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The vagina-brain connection, and what gets lost when you cut the cervix

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In Vagina Naomi Wolf writes about a fundamental vagina-brain connection, that became severed for her when an old injury temporarily cut off the neural pathways between her vagina and brain.

Wolf started to notice that her orgasms began losing their intensity; that although she still felt physical pleasure, it wasn’t as strong. She had a short moment of pleasure without the long afterglow she was used to. She also noticed changes in her wellbeing, and relationship to the sensual world. Colours seemed less bright, and her creativity was effected too.

The book was ridiculed in the press. It was criticised as being too heterosexual, and too unscientific. Laurie Penny, writing in the New Statesman dismissed this vagina-brain connection as being no more mystical than the brain-elbow connection or the brain-toe connection.

It was interesting to me to read these reviews, because in their rush to criticise the books they seemed to not even be interested in what was really fascinating about Wolf was saying. Wolf described her subjective experience of what she lost when she was injured, and how it was mended instantly again after surgery. She was describing how sex can be a profound, transcendent experience.

She may not have the science accurately down on paper. She could of written the book in a more inclusive way. But she had the subjective experience of a vagina-brain connection, being severed and then fixed. Why were reviewers so quick to dismiss this?

The thing is when I read Wolf’s book I knew that everything she said was right, because I have been there. I’ve had the neural pathways between my vagina and brain severed and I can tell you it is exactly as Wolf describes it.

After my LEEP procedure I assumed that there was some emotional reason why I struggled with my creativity, gave up writing novels, and struggled to read them too. I also lost my passion for listening to music. I still listened to it from time time but I just didn’t feel that bothered.

I tried to write novels, but I had to give up because every time I started my brain felt like it was going to explode. I started a memoir that I never finished which I called ‘A Stone in my head’ because that’s what it felt like, as if I had this heavy stone in my head that was getting in the way of my thinking.

It was eerie when I heard Asha, my partner in the Intact Cervix campaign, describe what she felt as a dark shadow in our head. As I spoke to her I realised that what we are describing are metaphors for brain-injury .

The fact is that the relationship between the vagina and the brain isn’t fully understood yet. Those neural pathways and connections, haven’t been fully mapped and researched. It’s easy to be ‘pro-science,’ to dismiss this kind of talk as mystical, but this is a black hole where there is no science.

Instead of dismissing a woman’s subjective experience, we need to listen to her. A woman experiences a fundamental vagina-brain connection? Okay, lets research it to fully understand the scientific basis for this subjective perception. Then we can make sure medical procedures don’t damage it.

A woman’s right to an Intact Cervix is not just about our sex lives, it’s about our entire lives, our entire vibrancy, and existence in the sensual world.

I’m lucky that through these twelve years, I have chipped away at the stone in my head. I’ve got back my relationship to creativity, and music. Yoga, meditation, and actively fighting for my creativity every day, have helped me heal, and regrow those pathways. Day by day, I return a little more embodied into the sensual world.

But I still gravitate towards non-fiction books rather than escaping into an imaginary world. I rarely watch a film And I still dream that one day I’ll be able to write a novel without feeling like my head is about to explode.

Naomi Wolf describes how thousands of years ago, the Vagina was revered as sacred. It was worshipped in temples. In literature in the past, women write about orgasms as being an intense, spiritual experience. In our modern capitalist world, we’ve stripped sex of spirituality and made it all about the clitoris. This is a lie, and a social construct, and it’s time we returned to what sex, and life itself, is really about.

Vagina is essential reading for anyone who wants to connect deeply, with our vibrant, empowered sexual selves.

 

 

 

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Healing The Cervix: Is It Possible?

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The LEEP procedure risks damaging the nerves in the cervix that contribute to orgasm function. Some women seem to be completely fine afterwards. But there is a significant proportion of women, whose orgasms become much less intense afterwards, and in some cases practically non-existent. And we are not just talking about women losing their ability to have an internal vaginal orgasm. The clitoris can also go numb too.

Anatomy of a women’s sexual organs is still in it’s infancy, so we don’t have a full understanding yet of how the LEEP damages the nerves or causes numbness. Many doctors performing it don’t even realise that the cervix has nerves! So the potential for healing from LEEP is even less certain.

All I can talk about is my own experience. I cannot say for sure that what I have done will help other women, because each woman who sustains damage from the LEEP is an individual, and science just doesn’t understand enough about this yet.

In my own experience I have recovered my orgasm function. I also have learnt how to have a deeper relationship with my sexuality than before my LEEP, and I have actually had better, longer, and more intense orgasms since having the LEEP. I am not completely healed, as I still have lots of pain/tension/discomfort in my cervix, but being some way on the journey to mending my sexuality, gives me hope.

How did I do it? What I had to learn was to completely slow down. Regular sex is a race to orgasm. Often we desperately want to get there, and our body contracts with more and more tension, until we finally get to that moment of tension release. For someone whose pelvic region is completely tensed up, physically traumatised, and suffering from nerve damage, the body just can’t take any more tension.

The practise of tantra based on cultivating relaxation, deep breathing, and slowing down. Instead of the race to orgasm we relax more and more, opening up to pleasure and allowing orgasms to happen, rather than desperately trying to reach our destination.

The way we have sex in our culture, lots of fast, thrusting movements, as we try to get nearer and nearer orgasm, can hurt and bruise the cervix, even in healthy women who haven’t had the LEEP. For some women who have had the LEEP and have experienced nerve damage, this kind of sex can actually leave them in pain, and discomfort for days, or even weeks afterwards.

What happens when we slow down, is instead of building more tension, we release tension, so that we are actually healing the body, to get rid of knots, and tightness. Sex or self-pleasure using tantric principles can actually be like a form of internal massage, healing the body from emotional and physical trauma. The pelvic area is vulnerable to holding tension, whether or not we have experienced sexual trauma so this is of benefit to everyone!

In Teach Us To Sit Still author Tim Parks talks about his experience with chronic prostatitis, a pelvic condition in men that often has no organic course. He learnt about how our genitals tend to go into armouring mode, as if they are sensing danger and retract as a form of protection. It’s a survival mechanism designed to protect us, but the long term tension it can cause can be extremely painful.

What I noticed is that after I had my LEEP my entire pelvic region was tensed and in pain. When we have LEEP we may be told by the doctor that what’s happening is safe, and minor. We are given an anaesthetic so that we don’t feel physical pain. But under that numbness our body does experience pain that we are not consciously aware of. Our body tenses up, after a huge physical trauma of losing a piece of what is one of the most important parts of the body.

The practise of relaxing the pelvic area, which I have done through, yoga meditation, and some tantric exercises has helped to release this armouring. So I no longer experience pain or tension everywhere, but more localised in my vagina and cervix. As I become more aware of the source of the tension, I can use my mind to consciously try to relax as much as possible. And when the muscles aren’t contracting as much, it’s possible to feel pleasure.

I tried all these approaches in the first 6 years after my LEEP. I wasn’t completely successful and I realise that one of the problems is that I was missing information about what had happened to me. During this time, I didn’t know there were other women who had this problem, and so I assumed it was a freak reaction of my own body, almost like it was my own fault. I assumed that it was entirely something I could heal and wasn’t aware of the fact that actually the LEEP causes physical damage to the nerves, and removes a much larger piece than I realised.

Discovering this was devastating, but in some ways vital to my healing process, because I suddenly realised that my cervix has spent these last 12 years being in a state of constant fight, flight or flee, wondering what on earth had happened to it. Now I’m not only focusing on relaxing and healing, but also on expressing those feelings, that my body felt, that I’d been ignoring. Huge anger at a medical system that can do this. And huge grief that something was taken away from me without informed consent. It’s been essential to be able release these feelings with a supportive listener.

One of the things that has helped me most in recent weeks is an amazing online course called Self-Cervix. Self-Cervix is 21 day journey of discovery for women who want to get in touch with their cervixes and release numbness. The founder, sexologist Olivia Bryant explains that many women have numbness in their cervixes that can get in the way of sexual pleasure, which can come from uncomfortable sexual experiences, pap smears and also the LEEP.

. In one of the course videos Olivia interviews Dr. Barry Komisaruk, one of the doctors who is involved with the research with Dr. Irwin Goldstein on the effect of the LEEP on women’s orgasm function.  Dr. Komisaruk, talks about some research on rats when the pelvic nerve in the cervix was cut. The pelvic nerve is one of a pair, and what was found, is that when the rats were vaginally stimulated each day, their other nerve grew extra nerve endings! This points to the possibility of our bodies amazing healing capacity, not to just to release the trauma from  the LEEP, but even work around the physical damage that is sustained.

I am not sure if it’s possible to completely recover and to be the same as before, or whether this will work for every woman. The damage that LEEP does to our physical, emotional and spiritual health is a complex tangle of trauma that very few people fully understand. But the Self-Cervix course gives me hope.

I like it because it’s something you can do to heal yourself. For someone who’s been through the LEEP, a lot of the time it can be threatening to have sex with someone else, and spending time healing your own body can give you a safe space to to let go without an agenda. As we get to know our bodies again, and heal the trauma, it may become possible to slowly think about involving a partner in sex again.

One book that helped me a lot was Slow Love: A Polynesian Pillow Book, by James N. Powell. Powell spent time on a Polynesian island learning about the Polynesian art of lovemaking and how it involves slowing down to experience deeper pleasure. I like this book because you don’t need to be a tantric guru to follow the ideas! He introduces some very simple principles that can result in more pleasure for you and your partner.

I hope these suggestions offer you a bit of hope and the possibility of healing. For more support you can join my online facebook support group Healing From LEEP. And if you liked what you’ve read, then please like and support my Intact Cervix campaign for celebrating our wonderful cervixes, and giving women informed choice about cervical procedures.

What Doctors don’t tell you about LEEP (LLETZ)

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12 years ago I underwent a procedure called LEEP (Or LLETZ) for removing abnormal pre-cancerous cells from my cervix. These are the kind of cells that could turn into cancer years later.

Everything that I’d heard about the procedure led me to believe it would be completely minor. I’d bleed for a while and wouldn’t be able to have sex for four weeks, but after that I’d be back to normal, using tampons, swimming etc. I was nervous, and also confused about why at the age of 25 my cells were already abnormal, but the doctor had reassured me this was a minor procedure that would be performed in under 20 minutes with a local anaesthetic.

A week or so after the LEEP I started bleeding non-stop and went to the hospital and was given antibiotics for an infection. When six weeks after that it still felt sore, and my stomach muscles felt barely able to hold my body in a sitting position, I assumed that this was because I was just taking extra long to heal from the infection.

Except it never did really heal. The first time I tried having sex it was painful. There was also something wrong with my ability to orgasm, it felt really weak compared to what it had been like before. My sex drive had also completely disappeared. I just had no desire to have sex, but as I was in a new relationship where previously the sex had been really good, I persevered, hoping it would get back to normal.

I returned to the doctor and was told that perhaps it was a bit of scarring. She told me she’d examine me on my next visit. Perhaps this was a mistake but I went home and started googling ‘scarring after LEEP’. I found a webpage, that told me it could be burnt off, using the same procedure I’d just underwent.

At this point my gut instincts kicked in. There was just no way I was undergoing the same procedure that had caused the problem to solve the problem. Perhaps the doctor would have suggested some completely different treatment, but fear, trauma, and mistrust made me decide the safest thing to do was not go back.

In the past I’d had success curing health issues with alternative methods. In my early twenties I’d had chronic fatigue syndrome, and recovered completely when I began practising yoga everyday. A few years later while studying for exams I had a backache where I couldn’t sit down for more than 15 minutes at a time. When a chiropractor and osteopath only fixed the problem temporarily, I took the advice of a friend and started meditating while lying on my back, focusing on the tension I felt and trying to relax it. I did this and within a few months of long meditation sessions, I could sit down long enough to watch a film at the cinema, and even go on a 7 hour train journey.

At the time I couldn’t allow myself to grieve for my lost sexuality. Instead I operated with a kind of blind faith that I could heal myself. I started meditating for hours each day, practising yoga, and belly dancing, to help release the tension I felt in my hips since the LEEP.

Before all this had happened I’d once had an intense sexual experience in which I had an orgasm that seemed otherworldly. The sense of pleasure I felt didn’t seem to come from my own body, but was like something that whooshed through the air, and was planted inside of me.  I joked about it being an ‘orgasm from god’ (although I’m not religious but spiritual), because it felt exactly like that!

But this sexual experience, had planted a seed inside of me, and before the LEEP I had been reading books about Taoist and Tantric sexuality and become interested in the idea of a relationship between sexuality and spirituality. This gave me the hope that even though my body felt sore and damaged there was a way of healing by tapping into this sexual energy which the books told me was universal spiritual energy.

Over time I did heal myself to a great extent. With the help of some massage techniques I learnt at a tantric workshop, I was able to to relax my body enough to enjoy sex again, and have better orgasms. I found that getting in the mood took a lot of effort, but once I got there it was enjoyable. My sex drive didn’t return to what it was, but I did at least come to a deeper understanding of sexuality, which felt like a gift out of all of the pain.

A few years later I was pregnant and something amazing happened. During the whole 9 months of my pregnancy my sex drive was completely restored. I have no idea why, and after the birth I did return to having a low sex drive again, but this experience gave me faith that there was nothing seriously wrong with my body, and that it could in time be healed.

Being a mother took over for pretty much the next five years of my life. Sex was much better than before the pregnancy, but I still didn’t have much of a sex drive. I found myself ignoring the problem, telling myself it was normal to be tired and not in the mood for sex, because I was a tired parent now, but deep down, I knew that my issue went much deeper.

From time to time through these years, I’d always wondered if this had ever happened to another woman. I’d googled from time to time, and since I never read of anyone else experiencing this I assumed it was just a ‘freak’ reaction of my own body. But one day I discovered a story that read so much like mine I was in complete shock.

What was most shocking and quite amazing to me, was that the woman described changes in her creativity, and in her very sense of perception of the sensory world around her. These were all symptoms I had experienced, but it was almost like there was no way I could grasp how a ‘minor’ treatment on my cervix could have caused all of these.

I read the comments in the article and discovered other women had been dealing with painful sex for years. I began to hone my google search and discovered more and more women who were dealing with the long term side effects of LEEP.

After reading about all of these women my perception completely shifted. Before I’d kept pretty quiet about my experience. It was like I couldn’t find the voice to tell my story because I thought I was the only one. And I couldn’t see the point in telling my story since I didn’t want to put women off having smear tests.

Now as I research more I have heard anecdotally from some women that another procedure called LASER seems to come with less side-effects. If you are going through this at the moment you might want to ask your doctor about it.

I am also finding there are good, scientifically- based reasons why some women may wish to avoid having smear tests completely. Dr. Margaret McCartney explains that despite some of the devastating stories we hear, cervical cancer is a rare disease. Because of the emotional anxiety testing causes, and the side effects of intervention, the risks do often outweigh the benefits. In her book The Patient Paradox: Why Sexed Up Medicine is Bad for Your Health she explains why each woman must make an informed choice and weigh up the risks for themselves before deciding to go for regular testing.

There are the risks of LEEP that were never mentioned to my young, naive, 25 year old self. The risk of cervical stenosis, of having a miscarriage, or a baby born prematurely. And there is this risk that seem completely unspoken; the destruction of a woman’s sexual self.

Asha, the author of the Unspoken Dangers Of LEEP article I linked to above was told by her doctor that she didn’t need to worry since there are no nerve endings in the cervix. However my tantric research led me to discover that women actually have three different kind of orgasms, clitoral, g-spot and cervical.

Feminist Naomi Wolf went through a similar experience to me and Asha, (though for different reasons) which she documents in her book Vagina.  She visited a doctor who explained to her that each woman has a slight different arrangement of nerve endings in her cervix, g-spot, and clitoris. This solves the age-old argument of whether the g-spot exists or not. Sexual sensation is slightly different for every woman and not all about the clitoris.

When Wolf temporarily lost her sexual sensation, She also notices she loses her creativity, a sense of transcendence and the brightness and colour that she normally perceived in the world. From this experience she learns that in a sense our cervix, vagina and clitoris are actually an extension of our brain.

It was learning this that made me understand many strange aspects of my life since the LEEP. I have had difficulty remembering dreams and also with my creative thinking. I have also struggled with feeling like I am really connected to things. For years I struggled with having the physical strength to do everyday tasks and to really ‘be’ in the world. These are all things that seem quite intangible and difficult to articulate, but when you have been in touch with your sexuality and creativity, losing it is like losing your self.

As I read Wolf’s words and heard from other women, I have completely reframed my experience. It’s not a weird side effect that my body had, it’s a perfectly understandably reaction to having my body cut into. I am shocked that this is considered an acceptable way to treat women’s bodies.

I am also beginning to realise that what happened to me was an act of violence. Immediately after the treatment, I remembered experiencing a pretty constant state of extreme fear, but I felt that there was nothing I could pin my fears onto. My job was stress-free, and life had been good. I have also had screaming episodes in my sleep for years that started around the time of the LEEP. I never remembered what was happening in the dreams, but this symptom also mysteriously disappeared while I was pregnant and for the first two years of my daughter’s life. Ever since I discovered that other women were effected like me I have found myself shaking as I read and research cervical smear tests, and the LEEP. Having read the work of trauma expert Peter Levine, I know that this shaking is a natural way in which the body releases stress after trauma.

It’s as if finally after all these years my mind has caught up with what my body always knew – that this ‘medical procedure’ was an act of sexual violence. It is based on an archaic understanding of how women’s body’s work and a gross disrespect of the relationship between body, mind, creativity and sexuality. I do not understand why doctors are doing this to women’s bodies. Is it because they do not understand what happens to us? If it took me 12 years to speak up I assume there are other women like me, who are silenced and traumatised by an act of violence that they cannot name.

To my 25 year old self, orgasms were pretty high up on my priority list. If a doctor had told me that there was a risk to my sex drive from the procedure I know I’d have walked out. I don’t have smear tests these days and I’m not worried about abnormal cervical cells (in most cases they don’t turn into cancer). Real symptoms are something to address and take seriously, but I never had cancer. I didn’t have symptoms. This preventative treatment, at least for me, is far more damaging than it’s benefits. Having a life with depression caused by sexual dysfunction, or an increased rate of heart disease due to lack of orgasms are health threats too. I’m doing well at rebuilding my sex life, and I don’t want to risk that. I’m in complete agreement with Dr McCartney, the risks of treatment for abnormal cells far outweigh the benefits.

Have you side effects from LEEP or from other routine medical procedures? Were you informed of the risks?