If you’ve never had to live with sexual dysfunction, it can be really hard to understand how completely it can affect a person’s life.
It took me years to finally receive CBT for my depression – 5 years in fact. Chronic pain and depression go hand in hand. Something about having to completely reevaluate your life, your identity and your ability to function tends to do that to a person. The relentless nature of chronic pain leads to depression, and depression feeds into the pain cycle. Depression can both make pain feel worse and also sap your ability to manage pain in a healthy or effective way.
When I finally got the referral, I was cautiously optimistic. I’d already been told by other doctors that there was nothing more they could do for my pain. Painkillers didn’t touch it, off-label medications just gave me ‘interesting’ side effects, even topical aneasthetics hardly helped. The hope was that CBT could help me learn to live with my ‘new reality’.
At the time I was bitter and resentful. I hated the body that I felt had betrayed me, and I was angry at the people who had failed to help me. I wasn’t ready to accept that this was my life now – that I would never be able to have a healthy sex life again. So much of my identity had been built around me being a sexual, adventurous, ‘liberated’ person. I wasn’t sure who I was without that.
None of this set me up well to walk into my appointment and sit down with a pretty young blonde who told me, smiling, that none of it mattered. Over six weekly sessions, she explained that it wasn’t important that I couldn’t have a sex life. I could do other things with my time! Maybe take up a hobby? It didn’t have to affect my relationship with my partner. There were other ways to be intimate, after all.
I tried to explain the tension that my disfunction had caused in my relationship. My partner wasn’t satisfied with other things. Anything we did, any intimate activity at all, led to him pushing for penetrative sex. Which I would eventually give in to. Which hurt, so I’d cry. And he’d get frustrated. And we’d end up having another row because he didn’t want to pressure me, it was just because he loved me, and he wanted me, and he had needs, and I was making him feel rejected…
FYI – this is manipulation.
It got to the point where I couldn’t even tolerate him touching me. He didn’t do foreplay at the best of times, and he was incapable of hugging me without grabbing my arse or my breasts. In the end I felt so harassed that I didn’t let him touch me at all.
He told me that I was being unfair; I was unpredictable, he didn’t know what I wanted, I was confusing. I still wanted affection, you understand. More than ever I needed to feel loved and valued and worthy. But since he couldn’t touch me without making it sexual it was easier to disengage.
The relationship should have ended then, really. But I was in love, so we decided to try a different tack. We invited another woman into the relationship. He and she could have as much sex as they wanted – I could get involved to whatever degree I felt comfortable, and she and I could have that non-invasive intimacy that I was craving. Unsurprisingly, he unloaded all of the emotional labour of managing my illness on to her. It worked for a while, and she and I grew close. I really loved her.
I told my therapist all of this. Explained how it had started off well enough. Talked over how they would lie in bed later and later in the mornings so they could have sex without me. I’d go downstairs to look after her children, who lived with us, make them breakfast and get them dressed and to brush their teeth. Eventually, I’d go upstairs to get changed out of pyjamas and I’d walk in on them fucking. It was hard not to feel deliberately excluded. I got told that I just got up too early, they liked to sleep in, it wasn’t deliberate, it was just easier between the two of them, I was difficult…. etc.
My therapist told me the relationship was toxic. It was probably the only useful thing she told me during the whole six-week course. She wasn’t even the first person to tell me this. Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready yet.
One particular day I confronted him. “I can’t do this anymore, it’s too hard. It’s making me miserable.”
He looked me in the eye, his face hard and cold. “If you ask me to choose, I wont choose you.”
I stayed for another 2 years.