It’s 8:00 am, Thursday morning, and I’m back in Marie’s office for my second sex therapy session.
(By the way, lest anyone have a mistaken idea about sex therapy, let me just clarify. There is no demonstration, no touching, nothing sexy about it. It’s talk therapy but focused specifically on sex. Probably you all know that, but just in case, I wanted to clear that up.)
So, I’m in Marie’s office. And when she asks me how I felt after our previous session, I take a breath and tell her how I felt. I left her office feeling hopeful. Then I felt anxious. Then I got myself all worked up about the release I signed. Then I calmed myself down and processed it with E, and I felt better.
“I tell you this,” I explain, “not so much to complain about you giving me the release. It’s more to say, this is how I work. I often don’t even really notice that something doesn’t feel right at the time. I just kind of go along with it; it’s something I learned to do in my past, I guess. Only later do I realize, oh shit, wait, that wasn’t okay with me. And I’ll probably trip up against that multiple times as we work together, so we might as well put it front and center right now.”
Marie takes it all in stride. “I’m so glad you’re telling me this. And even if you were made at me for pushing that release on you, all filled out like that, I’d still be glad you are telling me. It’s really helpful to know that…”
She goes on to explain to me that the licensing board for sex therapists mandates that she cannot provide individual therapy to someone who is already working with another therapist. This is to ensure that two therapists aren’t working at cross purposes. However, she can provide supplemental work focused on sexuality if she’s in consultation with the other therapist. She needs to tell E what we are working on and, in a general way, she needs to hear what E and I are working on, to make sure it’s a good fit.
“But it’s usually a short, minimal conversation,” she tells me. “And I can make sure that I’m very transparent about when we talk and what we talk about.”
This seems okay to me, and I also know now that E will also be sure to only share things which I have agreed are okay to share.
That hurdle surmounted, we move on to the next topic. I’m paying out of pocket for this therapy, on top of all the other healing work I’m doing, so I’ve already made the mental decision to always be as direct and frank as I can manage to be.
“This weekend my husband and I had anniversary sex,” I tell her. “It was our wedding anniversary, and I love him, and even though we hadn’t had sex in months, it seemed like a good idea.”
“And how was it?” she asks.
“Mixed,” I say. “The thing that surprised me, when we got to that point, was that the intercourse hurt. That’s not something I’m used to, except for relatively soon after my hysterectomy. In fact, I’m wondering if it was scar tissue? I’m not sure…”
This leads to a whole explanation of my pelvic organ prolapse, going to the uro-gynecologist, having that horrendous, triggering bladder study, postponing the surgery, and finally having a hysterectomy and pelvic organ repair a little over two years ago.
Marie is disgusted, but not all that surprised, at how clear it is that the uro-gynecologist’s office knows nothing about trauma-informed practice. “So you went through some very invasive, very difficult stuff not all that long ago.”
“Yeah,” I agree. “It was a lot harder than I expected going into it. I mean, I didn’t anticipate the degree of pain and fatigue I’d feel afterwards. And honestly, I feel like part of the reason I ended up quitting my job four months later was that I still didn’t feel well. The job was so stressful, and I simply couldn’t keep it up any longer, not after the surgery. I mean, it wasn’t only that; I was also really depressed. It was all tangled up together.”
“Did anyone talk to you about how your sex life might be affected by the surgery?” she asks me.
“Not really,” I say. “I tried to ask about that. But I was told, oh, lots of women think it’s so much better, with no more periods and no worry about pregnancy and the prolapse is repaired.”
Marie looks a little skeptical. “So nothing about lubrication and scar tissue and emotional repercussions?”
I shake my head.
“Okay,” she says, “well, we can certainly cover that here together. But it is very possibly related to the pain you felt this past weekend.”
She also picks up on my earlier comment on learning in my past to simply go along with things, and she asks how old I was when I experienced abuse. That’s such a hard question to answer. There are the times I clearly remember, starting at roughly age 12. And there are what I tend to call my “fuzzy” memories from much earlier.
“Some days I absolutely believe those memories,” I explain. “And sometimes I am convinced I made them up.” Hours and hours and hours of rehashing this doubt in E’s office has not resolved that issue, but at least I’m able to say it aloud to Marie without collapsing in shame. (Note: sign of progress.)
“Okay, well let’s just say ‘childhood’ and that will be good enough,” she says. I agree. For these purposes, the details are irrelevant.
The hour is nearly up, and Marie tells me she wants to give me some homework. “We’ve talked a lot about how pain and discomfort and a sense of unease feel in the body. But I’d really like us to privilege the good over the bad feelings.”
“So your assignment is to explore pleasure,” she goes on. “And at the moment, I’m not talking about sexual pleasure. Let’s broaden the understanding of pleasure to include a much wider range of experience. I want you to think about your five senses, and for each sense, think of at least one thing that brings you pleasure. People often start with food. What is a good that brings you pleasure when you taste it? What is a smell that you enjoy? When you think of something you see that brings you pleasure, what is it? Maybe a sunset?”
“So I want you to make a list, and if you want, it can be multiple things for each sense, but at least one. Advanced homework, if you want to do it, would be to give yourself some of those experiences between now and our next session. That’s it; that’s the homework.”
We agree that we’ll have one more session, just the two of us, and during that session, we’ll talk about how to bring in my husband. And if I want, I can have him do the homework with me.
So that’s session number two. Not bad, right? She was compassionate, encouraging, receptive, friendly.
Just like the session before, I leave feeling good, somewhat hopeful. And just like the first time, before I’ve even driven all the way home, Anxiety starts protesting. What am I doing? Why am I doing this? Who wants to talk about all this stuff anyway? Won’t it be strange to have my husband in the room?
And then there’s all the stuff that doesn’t even have words attached to it, just anxious feelings, and the old, old urge to quiet it all down by burning myself. Just a little burn, I think. No big deal.
It’s that backwards slide again that seems to accompany every big step forward. It’s some frightened part of myself saying, oh no, no, we’re not crawling out of this swamp. This swamp might suck, but it’s OUR swamp, and we know how to live here. Don’t you dare try to drag us out of here!
And so I slide, but not as far as the frightened part wants. No burning. Instead, I eat tortilla chips. I go to Walgreen’s and buy a Diet Coke (even though I finally gave up Diet Coke in April). Then I go home and crawl into bed and sleep for two hours.
I’m going to be okay. I’m going to do this. I’m going to go to sex therapy and learn about pleasure and keep on healing. And I’m going to slide back some and eat some crappy food and hide in bed sometimes. And then later on, I will get up, change my clothes, head to the studio and teach a yoga class.
Because you know what, just like other human beings, I’m complicated and full of contradictions. And I think I can live with that.
CREDIT: Photo by Alexander Possingham on Unsplash