I was the black sheep in the family; the one always castigated for being too open, asking questions I shouldn’t or talking about things that shouldn’t be talked about. When a cousin of mine’s dog died, I was crushed; having always loved him. I made the mistake of asking how he died after saying how sorry I was and was chastised by this same cousin on each & every subsequent run in. As a Bridesmaid in my Sister’s wedding, I was chatting with another Bridesmaid and said what a terrible experience it had been to have my period on my wedding day and that it was a nightmare to change a tampon in a wedding dress. I was abruptly met with shock, horror and disdain from my Sister, for how wildly inappropriate it was that I said this; despite the only two people I was talking to being women; who also get their periods. I can remember the “tsks” and the eye rolls as far back as my childhood memories take me, up to the very day I finally walked away from all the sanctimony and impossibly hypocritical expectations.
So as we sat here last weekend, my heart filled with pride in my own home. My Husband, three grown children, soon to be Son in Law and I easily laughed, ate and played Wiffle Ball (well, they did). We teased one another, ate too much, had loud, boisterous conversations and ended the night with my Son bringing up his still broken heart to our peanut gallery. As all of the respective personalities came out, each offered their own thoughts, advice and recommendation. As always, my oldest threw in some comic relief and everyone quickly pounced to harass me when I inadvertently put my foot in my mouth and sounded dirty. In that moment, I sat content with the job we’ve done raising our kids and the knowledge instilled that no conversation is off our table. We talk about life in our house. The good, the bad, the ugly and the taboo. Because that really is what life is: messy.
I can’t say, definitively, that’s when I decided to write about one of the most taboo subjects; but it helped. What I can say is that at 45, I’m finally okay with being open and talking about the tough stuff. And at the top of that list is a sex life with chronic illness.
We’ve all “done it” and if you have kids, that’s proof you’ve “done it”. So why is talking about sex so embarrassing? Especially when it comes to trying to have (or maintain) a sex life when you live with chronic pain. How do I know it’s a struggle? Because it’s a struggle for me. And because another chronic illness blogger I know recently (sheepishly) asked me if we could talk about sex, without “you know, talking about it”. So here, I’m going to talk about it.
Living with chronic illness sucks. Living with chronic pain really sucks. Sometimes we have all we can do to shower or cook, never mind have sex with our partners. But sex is a totally normal part of life with a partner. So what to do when it’s always a challenge or the very thought of it gives you anxiety? Here’s a few suggestions:
- Talk about it. Back to me being someone who talks about too much……You have to talk, otherwise your partner cannot possibly understand what’s happening. Constant denials of sex or altogether avoidance can really do a number, mentally, on the healthy partner, if they don’t understand it isn’t just them. Communication is key.
- Be honest. It sort of goes with number 1, but honesty goes beyond just talking. Be open about the struggles you contend with; whether that be pain, illness, anxiety over it causing pain or just the fact that sex is currently the last thing on your mind as you hang your head in the toilet. Let your partner know what you’re struggling with so that you can work on things together.
- Listen to and respect what both partners are feeling. If you’re both involved in having or not having sex, then you’re both harboring feelings towards it. Try to empathize with how the other person is feeling. Yes, it really rots to be sick all the time. But…….it also can rot to be healthy and sacrificing a normal life too.
- Try to figure out patterns, if any exist. Sometimes, where a woman is in her ovulation cycle can affect how painful or pleasurable sex can be. Keep track of it so you know if some days/weeks are better than others.
- Know your body and have the courage to tell your partner what you know. The only way they can know what hurts, is if you tell them. Same thing with what works well.
- Do what makes you feel good or confident about yourself. Maybe that means leaving on a clothing item or not taking off your makeup. Confidence is sexy and ultimately, the more relaxed you are, the better it will go.
- Try adding in some romance. They don’t call it setting the mood for nothing. Try lingerie, candles or music. Whatever puts you in the mood, do it.
- Speak to your Doctor. I got permission from mine to use muscle relaxers to help with the pain. If it’s an anxiety issue, maybe an anxiety med can offer some relief. Either way, ask your Doctor for help or suggestions and be open with them about what’s going on. While it may initially seem uncomfortable, that really is what they’re there for.
- Get inventive. If a position or “endeavor” is uncomfortable, try another way.
- Accept failures. Crying during sex isn’t sexy. Sometimes, it just isn’t going to work and forcing it or faking your way through it doesn’t help. Reassure your partner it isn’t them, but be kind to your unwilling body.
Ultimately, like anything else in life worth having, sometimes sex with chronic illness takes some effort. More effort than it should. Talk about it. Work on it, together. But whatever you do, get messy and talk about it.