Vaginas. More than 50 percent of the population has one, but for some reason we’re not talking about them much.
Sure, they’re sometimes mentioned in a magazine or on TV, but we’re not talking about them the way we should be. We’re not talking about the fact that an estimated 176 million people worldwide live with endometriosis, and around one in ten people with vaginas will experience some sort of vaginal or pelvic pain in their lifetime. We’re not talking about painful sex, or painful orgasms, or periods that are so debilitating they keep you home from work or school. That’s what we should be talking about.
I have Vagina Problems. I say Vagina Problems because if I start going into every single thing I’ve ever been diagnosed with, you’d probably try to close out the screen, even though this is a book. What I’m saying is, this shit gets boring. It’s a long list of words that mean nothing to the average person, and it’s all a complicated way of saying that my vagina hurts, among other things.
For the longest time, when filling out paperwork with a new doctor or trying to explain my pain to friends, I would try to keep it really simple. I’d say, “Oh, I have stomach problems.” It was always easier than trying to explain what the hell endometriosis or vaginismus is. But as the years passed and the diagnoses kept piling on, I was no longer sure what to say or how to say it. It’s not just my vagina that hurts. It’s my legs, my back, my stomach, my vagina, my bladder. And it’s not just endometriosis anymore—it’s endometriosis, vaginismus, vulvodynia, vulvar vestibulitis syndrome, overall pelvic floor dysfunction, interstitial cystitis, PMDD, fibrocystic breasts, and probable adenomyosis.
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And those are just the ones that I’ve actually been able to get a diagnosis or term for. What the hell are all those words I just wrote? I don’t even know half the time, if I’m being honest. And, you know, who wants to hear you list all that stuff in everyday conversation? No one. I promise you. No one.
Years ago, when I was first diagnosed with endometriosis, I had barely even heard of the damn disease. And I wasn’t alone. When I would tell people of my new diagnosis as an explanation for my pain over the past several years, they would meet my eyes with a blank stare.
And then they would ask me if I was feeling better yet. No, Carol, I’m not feeling better yet. Do you wanna know why, Carol? Because endometriosis, despite affecting almost 200 million people worldwide, has no cure. And you know what else, CAROL? Most doctors don’t even diagnose it properly or have any idea how to begin to treat the symptoms. Oh, and one more thing, Carol—a chronic illness means that it is, in fact, chronic. I don’t have the flu!!!! It’s not just gonna go away in the week since you last saw me, Carol! So for years, in order to avoid the urge to punch five to ten people a week, I continued to just say I had stomach problems and leave it at that.
But as the years passed and my pain worsened, I had to figure out new terminology. The pain I was experiencing was certainly not the same as that experienced by someone who ate too much Popeyes chicken and felt bloated. This pain needed to be explained in a way that made people understand why I often had to cancel plans or miss work two to three times a month.
So I began to describe my issues as Vagina Problems. My Vagina Problems meant that my abdomen was swollen 93.7 percent of the time. They meant that sitting down for an extended period would make my vagina burn as if someone had put hot acid on it. They meant that wearing thong underwear was a death sentence, and that drinking anything carbonated felt the same as drinking poison. And these problems also meant that I was in a state of almost constant cramping. And no, I don’t mean the types of cramps where you can pop an ibuprofen or two and continue on with your day. We’re talking the worst period cramps you’ve ever experienced, but on an almost daily basis.
Oh, and just in case you weren’t uncomfortable enough already, Carol—these problems also meant I wasn’t able to stand penetration of any kind, and when I was able to orgasm, it came with a shooting pain to boot. DO YOU GET IT NOW, CAROL????
When I finally started to open up more about my Vagina Problems, I quickly forgot to be ashamed. I had been living with a sore vagina and abdomen for so long at that point that I forgot that my UPS person or my seventh-grade English teacher might not be accustomed to hearing or reading someone talk about their vagina at all, let alone a vagina that hurt. But it all just came pouring out. I had been quiet about my issues for so long that I no longer had the ability to keep my experiences inside. I started talking. And I told everyone.
It got to the point where I was saying, “My vagina hurts today,” the same way someone might say, “I have a headache.” And it didn’t stop there. I didn’t just tell my acquaintances and friends. I tweeted about it. I talked about it on Instagram. I said it out loud in dressing rooms and in grocery stores. I wouldn’t shut the fuck up about my vagina then, and I don’t plan to now.
From Vagina Problems by Lara Parker. Copyright (c) 2020 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.