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If you have a vagina you know that most of the time it is without sensation. How does your spleen feel? How do your kidneys feel? How does your pancreas feel? Luckily, we have no idea how these things feel. The vagina is mostly like a pancreas and feels nothing. If it feels something, it is either erotically engaged or ill.
All this is obvious if you have one. But half of us don't.
I have one, and something went wrong with it.
Some days my vagina felt as if somebody had put a cheese grater in it and scraped. Some days it felt as if someone had poured ammonia inside it. Some days it felt as if a little dentist was drilling a little hole in it. The strangest thing was that all these sensations occurred in one inch-long part on the left side. The rest of it was fine.
It's a yeast infection, said my gynecologist in June.
On one side? I asked.
I guess it's localized, he said. Here, try this.
This was some antifungal cream. It didn't work.
Hmm, he said, when I returned after a week. Try this.
This was a three-day course of medication in a little bullet that I popped into a plunger and inserted nightly. It didn't work.
There's a stronger version, he said. Let's try that.
That was a cream in a tube. I filled a new plunger with cream and plunged it in. My vagina didn't like that. It became bright red and swollen and hurt worse for four days.
Let's try the pill form, said my gynecologist.
I popped the pill. It made me queasy for two days, but it didn't hurt my vagina.
Now let's do a culture, he said. He emerged from his lab grinning. Not a trace of yeast.
Why does it still hurt? I asked. And why are there red spots here and here? I pointed to the two red spots, one under my clitoris and one on my inner lip. They hurt particularly, I said.
Irritation, he said. Let's try estrogen cream. Use it for ten days. It increases the blood supply and will help it heal.
Estrogen cream dribbled out of me all day long, but for about a week my vagina returned to normalI didn't feel it. Then it began to twitch and zing again.
That can happen, said my gynecologist.
The estrogen cream causes a yeast infection.
Oh no! I said. Now I'm back where I started.
You're not meant to use it every day, he explained. Twice a weekbut I thought it might clear things up.
It did, for a while, I told him.
Let's treat the yeast infection and see where we are.
I went back to the bullet in the plunger.
I like my gynecologist. He is a robust gentleman of Italian origin with a resonant voice and large soft hands. His waiting room used to be decorated with pictures of babies he'd delivered. These days it's decorated with booklets about menopause. Malpractice insurance for obstetricians is very high, I guess.
I met my gynecologist twenty years ago when I had a cyst in one of the glands in my vagina. That was when I found out how lousy a vagina could feel. He removed this cyst in an operation called a marsupializationbecause it makes a little pouch in the vaginal wall where the duct of the gland opens. That way, the gland can't get blocked again.
You know, I said to him after the bullet in the plunger hadn't worked for the second time, it hurts in the same spot as the Bump, or close to it.
One of the good things about having a doctor for twenty years is that you make a language together. "The Bump" is what we call that cyst he removed. Also, after twenty years I'm used to having conversations with him over the top of a sheet while he's got his head between my legs.
In a way, I continued, it feels as if the Bump has returned. It's phantom Bump!
The Bump can't return, he said. But I see what you mean. It's inflamed there. Those red spots are gone, though.
Now what? I asked.
Let's not treat the yeast infection. It'll resolve on its own, usually. Use the estrogen cream twice a week. It will help clear the inflammation, and it increases lubrication. Maybe some of this has to do with less lubrication.
But there isn't less, I said. It's just the same. And wasn't my estrogen level normal?
It was, he said. Three months ago it was.
Sometimes it hurts when I have sex, I said. That's what worries me. You can get a psychological problem from thatassociating sex and pain.
Use estrogen, he repeated. And don't avoid sex. You knowhe leaned over confidentiallythey have shown that the more you use the vagina, the better its health.
My gynecologist had told me this before. That's another thing I like about him. He's very much in favor of sex. So am I, except when it hurts.
I went home with my estrogen cream and my resolve to have sex and maintain vaginal health.
But my vaginal health was declining.
New bad things started to happen. Sharp lines of zinging pain, like a toothache, began to radiate from my former Bump site to the edge of my outer lip, culminating in a dot of soreness. Two things made this worse: driving a car and wearing pants. Then in September, the red spots returned. I went back to the gynecologist.
It's cancer, I told him.
No it isn't, he said. He scraped a bit of skin off and went into his lab. It's not cancer, he repeated when he came out.
Is it herpes? It doesn't feel like herpes.
It's not herpes.
How do you know it's not cancer? I asked.
Cancer doesn't come and go, he said. Cancer just gets worse.
So what is it? I asked him.
I don't know, he said.
Listen, I said, everything's getting worse. I'm really having trouble with sex. My vagina hurts all the time now. If I have sex it hurts more, but it never doesn't hurt.
I know, said my gynecologist, but I don't know why. He walked over to the window and looked out. Western medicine doesn't know everything, he said. He turned back to me. I think maybe you should go to an alternative health center.
I was astonished. He was sending me to an herbalist!
There's a very good one here, he went on. They're not cranks. They're real doctorsI know some of them. They specialize in women's health. They aren't going to wave crystals over you or something. I think you ought to try them.
He was washing his hands of me! After twenty years.
But what is it? I asked him. What's wrong with me?
I don't know, he said. Try the alternative health place. The mind and the bodyhe wiggled his hands around. You have no bacterial infection. You have no fungus. You have no herpes. You have no cancer. I can't tell you why this is happening, but maybe they can.