A few months ago, I’d had plans. I’d bought a slew of new sex toys, and I was going to use them, blog about them, take pretty photos of them for my dead little Instagram. It was going to be exciting.
Then, as often happens when I get an idea and start making plans, my body said, Bitch, I don’t think so, and put its proverbial foot down. Often, the foot-putting-down is in the form of my fragile hormone balance going haywire or my even more fragile brain chemistry yeeting my happiness and productivity off a cliff like those two people in Midsommar.
In this case, it was one of my Bartholin’s glands pulling a Violet Beauregarde and swelling into a cyst.
If you don’t have the dubious pleasure of knowing all about Bartholin’s glands, I’ll give you a brief overview. They’re two glands on either side of the vaginal opening that secrete fluid, helping to lubricate the vagina. Occasionally, for reasons we still don’t fully understand, one or both ducts stop draining properly and the fluid accumulates in the gland, forming a cyst .
I’m prone to sebaceous cysts (noncancerous lumps under the skin, usually not painful but aesthetically unbearable) and cystic acne (monster under-the-skin zits that for me often coincided with my period in my pre-Pill days), so I assume that played a part in why my body chose to betray me in this way. But, as I said, doctors don’t know for certain what causes Bartholin’s cysts, so neither do I know what caused mine to suddenly swell to the point of discomfort a few months ago.
See, I’d actually had the cyst for probably almost a year at that point, and before that I’d had one  that went away on its own with home treatment (mostly sitz baths and witch hazel) . This one, however, had not gone away no matter what I did. After endless sitz baths, witch hazel, a popular internet concoction called Phoebe’s Cure, and even globs of drawing salve, it continued to be a peanut-sized lump that bothered me only in the sense that I could feel it with my fingers if I poked at it and I hated it. So I gave up and left it be—until it began to grow.
By the time I went to my gynecologist for help, the cyst was around the size of a gum ball, although during my period it would swell closer to golf-ball-sized. As long as I left my vaginal entrance alone, it still didn’t hurt—something my doctor was amazed by when she saw it.
But when I didn’t leave my vagina alone? Such as when I wanted to insert my menstrual cup or, god forbid, be penetrated sexually? That was another story entirely—the story being extreme discomfort with a touch of pain.
So, to the gynecologist I went, knowing full well—based on what she had told me during my first Bartholin’s cyst—that the next step after home remedies had failed was to cut open the cyst and drain it manually . My doctor went a step further and suggested what was basically a catheter-less catheterization, where she would cut a hole in such a way to encourage the hole never to fully close . I agreed.
It was an in-office procedure. I was given a shot that numbed my vulva, and she got to work. The shot was more painful than I’d expected, and the procedure itself was uncomfortable. Not the cutting part, although I remember being shocked by the amount of blood once everything was all done, but the draining part, which involved my gynecologist squeezing the hell out of my poor swollen Bartholin’s gland with her (gloved) hands.
Afterward, I was sent home with a thick menstrual pad and instructions to do thrice-daily sitz baths, take antibiotics, and come back in a week — when my doctor proceeded to squeeze the hell out of my Bartholin’s gland a second time, this time without the benefits of local anesthesia.
That was two months ago. Now, despite the permanent hole in my vulva, I still have a Bartholin’s cyst. It’s much, much smaller, though, and if I squeeze it myself and apply a bit of witch hazel, I can usually shrink it a little more . I don’t regret the procedure; overall, I accept that I’m better off now.
But sex is not the same.
Long past the point where my doctor and all medical sources online claimed I should’ve been healed, penetration hurt. The first time I used a dildo—around three weeks after surgery—even though I made a point of choosing the smallest, smoothest one I owned, my vagina stung so badly I stopped immediately and spent the next two days waddling around feeling sore.
About two weeks later, I tried again, and although thrusting hurt and I was still sore afterward, the sensation of having something inside me was fine, even pleasurable. I was getting better, just so much more slowly than I expected.
As I often do when my expectations (and my doctor’s guidance) don’t match up with reality, I turned to the internet. I found a lot of WebMD, Mayo Clinic, Healthline, etc. pages about Bartholin’s glands, cysts, and abscesses that provided a succinct overview but no real answers. I found one woman’s published catheterization story, which was similarly short and not very helpful. And I found hundreds of forum posts on pregnancy/mommy boards of women with their first cysts, women freshly post-op, women who were (like me) still experiencing pain months post-op, and women whose cysts kept coming back again and again and again despite multiple surgeries .
And, as often happens whenever I wade through anecdotes of the many medical troubles of people with vaginas, I got angry.
I was reminded of something I read years and years ago on Stoya‘s old Tumblr. She’d written about the time she bonded with a group of women in line at the pharmacy while she was picking up antibiotics after having an ingrown hair on her vulva removed by her doctor . She marveled that so many people have experienced the same thing but none of us know it because we’re conditioned never to talk about our medical weirdness, particularly when that weirdness involves vaginas or vulvas.
Two in ten people with vaginas will develop a Bartholin’s cyst; that’s not an inconsiderable number! Why is it so hard to find anyone talking about this, aside from new and future mothers speaking their troubles into the void?
After two and a half months, I’m still struggling with penetration. I require a lot more lube than I used to, and I have to work myself up to thicker dildos. My really thick dildos continue to be an impossibility, as do too many thrusting motions, and I can only hope it’s not forever. If anything goes into my vagina, regardless of how it feels in the moment, I can expect to be sore for the rest of the day.
I still think it’s getting better, slowly but surely, which is why I haven’t hauled myself back to the doctor or collapsed into a withered pile of perpetual despair. A woman on one of the forums I read confessed that penis-in-vagina sex had stopped being outright excruciating for her at 10 weeks post-procedure, so I am at least ahead of that particular curve.
Despite this, I sometimes worry my vagina will never go back to what it used to be and used to enjoy. This fear is compounded by the fact that I have a permanent hole in my vulva and, no matter how useful it is, it looks weird.
I feel broken, and I can’t help but notice that this feeling coincides with a sudden ramping up of my previously fleeting desire to have a dick . I feel like my body has betrayed me, that it isn’t really mine any longer.
I’m the woman who bought a rabbit vibrator with her father’s credit card at age 15 and loved it so much it sparked a lifelong toy-hoarding habit. Who is this person who can’t comfortably fuck herself with anything larger than Tantus’s Silk Small?
And what happens if this strange new person is who I end up being for the rest of my life?
There are no answers to that question, obviously. Maybe in another few months I’ll have a positive update. Maybe it’ll take two years before I can finally hammer myself stupid with my beloved Licker like I’ve been dying to. Maybe I never will again. I try not to dwell too long on the subject, knowing how pointless it is to fantasize or catastrophize when dealing with medical uncertainties.
If you’re a fellow thick-toy lover and you’re in the mood, would you do me a favor? Pour one out for me in spirit. Get your best and biggest dildo or vibrator and use it to make yourself come. Because if I can’t properly enjoy the pleasure of penetration, I at least want someone to be able to.
1. If the cyst gets infected, it becomes a Bartholin’s abscess. This didn’t happen to me, thankfully, but it’s apparently excruciatingly painful. Judging by how uncomfortable my simple cyst could get, I don’t doubt it. [return]
2. The first time I noticed a hard lump, about the size of a peanut then, to the right of my vagina, I’d managed to convince myself with the help of WebMD that either my vagina or my anus were prolapsing, so I hauled myself to the doctor ASAP. The doctor, unfazed, thankfully allayed my fears and directed me toward the aforementioned home treatments. [return]
3. If you’re reading this because you have a Bartholin’s cyst/abscess and need relief: the witch hazel (soak a cotton ball and wedge it up against the lump, then leave it there for a few hours) was great, but make sure you get the pure witch hazel, not the kind with alcohol in it. Alcohol will burn your vagina like a motherfucker. Tucks medicated pads (marketed as a hemorrhoids treatment) will work in a pinch if you have trouble finding pure witch hazel. The ingredients list does include alcohol, but the dose must be very small (probably because, you know, sensitive area and all) because it doesn’t burn. [return]
4. Subsequent steps if draining fails to solve the problem include catheterization (inserting a catheter so the cyst continues to drain immediately post-op while also leaving a catheter-sized hole so the fluid can still drain long after you’re healed) and marsupialization (where the cyst is opened and a little skin-pocket is formed, again to allow for continuous drainage). If all else fails, the gland can be removed. [return]
5. A common complication with Bartholin’s cysts is this: once you’ve had one, you’re almost certainly going to have another. Thus: the options for surgical solutions center on ensuring the fluid can still drain even when the duct gets re-blocked. [return]
6. I don’t often do this, because it feels pointless. Why bother when it never stays shrunken? [return]
7. God bless pregnancy/mommy boards. They weren’t especially helpful since they’re little more than a string of “This is happening to me too! Did anyone find a solution?” but when you’re half convinced you’re the only person this has ever happened to in the history of mankind, it’s impossibly reassuring to realize others went through/are going through the same thing. If I am a freak of medical nature, at least I’m not the only one! [return]
8. Disclaimer: I might be misremembering, and her Tumblr is defunct, so I can’t verify. But I believe I have the gist correct. [return]