If you have a vagina you know that most of the time
it is without sensation. How does your spleen feel?
How do your kidneys feel? How does your pancreas
feel? Luckily, we have no idea how these things
feel. The vagina is mostly like a pancreas and feels
nothing. If it feels something, it is either
erotically engaged or ill.
All this is
obvious if you have one. But half of us
I have one, and something went wrong
Some days my vagina felt as if
somebody had put a cheese grater in it and scraped.
Some days it felt as if someone had poured ammonia
inside it. Some days it felt as if a little dentist
was drilling a little hole in it. The strangest
thing was that all these sensations occurred in one
inch-long part on the left side. The rest of it was
It's a yeast infection, said my
gynecologist in June.
On one side? I
I guess it's localized, he said. Here,
This was some antifungal cream. It
Hmm, he said, when I returned
after a week. Try this.
This was a three-day
course of medication in a little bullet that I
popped into a plunger and inserted nightly. It
There's a stronger version, he
said. Let's try that.
That was a cream in a
tube. I filled a new plunger with cream and plunged
it in. My vagina didn't like that. It became bright
red and swollen and hurt worse for four
Let's try the pill form, said my
I popped the pill. It made me
queasy for two days, but it didn't hurt my
Now let's do a culture, he said. He
emerged from his lab grinning. Not a trace of
Why does it still hurt? I asked. And
why are there red spots here and here? I pointed to
the two red spots, one under my clitoris and one on
my inner lip. They hurt particularly, I
Irritation, he said. Let's try estrogen
cream. Use it for ten days. It increases the blood
supply and will help it heal.
dribbled out of me all day long, but for about a
week my vagina returned to normal--I didn't feel it.
Then it began to twitch and zing again.
can happen, said my
The estrogen cream
causes a yeast infection.
Oh no! I said. Now
I'm back where I started.
You're not meant to
use it every day, he explained. Twice a week--but I
thought it might clear things up.
It did, for
a while, I told him.
Let's treat the yeast
infection and see where we are.
I went back
to the bullet in the plunger.
I like my
gynecologist. He is a robust gentleman of Italian
origin with a resonant voice and large soft hands.
His waiting room used to be decorated with pictures
of babies he'd delivered. These days it's decorated
with booklets about menopause. Malpractice insurance
for obstetricians is very high, I guess.
met my gynecologist twenty years ago when I had a
cyst in one of the glands in my vagina. That was
when I found out how lousy a vagina could feel. He
removed this cyst in an operation called a
marsupialization--because it makes a little pouch in
the vaginal wall where the duct of the gland opens.
That way, the gland can't get blocked
You know, I said to him after the
bullet in the plunger hadn't worked for the second
time, it hurts in the same spot as the Bump, or
close to it.
One of the good things about
having a doctor for twenty years is that you make a
language together. "The Bump" is what we
call that cyst he removed. Also, after twenty years
I'm used to having conversations with him over the
top of a sheet while he's got his head between my
In a way, I continued, it feels as if
the Bump has returned. It's phantom Bump!
Bump can't return, he said. But I see what you mean.
It's inflamed there. Those red spots are gone,
Now what? I asked.
treat the yeast infection. It'll resolve on its own,
usually. Use the estrogen cream twice a week. It
will help clear the inflammation, and it increases
lubrication. Maybe some of this has to do with less
But there isn't less, I said.
It's just the same. And wasn't my estrogen level
It was, he said. Three months ago it
Sometimes it hurts when I have sex, I
said. That's what worries me. You can get a
psychological problem from that--associating sex and
Use estrogen, he repeated. And don't
avoid sex. You know--he leaned over
confidentially--they have shown that the more you
use the vagina, the better its health.
gynecologist had told me this before. That's another
thing I like about him. He's very much in favor of
sex. So am I, except when it hurts.
home with my estrogen cream and my resolve to have
sex and maintain vaginal health.
vaginal health was declining.
New bad things
started to happen. Sharp lines of zinging pain, like
a toothache, began to radiate from my former Bump
site to the edge of my outer lip, culminating in a
dot of soreness. Two things made this worse: driving
a car and wearing pants. Then in September, the red
spots returned. I went back to the
It's cancer, I told
No it isn't, he said. He scraped a bit
of skin off and went into his lab. It's not cancer,
he repeated when he came out.
Is it herpes?
It doesn't feel like herpes.
How do you know it's not cancer? I
Cancer doesn't come and go, he said.
Cancer just gets worse.
So what is it? I
I don't know, he
Listen, I said, everything's getting
worse. I'm really having trouble with sex. My vagina
hurts all the time now. If I have sex it hurts more,
but it never doesn't hurt.
I know, said my
gynecologist, but I don't know why. He walked over
to the window and looked out. Western medicine
doesn't know everything, he said. He turned back to
me. I think maybe you should go to an alternative
I was astonished. He was
sending me to an herbalist!
There's a very
good one here, he went on. They're not cranks.
They're real doctors--I know some of them. They
specialize in women's health. They aren't going to
wave crystals over you or something. I think you
ought to try them.
He was washing his hands
of me! After twenty years.
But what is it? I
asked him. What's wrong with me?
know, he said. Try the alternative health place. The
mind and the body--he wiggled his hands around. You
have no bacterial infection. You have no fungus. You
have no herpes. You have no cancer. I can't tell you
why this is happening, but maybe they can.
Excerpted from The Camera My Mother Gave Me by
Copyright 2001 by Susanna Kaysen. Excerpted by
permission of Knopf,
a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt
may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.