At first I thought there were pimples on my vagina. That was when they were only hard, tiny lumps. I noticed them when I was in the ladies room at work. The next time I went in the bathroom, they were much, much bigger, and I started to get worried. And was it just me, or were they really starting to hurt? By the time I went home they were so painful I couldn’t sit down. I started to think that somehow, this meant I was going to die. This had never happened before but I, ever the optimist, went to bed sure my vagina would be back to its old, sexy self when I awoke the next morn.
It wasn’t. The bumps were larger and even more painful, and examining my naked body that morning, I was sure that, for the first time, I was seeing what a really pissed-off vagina looked like. She was screaming at me, she was aching and tired and red and troubled. When I discovered I couldn’t even wear pants, I called the doctor and they told me they could squeeze me in two days later. (Here is the part of the story when you learn an unfortunate character trait of mine that will come up several times in this story — I am a truth avoider/denier.) I didn’t want to be pushy or impose, either (I am from Ohio, if that explains anything). So, I accepted my appointment and lived the next two days enduring an increasingly excruciating pain in my crotch.
At work, when someone asked me something I just wanted to blurt out to them, “MY VAGINA IS KILLING ME.” The bumps got so big I was sure people could see them through my clothes. I crossed my legs hard, hoping I’d push the bumps away, and spent half the day in the ladies room.
Finally, it was time for my doctor’s appointment. Since it was right after a Disney press event I had to attend for work, I had with me a stuffed Mickey Mouse I squeezed tight.
“I don’t always bring a stuffed animal to the doctor,” I told the nurse. “I had to pick this up for work.”
But I was glad Mickey was there. Really, really glad. At that point, I could hardly walk and I had tears in my eyes. I was embarrassed to show the doctor my vagina, because it looked like something out of a circus freak show, and also because I looked like such an uneducated fool to have put up with such a monstrosity on my body for so many days. A monstrosity on such a very, very important place on my body. It was like that show, “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant” on TLC. I mean, I’m positive the doctor wondered how I could be so out of touch with my body. I liked to think myself quite the trooper. “I went to college. I’m not a stupid person. I’m just a truth avoider/denier,” I wanted to say. But instead I said, “This is really bad, I think. I’m sorry.”
The doctor did not hide her shock. She arranged to have me in to see a special Gynecologist who would be able to “drain the lumps”. (That sounded nicer than what ended up eventually happening — the slicing open my vaginal lips and digging away at the gang-o-cysts that had clustered there, like an artist sculpting away at rock.)
“What are they? What’s wrong?” I asked.
But the doctor was so frantic to move me along and I was in so much pain, I didn’t care that I didn’t have an answer. In the next doctor’s office I was rushed into a tiny room where the doctor lifted my legs and dug into the bumps, that were now the size of silly putty containers, with a scalpel.
“You’re doing so good,” she told me, as if I was giving birth.
She must not have seen me clutching my Mickey Mouse doll and sobbing, my eyes wide and directed toward the ceiling, talking to God. She shrugged her shoulders when I asked her what they were.
“They’re common. It just happens sometimes.” I was just so happy they were gone to ask anymore questions. I wanted to get out of there. Do they make Hallmark cards for this? I wondered.
Just when I thought I’d never have to think about the monstrous bumps again, they came back a few months later, and that time, I arranged a doctor’s appointment in enough time that the doctor didn’t even have to cut — he just squeezed the bumps down. He didn’t seem to know what they were, either.
The third, fourth, and fifth times they came back, I started wondering if I wasn’t changing my underwear enough, so I started changing two or three times during the day. I wondered if they were pimples (I know, right?) and I put pimple cream on them. I put toothpaste on them to dry them out. I wondered if it was a bacteria I was picking up at my gym, and I switched gyms. At this point I wasn’t even going to the doctor’s office. I kept warm water and pressure on my vagina as often as I could, even at work, until I could pop them myself. I think it’s safe to say that if you find yourself in so much pain that it’s socially acceptable to be holding your crotch all day at work and openly using a compress, there is a problem.
As if the physical discomfort wasn’t bad enough, I started feeling like a super unsexy person. I didn’t have sex for a long time, actually. I didn’t think I could considering it hurt too much to even insert a tampon. I just figured this would affect my sex life forever. Whatever this thing was, it was a part of me, and I resigned myself to getting used to it.
It might be hard for you to believe that I wasn’t looking for answers. It was happening so frequently and I had found a kind-of solution, so I had reached a feeling of resolution about it. And like I said, I certainly subscribe to avoidance in my life — I don’t like to look at my bank account, I don’t want to know how many calories are in my burrito at Chipotle.
But eventually, I started to do my own research, not because I thought I’d be able to stop the bumps from popping up, but curiously, I wanted to know what was going on down there. My search led me to vaginal cysts, Bartholin, specifically, a word I had never heard through all my previous doctor appointments. I actually told a girlfriend about it, something I had never done.
“I think they’re vaginal cysts,” I told her.
“I have that too,” she said as if it was no big deal.
But after sitting painfully in office chairs and having them burst with scalpels by complete strangers, I must say: they are a kind of big deal.
The more I started to ask women about it, the more common vaginal cysts seemed. My research said that they were harmless, painless, but my personal experience told me otherwise. Why hadn’t any of my doctors said anything? Did they not want to worry me with the word “cysts”? Did they think it was so trivial it didn’t matter if I knew what they were? Did they even know what they were? Was it futile to know because there were no preventative measures I could take? Was I just being a huge baby?
Now I know what is going on when I feel a tiny lump on my vagina — it still happens. But today, I don’t think I’m dying. I’ve started having sex again. VAGINAL CYSTS, YOU NO LONGER RULE ME WITH FEAR. As I type this, I’m watching a “20/20″ special on Jaycee Dugard, and I’m not trying to belittle Jaycee Dugard’s life-shattering kidnapping experience, but I’m saying having vaginal cysts for years and not knowing what they were and submitting to them is exactly like being kidnapped, kind of. I was held hostage by something that seemed beyond my control. I was in denial. I was comforted by my captor, the vaginal cysts, or at least comforted by the fact that I could master limited control over them.
But now that I know what they are, now that I am unafraid to talk about them with my friends and the world, now that I have sex with my boyfriend even when I have them, I feel much more freedom and peace with my body. I wonder how many other people have had vaginal cysts — or other medical conditions — and were totally in the dark about it or embarrassed to explore them. I think that’s why I wrote this. I wanted to tell you how happy I was to have Mickey Mouse that first day in the doctor’s office, and how I got over the shame, and that if you have lumps on your vagina, you probably have vaginal cysts. And you’re not alone, and you’re not going to die, and you can have sex, and even though WebMD says to take three to four warm baths daily (who has time to take three to four baths daily?), there are other solutions. Instead, you can do what I do. Apply pressure when you can (even at work), keep having sex, talk about it with your girlfriends, find a coworker who you can confide in and every so often blurt out “MY VAGINA HURTS”and then pour yourself a glass of wine and squeeze those bumps yourself. That’s not a professional diagnosis, it’s just mine. It’s not what a doctor would advise.
But here’s what we can all agree upon: if something is going on with your body, you have to be bold in finding a solution, you have to be bull-headed about seeing a doctor, you have to get answers to all of your questions, you have to tell your girlfriends and the person you are sleeping with, and you can’t be embarrassed. About anything with your body, ever. Do whatever you need to do to get better. And bring a stuffed Mickey Mouse to the doctor. That shouldn’t be embarrassing, either. And it makes all the difference in the world.