I can still feel the carpet scraping against my bare skin as I crawled away crying, “No. No. No.”
“Kate.” She reached toward me. The dorm floor was musty, burning my nose with that plastic stuff they use to make institutional carpet fire-resistant.
My name sounded weird in my ears, like that game I played as a kid where I tried to guess what my friend was saying while we were both underwater. The sound was distorted so that it wasn’t music; it was a nightmare. “Wake up,” I told myself. “Stop shaking.”
One second I was having sex with my girlfriend and the next second my brain broke. It was New Year’s Eve 1999 and I was twenty years old.
When I stopped panicking, I started trying to figure out how I went from having sex to having a panic attack. I loved my girlfriend. I loved having sex with my girlfriend. When I kissed her for the first time, it felt like movie kisses finally made sense. When we sat in class, six inches between the edges of our thighs felt like miles. We were fireworks in my chest.
When she and I had sex before it was heaven. It ended with me saying “holy shit” and giggling and holding onto her so tight. It made me want her more. But now I was crying and the sunlight was shadows and I couldn’t make sense of any of it. I couldn’t make sense of myself.
Sometimes late at night I would stare at the springs on my roommate’s bunk and revisit that first sex panic. My eyes would track the way her weight pushed the striped mattress into the s-curves of the springs. With the room dark, with my roommates sleeping peacefully, I would try to decipher the shadows in my mind.
One night, my girlfriend sat down on the edge of my bed, perched like she might need to make a quick getaway.
“Did something happen?” She paused, moving her head to one side to get me to look at her face. “Did something happen to you before?”
I shook my head and then buried it in her shoulder. She smelled like Herbal Essences conditioner. “I don’t know.” She didn’t let go when my loud sniffling invaded her ear. “I just don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
The third time it happened we were both watching for it. Me trying to force out the panic creeping into my chest, she looking down and watching my face for any hint that she was losing me. My skin would go cold and tears would burn at the corners of my eyes. I would try to keep them there, try to keep her from seeing what was happening. But she would always know. She could see what was happening even before I told her to stop. She would stop and wrap her arms around me until I stopped crying.
“I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have to deal with this.”
“Neither should you.”
We made rules. If we were drinking we weren’t having sex.
In one of my college psych courses we had to try to use conditioning to get rid of bad habits. My classmates tried to stop biting their nails. I tried to stop panicking during sex.
We talked more. “Is this okay?” became the most common question. It helped but I hated it. I just wanted to be normal. I wanted to be able to want her without having to check in a thousand times because my brain was a ticking bomb. I wanted all the time I spent thinking about sex to be fun. I didn’t want to think about how much I wanted to have sex with her right there on that couch or pressed against that wall while also worrying “Would that be okay? Would I be able to do that without losing my head?” There was always a monster lurking in my fantasies: ready, waiting to pounce. “Don’t be an idiot, you could never do that without falling apart.”
It went on like that for years. We graduated from college and moved into an apartment together. I went to law school and she went to medical school.
In 2006 this girl, the same one I had met on the first day of college, became my wife. Sometimes we could have sex without me having to fight myself. Sometimes it didn’t hurt. Sometimes it did. But it took years of feeling broken and wrong and trying everything we could so I wouldn’t lose it every time we had sex and she wouldn’t have to feel like she was hurting me. It took a long time to figure out how to listen to my body, my heart, and my head all at the same time. But I got better recognizing when the panic was rising too fast for me to stop it and when I could escape it before it got over my head. We followed our rules and I listened to the voice in my head that told me to slow down even when the rest of me was consumed by wanting her. The panic still crept into my life but as time went by it became less devastating when it arrived.
In 2008, we decided to have a baby. And for the first time since puberty, probably, and certainly the first time since I met my wife, I stopped thinking about having sex. From the moment I scrambled away from my now-wife on the horrible carpet on that dorm room floor, I’d been trying to keep everything under control. If I examined my panic enough, if I called it out, if I studied it and talked about it and forced it to obey me, I would stop coming apart. I could learn to control my panic. I could keep it together. I knew I could.
And then my wife got me pregnant. We did it at home, in our bed. I wouldn’t recommend it. She used the speculum from her OB/GYN rotation. It hurt like hell. I don’t remember if I cried or not. Fuck, fuck, fuck it hurt. And then I was pregnant. Rip.
I spent the first trimester feeling like I was carsick but never being able to get the hell out of the car. My emotions were all over the place. I laughed while I was crying and cried while I was laughing. I felt like was losing my mind. Rip.
I felt like there was an alien growing in my belly. She moved and squirmed and kicked and did this weird turning thing like a surfacing whale that I could actually see through my skin. I was growing a human and feeling totally insane and for the first time in my life had no interest in sex. Rip.
I didn’t look like myself. It’s hard to know just how vain you are until you lose control of your body and can’t do a damn thing about the way it looks. I hated the way I felt and the way my body was changing. I hated the stupid, girly shit I had to wear because they don’t make maternity clothes for women like me. It was like someone else was walking around in my shoes, going to my job, talking to my wife. I don’t know who she was but I wanted her gone and my old self back. Rip.
Then I went through labor.
I had been a Division I athlete. I suffered through two-a-days, running stadiums, and lifting before class. I thought I had a clue what hard work felt like. It was nothing compared to giving birth. The pain was awful. The epidural didn’t work. My daughter arrived with a thirteen-inch head. Thirteen inches. She was delivered naturally. Thirteen frickin’ inches through my vagina. Rip.
After they handed her to me all pink and swaddled in a blanket, they had to stitch me back together. They had to sew back together the place where they cut my skin to make room for my daughter to push through. But even cutting my skin wasn’t enough. My daughter still ripped a hole in me on her way out. They had to stitch that together, too. At one point I wondered if the doctor was doing needlepoint or if he just liked to embroider his initials on my skin. Rip.
I pretty much never wanted to have sex again. The thought of anything but a giant ice pack going near my lady bits was enough to make me cringe. It’s hard to feel interested in anything vaguely sexual when you are in the middle of a six-week long period and are only allowed to use those monster size maxi pads that you thought you were done with in middle school. I never thought I would want to have sex again, but just like everything else that came with pregnancy, the cravings, the weight, the postpartum weepiness, that feeling went away, too.
While some things slowly oozed back in the direction of normal, nothing in our lives was the same. We didn’t sleep much. I was feeding a baby from my boobs. My clothes didn’t fit.
Slowly I started to feel like me again. A big part of that change happened when, after more than nine months of not being interested at all, I started thinking about sex again. It was like pulling on a favorite pair of jeans and having them fit perfectly. That feeling of putting on the outfit that makes you feel like you’re hot shit. Sex seemed like a good idea again and just that tiny thought made me feel more like me than I had felt for months.
I was more than a little hesitant to give it a shot. First of all, my boobs were essentially a feeding station and I had taken to mooing because there was always milk everywhere.
Second, I had both an episiotomy and a third degree tear (for the love of all things holy do not Google image search either of those things. Just don’t). When we got down to the serious business of having sex would everything feel the same? Would all that stuff they sewed back together even work the same? I had no idea whether they had put me back together correctly. I didn’t know what to expect, what to hope for, or whether I should just run screaming in the other direction.
Third, while I had already made peace with never knowing what caused that first panic, there was the vague, lurking feeling that if I tried having sex I could end up right back to where I started. I could end up rocking in a corner, sobbing my eyes out. I wasn’t sure I could handle that on top of the exhaustion and the emotional rollercoaster of being a new parent.
I was more awkward having sex that first time after having a baby than I was when we had sex for the first time as teenagers. I felt weird in my post-baby body. It wasn’t like the one I had before I was pregnant and that made me self-conscious. But my wife didn’t care that my body was jiggly. For that time we weren’t parents washing a thousand onesies, changing diapers, and doing our best to make it through a day on zero sleep; we were us. She was the girl with the devastating green eyes that I fell in love with at nineteen and I didn’t want to keep my hands off of her for another second.
When I pushed my daughter’s tiny body (and giant head) into this world, the entire process tore me open. The doctor took a needle and thread and stitched me back together while I cried over my baby. The happiest, most exhausted tears I had ever cried in my life. After ten months of growing an alien who stole my body, my clothes, and my brain, I had produced a beautiful, tiny person.
Did you ever make paper in elementary school? Tearing a fully-formed scribbled-on page into tiny pieces, softening the scraps, and molding them together into a new shape? Something solid made brand new? I think that’s what giving birth to our daughter did to me.
I’m not the same woman who got pregnant with her seven years ago. I’m a little bumpier across the middle and softer at the edges than I used to be, but I don’t cry anymore when we have sex. The panic never finds me. Our daughter ripped me open as easy a sheet of used paper. My wife and I put the pieces of me back together again.