Monday, April 2, 2012

Impact of Childhood Experiences

During my first gynecological appointment, the nurse asked - as I was sobbing - "have you ever been sexually abused?" I was stunned and also embarrassed that this exam caused me to cry so much that someone would think that. For years, I wondered if I had been sexually abused without remembering it. Nothing else made sense for explaining why I was the way I was. It wasn't until I was in my mid 20s that I determined - with the help of a sex therapist - that I hadn't been sexually abused. I still struggled with understanding why I was afraid of sex, why I couldn't insert anything or stand to look at my vulva, why I never saw my college boyfriend of over two years without his boxers... But at least I could stop worrying that I had repressed memories of sexual abuse.

About five years or so ago - again, with the help of a great sex therapist - I figured out that an experience I had as a middle-schooler might have had a significant impact on me. When I was in the sixth grade, after multiple UTIs, I had a catheter to determine if there was anything seriously wrong. It was a painful and humiliating experience. Imagine being in a room with a bunch of strangers, having them insert a tube into your urethra, and then being asked to pee in front of everyone, but being unable to do so (to the point where they eventually turned on the faucet to try to induce me to go). I was frightened, embarrassed, and in pain. It was my first experience inserting anything into that area and it was negative and confusing.

Even though I always had a hunch that this catheter contributed to my vaginismus, it was always just that - a hunch, a best guess. It was important for me to find the "cause," but could an isolated incident (so long ago and so brief) have really caused this lifetime of struggle?

Yes, according to psychiatrist Dr. Anne Hallward. She's conducting a study about the impact of childhood medical procedures on women and she's looking for participants. Here's more about it - please contact her if you're interested and let her know I sent you:

Research on the Impact of Childhood Medical Procedures:
It is not uncommon for girls to get a UTI when they are quite young, and to undergo various medical procedures to both diagnose and treat the infection. To date, nothing has been written about the impact of such invasive genital procedures on the life of these girls as they grow up. I am looking for women who had a urinary tract infection (UTI) as a child and had treatment for it, including either catheterizations, hospitalization, or other urethral procedures like dilation, or imaging studies. I would like to schedule a time for an interview that may last up to an hour about how this experience has affected your life as an adult. I am interested in looking at how such medical trauma is both overlooked in the life of a child, and may have far reaching effects on your relational, sexual, professional and emotional life. If you would like to participate in this research, your name will be kept confidential and any identifying information will be changed in publications. Please contact Anne Hallward MD at ahallward(at)

I received an email with this description through a vulvodynia support group I'm in and was so relieved to see that I'm not alone in my experience. I talked to Dr. Anne last night and she was a kind and compassionate listener and asked good questions. I was amazed to learn that other women have had similar experiences that impacted them through adulthood. After almost every issue/feeling I shared - no matter how embarrassing - Dr. Anne let me know that I wasn't alone and that other women reported similar feelings and experiences.

If this resonates for you, please let me know in the comments section - even though I don't respond to everybody, I really appreciate hearing from you! You can also email me at livingwithvaginismus(at)

Finally, I encourage you to get in touch with Dr. Anne Hallward if you've had a similar experience. I'd love to see her study published - both for letting women like us know we're not alone and also for influencing practitioners in how they conduct medical procedures with children. Maybe we can help make a difference!