Monthly Archives: June 2011

Ten People in My Bedroom

Remember how I told you I hated talking about sex? Even after endless conversations with my counselors, friends, and doctors during four sexless months of marriage, I still hated talking about sex. I’d gotten used to hearing the words come out of my mouth, but the act of sharing such private information was still a chore. You can imagine my chagrin, then, when I discovered that the only sex therapist in town was a man a little older than my father. A man whose son I once kissed during a game of Spin the Bottle.

Awkward.

But I had sworn to myself and to my husband that no matter what I had to do, I was going to have a fulfilling, fun sex life with the man I married. Even if the remedy was something monstrously awful like eating a live scorpion every Saturday night, I was ready to say, “Pass me the hot sauce.” I was committed. So, since talking to a paternal man whose son’s mouth had once mashed itself against mine was still short of the live scorpion, I sighed and opened the door to Dr. B’s office. We shook hands and introduced ourselves, and he asked why I’d come in. “You indicated some sexual dysfunction?” he commented while glancing over my paperwork. Some. Ha.

I told him the story I was so accustomed to telling. Confusion, counseling, lack of sex drive, more confusion, doctors’ appointments, rage, blockage, surgery, recuperation, excruciating pain, sadness, more doctors’ appointments, and finally the call to Dr. B himself. It no longer fazed me that less than an hour ago, the man didn’t know my name, and now he was privy to the most personal details of life in my bedroom. “Ah-huh,” he kept grunting while taking notes. When I finished recounting my saga, Dr. B said, “Well. Looks like we have some work to do, Amie.” I gave him a yeah-ya-think? smile and concurred. “What I’d like to do is talk about your upbringing a little, your beliefs about sexuality, and your feelings about your body…and then as we need to, we’ll work on practical suggestions for making sex work for you. We might put together a home program of sorts, you know, some tools and products you can try…We might do some reading and writing together, work through some educational materials…” He was furiously writing, and I got the sense he felt like Michelangelo looking up at a blank ceiling. Finally, he looked up at me. “Alright, Amie. Sounds good?” He rubbed his palms together as if we’d just discovered positronic distillation of subatomic particles. “Sounds…great,” I said, a little overwhelmed.

I drove home wondering if the scorpion might not be so bad.

PS: Wondering who those ten people are? My husband, me, our two premarital counselors, my best friend, my mom, the nurse practitioner, the doctor, the gynecologist, and the sex therapist.

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Body Hatred

I had the surgery one hot morning in early August. Everything went fine, and Dr. P assured me that in six weeks my body would be ready for sex. It’s telling that my reaction when I heard “six weeks” wasn’t disappointment or even surprise…it was relief. I would have six blissful weeks of not crying myself to sleep after another failure to perform. For six blissful weeks I would not be inadequate or unwomanly or broken; I would be healing from surgery. No one expects sex when his/her partner is recuperating.

At five weeks, I started dreading the end of my blessed reprieve. I had only seven days left of legitimate sex-free living before my checkup. When I did have to go in, Dr. P did her poking and prodding, asked a couple of questions, and consequently pronounced me free of scar tissue. “As best as I can tell, you should be ready now. Go slowly; give your body some time to get used to the movements. In a few weeks, you’ll be a pro.” She could tell I was still apprehensive, so she added, “Really, Amie. You’ll get there. I promise.” I thanked her and went on my way.

Let’s just say my body wasn’t as ready as she thought. Whereas sex before the surgery had been impossible, it was now excruciating. Try after try yielded nothing but tears and intense pain. We were now in our fourth month of unconsummated married life, and I was at my wits’ end. I went from someone who almost never thought about sex to someone who could think of little else. All day, whether teaching or running errands or having coffee with a friend, my mind churned with thoughts of sex and my defectiveness. I tormented myself with disparaging thoughts about my body, my inability to perform, and my growing hatred of sex. I became angry and then scared…and then a resigned mix of both. One night after another unsuccessful try, I remember thinking, “So this is sex? People lose their minds over this?”

I was told one afternoon by a well-meaning friend that the best remedy for the pain I was experiencing was in fact lots of sex. “It only hurts for the first few times. Just go for it several times in one week, and you should be feeling good by Saturday.” She winked. This was not a winking matter to me. I gave her a courtesy smile and excused myself. Why won’t people listen to me? I thought furiously as I drove home. Do they think I’m whining about nothing? Then, I wondered if maybe I was whining about nothing. Maybe all this pain was in my mind. After all, Dr. P had assured me I was all healed up. I resolved to give it another go and, like I’d decided a few days after the wedding, just power through.

Needless to say, this didn’t work, and I found myself back in Dr. P’s office, exasperated yet again. “Are you sure everything looks alright?” I asked tentatively. I explained the pain I was feeling and the fears I had that this might never happen for me. “Hmmm,” she said. “Well, from a medical standpoint, everything seems to be normal…Perhaps you’d want to consider talking to a sex therapist. He or she could give you some practical suggestions as well as work through your feelings about sex. The mind controls an awful lot when it comes to sexuality, particularly for us women.”

By this time, I hated the way my body looked, the way it didn’t work, and the way it was keeping me from my husband. I distrusted my mind, since it now seemed to be the major source of my struggles. I felt further and further removed from my husband, since our relationship was missing such a vital component. And the slithering, evil voice in my head convinced me I was at once isolated and exposed, that everyone could see my inadequacy but no one could do anything about it.

I came to the end of my rapidly fraying rope and called the sex therapist.

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Hospitality

When people find out I’m a French teacher, most of them respond one of three ways: 1) “I could never teach high school,” 2) “Bonjour!” or 3) “Why?” In general, I’m sure people mean the third question benignly, but since humanities programs are slashed from universities like crazy of late, what I hear is, “Why the heck did you choose that?” In my French courses, in both college and grad school, the fact of being in a discipline that requires a constant fight for relevance was a frequent topic of discussion. It’s an increasingly prevalent opinion that students’ time would be better spent on science or math. So I tell my own students that the only reason our planet is of any consequence at all is that there are people on it. And the only way these people can get anything done is to communicate with each other. So since the brightest people in the world are not concentrated in one country, they speak different languages, and we have to learn them. That is the pragmatic argument anyway.

But that wasn’t compelling enough to 17-year-old Amie to make her choose French. I usually tell people that French chose me, in fact. It allowed me to major in reading, beauty, and travel — all selfish reasons, of course. But as I got further in, I discovered that learning another language isn’t about speaking so much as listening. Conversing with someone, when you think about it, is truly magical. Language, mere sounds your mouth makes or lines and dots scratched from the tip of your pencil, translates your feelings and thoughts into something others can understand. So the act of learning another’s language communicates, “Understanding you is important to me.”

If that hadn’t already hit home for me, it certainly did while I was in the hospital last week. One of my technicians was named Jacotte, a kind-hearted, lovely Haitian woman. On the second afternoon that she came in to check my vitals, she said, “You speak French.” Surprised, I said, “I do. How did you know?” She smiled. “The way you say my name. I said to myself, ‘Jacotte, that girl called me by my name. She speaks my language.’” From that point on, barely two words of English were exchanged between us. At one point Jacotte told me, “It feels so good to speak my language. I don’t get to do that much.” So Jacotte and I had a constant exchange of hospitality: she took care of me physically, and I let her relax into linguistic comfort for a few minutes each day. Following my surgery, Jacotte was the one who took me walking to keep my muscles in motion. She introduced me to everyone, saying, “This is my friend. This is mon amie.” And when my mom went to the desk to ask for Jacotte’s help, she said, “Yes, yes. Anything for mon amie.” I didn’t say anything special to this woman. I didn’t do anything extraordinary for her. But because she was able to communicate in her natural way, because I was willing to be at a linguistic disadvantage, Jacotte showed me every kindness she could.

I believe in studying math and science. I believe in studying organic chemistry and calculus and medicine and physics. But if we let go of language study—as many universities are now wont to do—vital lines of communication will be broken. International trust will be harder to win. Cultures will have trouble understanding one another. Why not study math and science alongside the way to communicate them? This way, we will continue to discover our friends, our amis.

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“It’s Not Just Me.”

I spent last week on vacation in gorgeous Florida. In the hospital. The first thirty-six hours in Orlando were perfect, but after dinner on Tuesday night, I experienced the worst pain I have ever felt. For about an hour, every breath came out a moan. The pain built so fast and intensely that my parents took me to the ER; unfortunately, by the time I got there, I was hyperventilating and couldn’t talk due to an incapacity to breathe. When the attack finally subsided, I described symptoms to the parade of medical professionals that filed into my room, trying to solve the problem. Terminology like “acute pancreatitis” and “inflamed gallbladder” bounced around as I sat on the bed unsettled. One doctor was afraid my pancreas would quit working, while another said it was just gallstones. Since my background is as far away from medicine as one can get, I had no idea what to expect.

Sometime past midnight, Iris, a soft-spoken but matter-of-fact woman in her late fifties, knocked on my door and introduced herself as my ultrasound technician. One of the doctors had ordered a sonogram to determine whether surgery was necessary. She wheeled me to the dark ultrasound room and asked me to lie on the bed next to the computer while she began the questionnaire.

“Do you smoke?”

“No.”

“Drink?”

“A little wine three or four times a year.”

“Any surgeries?”

“One minor one, yes.”

“Site and purpose?”

“Vaginal: I had a scar tissue blockage.”

At this, her pen froze midair, and she slowly turned her head to look at me. “I’m sorry?” she asked incredulously. I repeated myself, and, having been told by a number of people how odd the procedure was, I added, “I know it’s weird. Anyone remotely related to medicine has told me how strange my case is.” I shrugged. The routine is old hat to me by now.

“No, no…” she trailed off and cleared her throat. Looking straight ahead, she said, “I have that.”

I couldn’t believe it. “Really?” I asked, with what could only be interpreted as excitement. I propped myself up on my elbows so I could make eye contact as I continued. “You’re kidding! I have never met anyone else who had it! Or, well, if I did, they didn’t tell me.”

Iris nodded. “Yeah…I had three children—naturally. And I enjoyed lots of great sex all the way up through my forties. Never any trouble there.” She chuckled a little and watched a memory briefly play out in the distance. “But…it’s been ten years…I just woke up one morning with the blockage. My doctor said there’s nothing he can do. Said if he removes it, I’ll be incontinent.” She shook her head. “I haven’t had sex in ten years, Amie. No intimacy at all…and a woman needs…” she trailed off. The tears welled, but she brushed them away before they fell.

“I know how hard it is. I truly know how you feel,” I assured her. Some time passed before she responded, but she held my gaze. “Yes, you do,” she said, still looking at me. A half-smile pulled at her lips, and she said, “It’s nice to know for once that it’s not just me.” I smiled. “I know what you mean, Iris.”

After she’d asked me some specific questions about my surgery and recovery, she went about her sonogram-performing business. As it turns out, I was housing somewhere between one and two hundred of the tiny devil-stones in my gallbladder. Luckily, this explained the pancreatitis, too. Although I’d have to go under the knife, Iris assured me it was a routine procedure. Before wheeling me back to my temporary room in the emergency wing, she rested her hand on my shoulder and said, “You have given me such hope. Thank you.”

~

Anyone who’s known me at least twenty minutes knows how much I love, love, love Anne Lamott. In her book Grace (Eventually)*, she recalls assisting in a ballet class for women with Down’s syndrome. After Anne’s visit, the teacher asked the class, “What did you think of my friend?” One of the women said, “I liked that lady! She was a helper, and she danced.” Anne says in her book, “These are the words I want on my gravestone: that I was a helper, and that I danced.” I think my few minutes with Iris were my ballet-class moment. If I am remembered for giving hope to at least one woman who has hurt silently the way I have, I will consider my life a success.

*Lamott, Anne. Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007.

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Erotic Bible Sex

I have this thing about names. My laptop is named, my car is named, I call my philodendron “Phil” and my lily “Lily.” Ever since I was a child, I have perused naming books with wild abandon, learning the meanings of as many names and onomastic morphemes as possible. As such, I have noticed over the years that a person’s name almost always reveals their character. My mom’s name, for example, means “pure.” The better I get to know her as a friend, not just my mother, the more I am convinced a purer heart can’t be found. My dad’s name is another example: it means “wagon maker”—a hard worker. Of all his wonderful traits, his work ethic and willingness to do whatever is necessary to provide are unparalleled. And in all the classes I have taught in the last nine years, rarely have I come across a person whose name is a mismatch for his or her character. (And who’s to say it won’t be a perfect match later in life?) Because I am somewhat of a mystic and a hippie, I don’t believe it’s a coincidence.

My own name has two very similar meanings. The way I spell it is the female form of the French word for “friend.” I don’t want to get off-track here, so suffice it to say that friendship is something I have always taken very seriously. My introverted tendencies make me very cautious about trusting and loving, but once I do, I am sold-out loyal forever. The second meaning for Amie/Amy—the one you’ll find in the name books—is “the beloved.” Imagine my surprise, then, as a name fiend, when I discovered that in Song of Songs the woman who exults in erotic love shares my name: “Beloved.”

I read Song of Songs a few weeks before I met my husband. Always before, I’d blown past it, thinking, “How awkward.” But curled up on my couch one evening, I was flipping through the Bible when I decided to try it out. Of course, at that point I had no idea the sexual difficulties I’d be battling in less than a year; I had no reason to believe sex would be anything other than outrageously wonderful. Still, it struck me that the woman’s name was “Beloved.” As someone who takes names so seriously, I felt a little as though I were reading something meant especially for me, something I needed to read. Kiss me and kiss me again, Beloved says. How fragrant is your cologne; your name is like its spreading fragrance. No wonder all the women love you! Take me with you; come, let’s run! (Song of Songs 1:2-4a, NLT). (I find it humorous that the first two things Beloved praises about her man are how good he smells and the lovely feel of his name on her lips…That is so me. Cologne/aftershave have always been my favorite aphrodisiacs, and we all know how I love names.)

While I understood conceptually the idea of passionate love, I had never had a sex drive in my life. Even in the heat of making out, I’d never had any problem at all stopping with just that. Regardless of how intense the kissing, I wasn’t aroused or weak in the knees; it was just fun. Never had I craved sexual union, even though I cared deeply about some of the guys I dated. Never had I wanted to say, in Beloved’s words, “Take me with you.” The idea of “come, let’s run” was completely lost on me. For years, I asked God why he “knit me together” without this essential component. It was as though he’d said, “Let’s give her a measure of intelligence…put her in a good family…make sure she has a few talents…Okay, what’s left? Sexuality? Eh, she doesn’t need that.”

Not surprisingly, I didn’t transform into a nymphomaniac after my husband and I exchanged rings. It got much worse, given my multilayered struggle with sexuality. I prayed over and over that God would heal me physically, guide me to a healthier body image, challenge my opinion of sex, and give me a sex drive. Anytime I needed reassurance that eventually these things would happen for me, I read Beloved’s words, taking them as a promise of what was in store. I chose to believe that one day I would be able to say things like that, too. Listen to how lovely this is, for example:

I am my lover’s, and he claims he as his own. Come, my love, let us go out to the fields and spend the night among the wildflowers…There I will give you my love…new delights as well as old, which I have saved for you, my lover (Song of Songs 7:10, 12, 13, NLT).

So I have gone about this journey, reminding myself of my name: I am “the beloved.” God made me with the opportunity to enjoy sexual union. The simple fact is that my destiny, inherent in my name, is to be the delight of my lover’s. My destiny is to echo Beloved’s words: When my lover looks at me, he is delighted with what he sees (Song of Songs 8:10b, NLT). My destiny is to “give my love,” the “delights” I possess, to my lover. Because I am Amie. I am Beloved.

To be continued. Don’t give up on me yet.

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