Our Tiny Villages

“Is that something I should get checked for?” My boyfriend asked when I told him I had a yeast infection.

I suppressed the urge to laugh before reassuring him that yeast infections tend to be a routine—albeit extremely irritating—part of having a vagina. That being said, I had never had one before and was more than a little freaked out by the itchy, chaffe-y feeling and weird, clumpy discharge. Still, I was amused by my boyfriend’s lack of understanding regarding the subject, having dealt with vagina-issues-by-proxy for years as various friends came down with infections. As I explained to him the ins and outs of the vagina (pH levels, good vs. bad bacteria, etc.), it occurred to me just how much work this particular body part can be. It’s like your own little world: a private ecosystem that relies on you to care for and nurture it. All the actors need to be accounted for—there can’t be too little bacteria, because then you’ll get yeast, but there can’t be too much of certain types of bacteria, because then you’ll get bacterial vaginosis. There’s flora and pH and good discharge and bad discharge and birth control and 100,000 ways to deal with your period. Suddenly, I was less entertained by my boyfriend’s dearth of knowledge and more intrigued by my own wealth of such.

“Intrigued” here is a complicated word: I was simultaneously impressed with myself and infuriated by the necessity of knowing all this. My boyfriend was pretty perfect throughout this process—he listened actively and comforted me when appropriate. But I couldn’t shake the feeling of jealousy. He will never understand what it’s like to deal with vulvar drama firsthand. He will never wake up randomly itchy and wonder which aspect of the careful balance was out of whack. He will never lie in a chair with his legs spread apart while a doctor cranks tools open inside his body. He will never fight with a pharmacist about the date of his birth control refill because he decided to skip his period one month; he will never panic about being unable to remove his menstrual cup; he will never fake an orgasm. The act of explaining the amount of work that goes into having a vagina made me both appreciative and resentful of myself.

This accidental anatomy lesson had another adverse effect: I began to panic about my yeast infection. Vaginas are so delicate (and in other ways unbelievably tough and resilient—babies fit through there?!) that it seemed at once both inevitable that issues like yeast would come up and also impossible to adequately address them without inadvertently causing more problems. I began to envision a never-ending cycle of infections and treatments that caused other infections followed by infections whose treatments caused the original infection again.

This proved true, to an extent. After treating for yeast, I still felt symptoms. I went to the doctor, who told me nothing was wrong. A week later, when I was still feeling symptoms, the same doctor prescribed antibiotics to treat for bacterial vaginosis (which she was certain I didn’t have) and, warning me that the antibiotics were more than likely to cause another yeast infection, a Diflucan pill to be taken on the last day of the course. I was panicking by this point, spending hours on WebMD and Mayo Clinic’s websites searching every possible iteration of “vulvar discomfort.” Feeling the stress mount, I reached out to an absurd number of vagina-having friends for advice.

Every single person had a story. Some accounts I remembered from when they happened; others had been suffered in relative silence. One friend in particular had been through a months-long process of unidentifiable vulvar discomfort, culminating in her parents’ anger as expensive lab test after expensive lab test (not covered by insurance) came back negative. Her gynecologist eventually insisted that the whole thing was somatic. The itching finally ended five months after it began, when she went off birth control and learned to manage her anxiety. “It was all-consuming,” she empathized as I described what I was going through.

Other people had recurring post-sex UTIs no matter how quickly after they peed, or yeast infections that cleared up quickly upon treatment before coming back less than a month later. We all had one shared observation: vulvar discomfort is horrible on more than just the physical level. There isn’t a perfect equivalent of the word “emasculate” for people who identify as women (a fact that is in itself telling about the stigma of this issue), but that’s what it feels like. Like the part of you that provides pleasure—a powerhouse of femininity—is turning against you, stealing your comfort and your sanity along with an aspect of your identity.

My mom, who is a practicing therapist, was vital in helping me identify that addressing such emotional pain would be a central part of my treatment plan. She instructed me to separate the sensation from the pain: “The pain of feeling scared and inadequate is not equivalent to the sensation of itching or burning. Unpleasant sensation can be managed with medication and with non-pharmacological approaches. One non-pharmacological approach is deciding where to place your focus. Which is another hugely valuable life skill,” she texted me in the middle of one of my anxiety attacks.

This advice proved helpful, if not curative. Several times I called her crying from the staircase of my boyfriend’s apartment at 3am (he told me to wake him but nothing compares to my mom’s voice when I’m sad) and she would talk to me for hours, sometimes sympathetic and soothing, sometimes tough and firm, reminding me how fortunate I am that this is my primary health concern. Overall, she served as a wealth of knowledge regarding both vaginal health (she’s had decades more to hear friends’ stories) and anxiety management, reminding me that people have lived through this and that the pain and shame is something I can control even when the sensation isn’t. 

My dad is equally loving and supportive, but in terms of knowledge…not quite so much. I told him about my discomfort only when I needed his help with the logistics of scheduling a doctor’s appointment. At the time, I hadn’t gone to my dad with a vagina issue since one fateful day shortly after my parents’ divorce when I asked if he could pick up a box of tampons to keep at his new apartment.

“Of course!” he answered in an overly enthusiastic attempt to quell any possible awkwardness. “What size?”

“Just get a variety pack,” I replied.

“Okay, but what size are you?”

I looked at him for a beat. “What size am I?” It slowly dawned on me that my dad, a 58-year-old father of two post-adolescent daughters and who had spent nearly 30 years in a relationship with their cis-gendered mother, was under the impression that vaginas have tampon sizes. After processing this surreal development in my life, I realized that it fell to me to explain basic vulvar anatomy to my dad. “Vaginas don’t have tampon sizes, but different people have different period flows, which also change throughout the week. For example, at the beginning of the period you might need a bigger tampon because your flow is heavier, whereas right before your period ends you’d probably use a smaller one.” He soaked this in (no pun intended) and obediently bought a variety pack of tampons for his apartment. Thus ended any lingering illusions I might have clung to that my parents were all-knowing.

This stayed in the back of my mind as I explained to him my new vagina problems. He listened non-judgmentally and then advised me to lay off the Google searches. This was probably sound advice: as we all know, the Internet is full of horror stories regarding every possible medical condition, and vaginal pain is no exception. People write of years long battles with recurring yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis, the medication for which often causes yeast infections, starting the cycle again. Every over the counter treatment I found came with at least a handful of stories about how it had worsened the situation rather than bettering it, sprinkled between a couple “miracle cure” reviews, the authorships of which are questionable at best. This rabbit hole of problematic vaginas is enough to send one into full-on panic, which is  exactly what it did to me, and more than once.

And yet there were true success stories. There were women and people with vaginas more generally who had found peace by learning how to work with their bodies. I began to see my vagina as a small but powerful village, one which needed my help to stay healthy, but to which I also needed to listen. It’s a process that I’m not done with yet—my vagina and I have some conflict resolution left to do, but I love her and myself unconditionally and am determined to find what works for both of us.

As for the women in my life and the anonymous vagina-havers on the Internet, I love them too. In this uncomfortable, anxiety-provoking, self-esteem-threatening realm of vulvar insecurity, I have found yet another example of resilience within this community.

I have also discovered how woefully uneducated people with penises can be about the bodies of those they love and care for. This is detrimental to all of us: I know how much my boyfriend and my dad want to be there for me, but no one took the time to teach them how. Instead, we stigmatize, silence, and shame people out of discussing their vaginas and reaching out for support. We develop and prescribe medications that are so harsh they upset the vaginal ecosystem in an effort to fix it. We use language that causes insecurity about the ways vaginas look, smell, and feel. In short, we are afraid of vaginas. Those of us who have them worry that ours will fail us or that they aren’t similar enough to other people’s; those without don’t know enough about them to appreciate their fragile might. This journey through vagina itching and burning and chafing ultimately deepened my relationships with both my body and the people I love, and despite all the pain (and sensations, as my mother would have me add) I am grateful.

Let this be a call to love the tiny ecosystem between your legs or the legs of someone you love. They are volatile, but so very worth the time and effort it takes to get to know them. And if you have struggled, or are currently struggling, with something similar, know that you are not alone and that you will survive. Reach out to those around you—I guarantee you will find empathy within the massive community of people learning to understand their tiny villages.