In my previous posts, I discussed compulsively checking my vulva (read here), the self-blame narrative that fueled it, and how I overcame it (read here). In this post, I am going to discuss avoidance; specifically, I focus on the question of “why I avoided looking down there in the first place” and how it was the product of being gaslit over the years by different doctors.
Don’t forget to read to the end for my #TuesdayTipbyLLC!
Avoidance and Fear
To understand some of the reasoning behind my avoidance, it is necessary to back-track and briefly touch on my symptoms over the years.
Symptoms in my 20’s
I always found penetrative vaginal sex to be a bit painful/uncomfortable. However, this was never a red flag for me. I assumed the pain/discomfort was because I was simply built smaller down there, thus normalizing the pain I experienced.
In my 20’s, I began to notice more than just minor pain/discomfort during sex. It felt like I had tiny tears around my vulva and it burned when I peed.
Consequently, I called my clinic to book an appointment with a doctor. I would report symptoms like tearing and during sex, what felt like little, tiny paper cuts on my vulva, and burning (especially when I would go to the bathroom). The doctor would examine me, and following the examination, concluded they did not see anything wrong with me. They ran a STI panel, which came back negative.
Subsequent trips to the doctor were similar to this experience.
The Harms of Continuous Gaslighting: Avoidance Tendencies
You might wonder why I avoided personally looking. Doctors telling me my vulva looked fine and my STI/thrush results coming back negative are what fueled my avoidance tendencies.
The continuous string of doctor’s appointments resulting in the doctor telling me nothing was wrong, that my symptoms were likely stress, made me feel like I was losing my mind. I was told I should try yoga, which always seemed comical, given that half the time I was in their office I was wearing my yoga gear and had my mat with me.
“How can physical sensations feel so real and yet not be real”?, I wondered to myself over and over again.
“Is my mind really that powerful?”
Moreover, because doctors are deemed experts, I believed them when they said, “you look fine down there”.
This belief gave birth to my avoidance tendencies. I avoided looking down there because my symptoms felt so real; I needed there to be something wrong with my vulva. If I looked and didn’t see any tears or cuts, I would begin believing I was losing my mind, a possibility I was not ready to face.
The Relationship between my Avoidance and my Mental Health
The truth is, I couldn’t bear the thought of looking and not seeing anything wrong. I needed there to be something wrong, because if there wasn’t, then I must be going crazy. Since I was told by multiple medical professionals nothing was wrong, I simply decided to avoid checking my vulva altogether.
Avoidance was essential to keep my mental health and my anxiety stable; it became what kept me somewhat sane. Avoidance, in a sense, kept me safe.
If I avoided checking, I could continue telling myself there was a chance there was something physically wrong, they just didn’t catch it.
(Interestingly, this would turn out to be the case, this is in part due to the lack of literature on Lichen Sclerosus affecting vulva owners of reproductive age, and accordingly, it is not on many doctors’ radar). *Read/listen to learn more about new emerging research by Dr. Jill Krampf (http://lssupport.net/drjill).
The Sting of Avoidance and the Turn to Checking: The Perfect Storm
“Has your vulva always looked like this”?
This question, posed by my general physician after she told me I had Lichen Sclerosus, had an incredible power over me. A part of me felt relief and validation by my diagnosis. It wasn’t all in my head! There really was something physically wrong with me; I do know my body. The feeling of validation was short-lived, and my feelings of relief quickly morphed into self-blame.
I blamed myself for avoiding checking myself those years I was symptomatic. I thought, if only I looked earlier, maybe my Lichen Sclerosus wouldn’t have progressed so fast (maybe my labia minora would still be intact, maybe she wouldn’t be lost).
As a result, I traded avoidance for compulsive checking and neither were good for my mental health. Avoidance left me struggling in silence and compulsively checking left me in a cycle of anxiety and distress.
The Importance of Balance
Nowadays, neither avoidance nor checking patterns dictate my life. I sit somewhere in the middle of these two extremes in a healthy place on my LS journey.
I no longer avoid checking my vulva. In fact, I look at it every Monday and Thursday when I apply my steroid cream, and when I do my monthly vulva check. (I also looked if I felt any symptom, but luckily, as I write this, I have been in remission and symptom free for about 9 months). Similarly, while I no longer avoid checking, I’m no longer compulsively checking; I only look at my vulva when necessary.
If you struggle with avoidance, my advice to you is to try to work (at a pace that is right for you) towards finding balance.
Not sure how to start your journey? Reach out to me! I'd love to chat with you. Further, consider joining a support group or making an appointment with a therapist or counsellor (especially if you have underlying mental health issues).
In sum, we need to raise more awareness about Lichen Sclerosus. We need to normalize discussions about our genitals and genital health. This normalization will encourage people to check themselves if something feels off and to speak up about it. Furthermore, the more research we have on Lichen Sclerosus, the more medical professionals will be aware of this condition and might not be so quick to dismiss complaints of tearing during sex as “your partner just being too big”. (Yes, we hear that a lot!). Finally, we need to discuss and acknowledge the impact medical gaslighting can have on our mental health and our behaviors.
I will blog more about the nuances of raising awareness about Lichen Sclerosus and research throughout the year.
Connect with Me!
Do you or have you struggled with avoidance? Did any part of my story resonate with you? Let me know in the comments below or feel free to contact me via my various social media platforms – I would love to hear from you!
#TuesdayTipbyLLC – If you are struggling with avoidance issues, do not beat yourself up over it. Be gentle with yourself. Avoidance is a completely valid and understandable reaction to a traumatic/worrying event.