In the Blog
It’s not “all in your head”
Yesterday I published in The Globe and Mail a feature that is very close to my heart: an exploration of vulvodynia, severe and often debilitating pain at the opening of the vagina. (If you find the story locked to paid subscribers on the Globe site, you can see the full text on my website here as well.) It was once dismissed as a psychiatric condition - and still is by many uninformed physicians - but now doctors and scientists are finally uncovering the real, biological secrets behind this strange and sad condition.
I had never heard of vulvodynia until a few years ago, when an editor asked me to look into it for a story on medically unexplained symptoms. What I learned broke my heart - not so much the fact that so many women are in pain, but that so many are turned away by their doctors without answers - or, worse, told they are crazy. If the condition affects an estimated one in six women at some point in their lives, and if 60 per cent of them decide not to seek treatment - and of those who do seek help, they have to consult three or more physicians before a proper diagnosis (if they get one), then how many women are suffering in silence right now? How many women have been sent to shrinks and told it was “all in their heads”?
After I published my article several years ago, my grandmother called me up, astonished. Forty years ago her older sister, then a young woman, was suffering from pains in her vagina - and her doctors wouldn’t help her. “I think they think I’m crazy,” she had said. She never found answers.
Since then, I have discovered that many of my girlfriends have vulvodynia, and that many of my male friends have dated girls with it - and most of them had no idea that it is real, that it is common, and that it is treatable.
I honestly feel that the reason women have waited for so long to see the condition validated and researched is a feminist issue: for centuries women’s health problems have been marginalized, and frequently characterized as “psychosomatic.” Wombs were ripped out to cure “hysteria,” and girls were taught as recently as the 1950s that period pains were figments of their imaginations. As one woman remarked to me, “if men had to suffer with burning penises all day, you can be darned sure they would be taken far more seriously and would have found treatments far sooner.”
Sadly, even when the condition is mentioned in the mainstream media, it will be misrepresented or trivialized. Magazines will say “if you’re having pain ‘down there’ talk to your doctor” - without mentioning that your doctor will frequently know less than you do. Even Sex and the City (sorry guys, guilty pleasure) misrepresented the condition: Charlotte was told it was not serious, “mostly just uncomfortable,” and by the next episode was over it.
This article was a labour of love, and it took a long time to prepare. I sincerely hope that many women and girls will come to realize that they are not alone, they do not have to suffer forever - and they are not crazy.