Black Femme Collective calls for creative nonfiction submissions from Black Queer Femme Storytellers engaging in the theme REST.

Vaginismus Taught Me That My Body is Carrying Too Much of Other Peoples’ Expectations

Briana Ladwig
Visual art by Briana Ladwig

My childless girlfriends talked about our freedom over drinks. We cheered to remaining uncouth and unmovable. I had recently gotten married, so the sound of that was liberating. One of us had quit her job and another had recently began dating again. What held us together was the external pressure of having to be certain about what was coming next.

It is true that in the years when I have given my body to women, I was handled with more grace and patience. I felt like I had more time. My body was still safe then because I knew it better. I’d hold an angled mirror down there often. I asked questions and knew all my body’s triggers. Partners would encourage me to practice asking for pleasure and support me in accepting it for myself.

I always wondered how much of me was supposed to want what my partner wants. G wanted me to move to New York. O wanted me to jump in a car and drive across country with $100 and only a bag of luggage. S wanted me to believe that dropping out of college to chase her was the definition of romance. K wanted me to stay awake most nights staring into the black of a dark bedroom coming up with names for children. J called me a future wife. There were seasons when I did not believe nor want any of this, but in every season, I felt the need to lie to succumb to love.

My grandmother often talked about the idea of a white lie. The types of lies that won’t harm or hurt. That sometimes it’s okay. But God is watching us whenever we’d “Tell a story,” as she’d say. I’m unsure if I believe in God, but I do believe white lies have always kept me going.  There are heartbreaks I’ve had and heartbreaks I’ve handed. Many of which happened because I couldn’t keep up the lies of wanting children, marriage, or to chase love.

When I started dating men again, there was a different lie I was wrapped in. Of course, I enjoyed the company of men, but I have not always enjoyed the pleasure of men. Off and on again, sex was uncomfortable. I always denied what my body told me. This pushed my idea and expectation of intimacy to change over time. I did not have language then to explain my expectations, but my body was accustomed to holding the weight and need for others.

In Mexico for my 27th birthday, I was unable to float in the ocean. My good friend is a strong  swimmer. I’ve watched her jump from cliffs, lay in waterfalls, and dive from the edge of boats, but I was terrified. Start by relaxing. Once I felt the water swallow the back of my head and neck, she guided her hands below my back and held me parallel to the surface. I closed my eyes. Relax, relax, relax. My body was tense as a brick. I couldn’t find the peace in my own self. What are you afraid of? It was to drown, honestly. Or maybe it was to be free?

I was sitting in a coffee shop across the table from my abuser fumbling with the lid of my hot medium roast. My eyes scanned the room and then finally rested down at the sticky wooden table instead of his eyes. I had every intention of asking for accountability, but instead I ended the meeting short and walked out before I had a chance to tell him what he’s done to me. As much as I felt undone, I still felt powerful. When I met my husband, I was in the years where I was finally willing to understand what has happened to my body—where it’s been and what it’s recovering from. I was falling back into a sense of my own independence. I was regaining power in every realm of my life. I quit a terrible job that made my body so traumatized that I found myself sick to my stomach for the first hour of work. I enrolled in graduate school. I got a job in my career. I cut off all my hair. I was discovering myself deeply in therapy. These were the most promising and brave years of my life, and I knew it was only the beginning. He and I often speak about our own possibilities. Nothing was definitive, but at least we gave each other the truth. It was a season where I felt like I was open to everything yet allowed to change my mind. To start over. The truth was that I needed to be unanchored.

Soon after completing my graduate program, his mother took me to dinner to celebrate. I dressed in a new floral front button dress and slid on a favorite pair of nude heels. We were starting to get extremely close these years, and I felt comfortable opening myself to her. Over our meal, she asked me how many children I planned to have. My body closed in on itself and filled with heavy shame. I felt like I had let her down with my own uncertainty. 

We were planning our wedding in the spring, and the questions of fiancé life and romance were coming in strong. Actually, we’re not having much sex these days. Once I said this out loud, my friend’s jaw dropped on our FaceTime call. She sent me links to her favorite lingerie site and gave me advice on how I should spice things up in the bedroom. I lowered my eyes down from the screen so that I could not look at myself or her. 

My OBGYN gently pushed against the external part of my vagina with a small dull tool, and it felt like I was being stung by a wasp. I felt the shock move through my entire body. Once she left the room, I laid back on the paper covered exam bed and cried. I don’t know why I allowed sex to hurt me for this long. My face was hot with regret of not coming sooner. How did I lie to myself for this long?  

We have amazing intimacy that falls outside of sex. We love a good movie night with a spread of snacks. We dance in the kitchen. We share a deep connection over our record player. There’s not a night where I do not fall asleep in his arms. He always plugs my phone on the charger when I forget, and places it on low battery mode. Most mornings, he fills my water bottle before he leaves for work. What’s different about intimacy with men is how hard it is for me to allow myself to accept it. There are men who’ve made me feel like I was drowning, and it took a long time to ungrasp from that fear. I’ve seen my own mother drown over the years. I love my husband for feeling like a lifeboat—but it’s not his fault that I haven’t allowed myself to feel fully free.

One of the first questions I asked in pelvic floor therapy was will I be able to have children? I don’t know why this was the first question that came to mind. After years of vague mentioning of children, my husband and I agreed on “if” when it came to the topic. We’ve prepared by saving names in the notes of our phones for future kids, but I still asked him if he’ll leave me should I not want to have them. I wonder if I’d ever be faced with that ultimatum if I married a woman. The fine line feels different where I am now. Most of the pelvic floor therapy sessions were spent with me cringing while a stranger’s hands pry around inside of me. I was told over and over to relax. To push. To let go. To breathe.

Before any of this began, I penned through the six pages of a medical questionnaire that asked about my body’s entire life history. Menstruation. Pregnancies. Last pap smear. Family medical history. Surgeries. A series of questions about my bladder and bowel symptoms. 

Please circle the level/number of pain you experience on a daily basis. From 0 (no pain) to 10 (worst possible pain). I circled 10.  

Do you have pain with the insertion of a speculum during a pelvic exam? Yes.

Do you have pain with the use of a tampon? Yes. 

Do you experience abdominal pain? Yes 

Do you clench your teeth or have jaw pain? Yes.  

Do you have a history of headaches/migraines? Yes.  

Do you have a desire to be sexually active? Yes. 

Maybe this is too much, but I’ll tell you anyway. My therapist knows I laugh to deal with discomfort. Finally, I gave her the rundown of what’s been happening to me. I think what’s  hardest is not knowing what this will mean for children since I can’t even enjoy sex. I joke that  my body may be rejecting the thought of children. She stares at me bleakly—your body may be rejecting the expectations that others have on you.

It just feels different. I don’t know how to explain it. My husband is genuinely kind and knows how to make me feel less embarrassed. He takes his hand and runs his fingers through my curls, and we lay in a comfortable silence. In this love, I am allowed to change my mind. I’ve been practicing saying to myself what my therapist has been saying to conclude every one of our sessions— you are safe. I say it to myself—I am safe. For months, I’ve been researching what it could be that was happening to me. The internet tells me that vaginismus is different for everyone, and it stems from various traumas and could very well be psychological. It is too difficult to pinpoint which trauma could be the root cause for me. My body has gone through so much, and I don’t want to endure another medical mystery. The question of this situation was if this was a situation of my body or my mind? Am I safe? Yes, I am safe. Here, I am safe.

Much like marriage, children are forever. I’d like to think I’ve been actively decolonizing what my body is meant for, what it is meant to do, and what it is here for. I can be enough as is—and it’s taken me a long time to get to that understanding. Growing up, my mother always told me the story of my birth and how miraculous it was. Her water never broke that day, but after birthing two children, she just knew she was ready to have me. She delivered me on her own without a doctor in the room. My father caught me. I was still in the amniotic sac, an en caul birth. It’s so rare that not all doctors witness them. It is said to mean that the birthed child is destined for greatness. The other myth? Children born this way can never drown.

Every night, I do my pelvic rehabilitation stretches at home in our bedroom mirror. To start, I ground my heels into the carpeted floor, dip into a deep squat, and hold for 30 seconds. I then lay on the ground and feel the carpet crunch into my back. In this position, I cup my heels with my hands and stretch my legs out into the happy baby pose. I hold the stretches for as long as I can and start to feel the weight of my own body. I’m actively learning how to breathe through the moments. I allow myself to let go of the pressures that once tried to bury me, my body, alive. I’m okay with leading where my body needs to take me. I’m okay with the unknown. I’m okay with if. 

Briana Ladwig
Briana Ladwig is a Black, queer, mama illustrator based in Lawrence, Kansas whose work centers around Black Liberation, decolonizing storytelling, generational healing, and afrofuturism. She grew up learning to draw on the floor of her dad’s art studio, receiving a natural education from closely watching his work as a master book illustrator. She now draws inspiration from the cycle-breaking work of her ancestors and Black speculative fiction, especially the works of Octavia Butler. Bri’s favorite medium is lush, textured watercolors under detailed pen lines. Bri is currently working on an illustration/design degree at the KU while doing freelance illustration work from home.
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