I was embarrassed that I couldn’t do something that animals could do and felt stupid and juvenile. I feared that I was permanently damaged, that no one could or would love me again if my relationship ever fell apart. I was devastated that I couldn’t express my love towards my boyfriend in a physical way. I wondered if I’d ever be able to—when I thought about the future, I was scared that I could never become pregnant and have children, like I’d always wanted to. I didn’t even want the kind of pleasure I hoped for before I had sex. I just wanted normalcy.

I became aware of the word vaginismus for the first time as the result of a frantic Google session. One night, after feeling particularly fed up with my problems, I typed the symptoms into a search engine. The results were overwhelming. I found forums and read other women’s experiences that mirrored mine. When I mustered up the courage to post about what I was going through, I was shocked at all the women who responded to offer me advice and comfort about this condition that we seemed to have in common.

Less reassuring was what they told me about themselves: Vaginismus is the result of an involuntary muscle spasm that contracts the pelvic floor, making penetration painful or, in some cases, completely impossible. There were women who’d never been able to have painless intercourse whose relationships had fallen apart because of it, and women who developed vaginismus later in life after having successful intercourse for a long time. The more I read, the more frightened I became, even though many of them discussed their treatment and how it had helped them slowly improve their own conditions. The talk of dilators (tubes that increase in size to train the vaginal muscles to relax) and Kegel exercises all sounded technical and painful. Along with shame, pain was exactly what I was afraid of in the first place. There were horror stories all over the internet about doctors who laughed the problem off, suggesting that maybe the woman was experiencing a lack of desire for her partner and should go find someone else to have sex with. I was terrified of that happening to me, so I put off seeing a doctor with this as my excuse.

Two and a half years ago, I met Bridget. She and her boyfriend snapped up some free spare concert tickets I had posted online and we all watched the show together. I admired her and felt a kinship with her immediately: She was a feminist and vegan, and her passion about both was infectious. We kept in touch after the show, and became close—I’d never had a friend quite like her. She was so open, confident, and non-judgmental that I felt like I could tell her anything.

Last year, Bridget and I were having drinks when the topic of my vaginismus came up. She told me that she had vulvodynia, a pain syndrome that had made her unable to have penetrative sex for over two years. She said that often, she came back from treatment and just cried because it was so hard. I was stunned: Here was a woman I really looked up to who was going through exactly the same thing as I was, and though it was difficult, was taking steps to figure it out. Hearing about Bridget’s experience reassured me that I wasn’t a freak, and that there was nothing to be ashamed or afraid of. Though other women I’d spoken to online had gone through the same thing as I had, it was comforting to know that someone close to me in real life understood, too. I built up a list of resources and finally, almost five years after I first felt that stabbing pain, I made an appointment with a doctor.

The morning I went to my physical, I envisioned myself breaking down in tears and unable to get the words out, but I held my own. The doctor gave me my first-ever vaginal exam and jotted some things down as I winced. She explained that I’d have to go to a physiotherapist to train my muscles not to spasm, and she confirmed that my condition was, in fact, vaginismus. She stressed, more than once, that what I was going through was extremely common. Some women develop vaginismus due to past traumas, like sexual abuse; some women develop vaginismus because they’ve been brought up in cultures that fear sex. Some women, like me, develop vaginismus because of the fear of pain.

After we were done, I walked into the waiting room where Peter, who I was still dating at the time, sat looking sick with worry. His face lit up when he saw that I wasn’t crying, but smiling. Knowing that the first step towards a pain-free sex life had been taken felt like a weight had been lifted.

When I first met with Jen, my physiotherapist, a couple of months later, she explained that, just as you’d pull your hand away from a flame if you’d previously been burned, my vaginal muscles were instinctively clamming up in the anticipation of pain. Now, I visit Jen regularly, and I’m slowly learning how to make those muscles relax. Jen is warm, friendly, and most importantly, she’s never made me feel ashamed. At our sessions, I don’t feel awkward when she gently inserts a gloved finger into my vagina, asking me to clench and unclench around it. Well…maybe it’s a little awkward when it feels like I need to poop (the body is a funny thing).

In between appointments, my homework is to insert a single finger, then a plastic tube, into myself every day after applying a healthy dose of numbing cream, lightly pressing against the vaginal walls to allow the muscles to soften under the pressure. If it ever hurts or feels uncomfortable, I stop, since the idea is to have something there feel normal and painless. Once I feel ready, I’ll progress to a larger-sized tube, with the end goal being the comfortable accommodation of a penis. I see Jen every few weeks, and she tells me I’m making great progress. She’s become a great friend and comfort to me.

Not all people with vaginismus or other sexual conditions can be “cured,” and that isn’t a failure—nor is it always the end goal of treatment. Many people enjoy satisfying sex lives without penetrative sex! Just as there is no “normal”-looking vagina or labia, there’s also no normal sexual experience. Seeking treatment helped me realize how wide the sexual spectrum really is. I learned to accept whatever lay ahead of me, and in recent months, I was surprised and delighted to finally have pain-free intercourse after so many years of incredible discomfort. Though I would have been OK, if a little disappointed, with whatever outcome came of my treatment, this especially encouraged me to continue my sessions in order to ensure that I can keep having the sex I’ve always wanted.

Humor and openness with others have helped me more than anything. I’m less shy about telling my friends about my vaginismus now and, just before the breakup of my relationship, I even opened up about it to my mother, who surprised me by being supportive and nonjudgmental, even though she doesn’t quite understand it completely. Sometimes, my roommate cheerily sings out, “Have you vigorously fingered yourself today?” We laugh because the alternative is crying, and I don’t want to do that anymore. After more than half a decade of fear and pain, I’m taking charge of my own body—and enjoying myself in all the ways I never thought I could. ♦

Giselle Nguyen is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia with a keen interest in feminism and sexuality. She tweets at @heyschoolgirl.