiatus, I was excited and committed to making this work. Months into the relationship, I decided to attempt sex once again, this time with a completely different attitude and mindset. I let go of my past terrible sexual encounters, stopped blaming myself and hoped that things will be different.
Sadly, my hopes were quickly dashed after our first night together. We attempted intercourse several times but had to stop because the pain was unbearable for me. He tried to put fingers inside my vagina but nothing worked. I decided to come forth about my sex struggles to him. To my utter shock, he was sweet and understanding. He would shower me with words of encouragement everyday and his moral support meant everything to me. For the first time, I felt I was not alone in this battle. After several conversations, my boyfriend suggested that I see a gynecologist.
The first thing the gynecologist asked when I stepped into her office was about my sexual history. She then mentioned vaginismus. I had no idea what it was and in a split second my mind went from a state of relaxation to panic. I had never heard of it before, and I was as clueless as many women out there. As she continued to explain, it became clear that indeed I had the disease. Her comforting words assured me that I would be fine.
I learned that vaginismus is the involuntary contraction of vaginal muscles which makes sexual intercourse difficult due to the pain. There are two types of vaginismus: primary and secondary. Primary vaginismus is a condition where a woman has never been able to achieve vaginal penetration and is unable to have sex. This type of vaginismus can be detected during teenage years, especially when using internal menstrual management products like tampons or menstrual cups. Secondary vaginismus is often experienced after a period of having normal sex. It can be caused by hormone fluctuations, vaginal childbirth, or medical conditions.
During that first appointment, the gynecologist asked me to lay down and take off my underwear. To relieve tension and stress, she advised me to take a deep breath to calm my body. She first inserted a finger inside my vagina. It felt like there was a block inside me. The pain could be equated to knife cuts. She proceeded to remove a two-bladed hinged metal object. I had no idea what that was. She explained that it was a speculum and was used to diagnose reproductive system related conditions. She applied lubricant on it, then proceeded to insert it in my vagina. It was very uncomfortable for me but I persevered. The examination was over in a matter of seconds.
That was the first time I was successfully able to experience some sort of penetration.
I learned I had primary vaginismus which my gynecologist said was caused by my past sexual trauma. At the age of eight, my parents sent me to live with my grandmother. They were both working and therefore did not have ample time to take care of me, and could only visit me once a month.
My cousin, too, lived with my grandmother before I came into the picture. He was 17. He would coerce me into his room then start touching my private parts. I did not know what to do or how to react. It happened for two years until I moved back in with my parents.
I did not tell anyone for years. Before joining college, around September 2015, I decided to open up to my sister. She suggested that I see a therapist. I did, and through this I overcame my childhood and sexual trauma. Motivational books also played an important role in my recovery.
I did not open up to my parents. Perhaps, I did not want them to think they were failures. On top of that, my parents were very strict. I used to hate the environment at home. I had to be home by 6 pm which was a much earlier curfew than my friends. Any form of disobedience resulted in severe punishments like spanking, slapping and even ear pulling. I feared them to the point where I could not open up. For this reason, I adopted a culture of silence with my parents.
Had I talked to them, I am not sure whether they would have done anything about the incident. It was a taboo to talk sex in my community. Bringing up the subject would have resulted in severe consequences. Sex is one topic everyone in the family refrained from talking about. The subject was reserved for adults. In addition, my parents had worked so hard to achieve a good reputation in the community. Such a scandal would have brought shame and tarnished the squeaky clean image of the family. I can guarantee, had I said anything to them, I would have been told it was my fault and warned not to talk about it again. The victim would have been turned into a villain and just like that the story would have been swept under the rug. I knew it was best not to raise the subject with them.
Knowing my own experience, I wish more people would talk about vaginismus. I think the subject should be introduced in schools. In my community talking about sex is like committing a crime. Even now, conversations about sex are usually submerged in proverbs. Parents should leave behind the mentality that sex talk is shameful. They should strive to create a conducive environment for their children to feel safe to open up to them about any subject, including sex. It does more good than harm.
My vaginismus journey is not over. I am not healed but I am recovering. I have been using vaginal dilators and undergoing sex therapy and counseling. Doctors also suggest medication such as antidepressants, and treatments like Kegel exercises to help improve control over the vaginal muscles, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to understand how your thoughts affect your emotions and behaviors, and relaxation techniques such as deep, controlled breathing.
I am bending the rules and taking back my power. I shared my story to encourage people to talk. Don’t be a silent victim. Most importantly don’t ignore the signs. Seek treatment early.
✨ This profile from Womanly Magazine explains that “Zeba Blay Wants Black Women To Thrive”, and how. Blay discusses her book Carefree Black Girls—describing the joy, struggle, love, and connection we find as Black women—and the experiences that brought her there.
✨ I love learning about other people’s career choices and pivots, so Day One Fan’s episode “Off the Beaten Path”, an Unpopular Culture production from 2019, was a real treat. The conversation between LaChelle Chrysanne and Addy Salau was engaging, hilarious, and totally worth a listen.
✨ It’s publication week for fellow Creative Camille Gomera-Tavarez (@cgomeratavarez)—her debut anthology High Spirits, which features 11 interconnected short stories from the Dominican diaspora, is out on April 12th!
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