'"Betterness", A Project: Sexual Pain and Recovery Narratives' by Madison Griffiths

I tell my dog’s recovery tale often.

It is one of victory and dejection, of horror and abandonment. People blanket their mouths with their palms when they hear about Fil’s past. Once I am done, they look toward him, at him: a joyous rescue hound who canters freely and decorously through local parklands. A four-legged vision of redemption.

I tell mine, too. Of a dewy-eyed teenager who writhed in pain for years during sex before undergoing treatment. Who engaged in invasive physiotherapy with the help of a babushka-like family of dilators and a generous therapist. Who underwent outlandish sexual healing with an eccentric counselor. I am better now. Better, as in unencumbered by pain. As in cured.

If ‘betterness’ was a place—a home with walls—its doors would be cluttered with locks on the inside. This is because there is no going back from better, no escaping. Once you are healthier, less ill, victorious, the story ends. Jessie Phillips states my writing always wanted to account for the cause and to bundle the recovery process up neatly … the only way I wanted to be seen … was as victor, triumphant. Resolved. Okay. Better.

I have been better. Better as in unfurled, as in fuckable, as in sprinting and salivating and free. The first time I felt better was some years ago, when an oily-haired literature major queried my insides with his fingers before wiping dried bud from the surface of his pillow. I didn’t flail about in pain. For three weeks after that, we exchanged songs from our favourite film scores, pretended to study, and pilfered tobacco from each other’s pouches until we didn’t anymore. I’d go to class that semester dizzy, wooed, hopeful. For whatever reason, sex with him didn’t feel like fishhooks, and with every ungainly touch, I felt closer to better. Able to tinker and meddle with betterness in ways I hadn’t known before.

It feels tedious—boring, almost—to bring up ‘betterness’ in the context of gender, of womanhood, but I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that women know betterness better than others. Betterness, as in the idea that the self is an improvable thing, a wheezing product with legs and lips.

I was on the pursuit of betterness long before I discovered I had a chronic sexual pain disorder. My body ached when I starved it, swelled when I waxed it, reddened when I plucked it, glowed cherry under a hot sun when I baked it, bled when I sliced it. At fourteen, I lined my basin with a family of cheap face creams in plastic tubs, the same ones I had eagerly purchased with my $8.00-an-hour wage. There was a cream for wrinkles, for discolouration, for evenness, for softness, a wipe to start over, to replenish, and a friend to my left, who excitedly smeared lotion all over her budding cheeks before rubbing cocoa butter onto her arms. Razored, raw. We daubed our small bodies with betterness, stood still as if dressed in a new kind of amniotic fluid, and waited.

So often our bodies betray us, just look at our feet, how they point to what we desire, Paige Lewis writes, and I am reminded of the time I was first doubted by a medical professional: a young orthopaedic doctor, handsome and tired, who asked me to walk straight down a line he had made out of tape, which travelled from one side of his carpeted clinic to the other. I did. I walked forward, my tiny feet splayed outwards. They unapologetically pointed to either side of his office and it was then that he asked me if I were putting it on, if I had come to perform a kind of duck-inspired sashay to impress him and my mother. The discomfort I had felt lodged in my knees was fake, he insisted.

I mention this only because I feel I should, because no woman’s tale of recovery is ever simple. There are no catalogues of neglected, brandished women on dedicated rescue sites, pinned with warnings like, 'not-great-around-children' or 'shies-from-men'. Medical professionals roar and holler from the sidelines, insisting that what she has come to know as pain, ache and distress, what she has come to hate and how she has come to hurt is not that. Is not pain, is not here, is not real. Joe Fassler writes intensely about witnessing this: the obvious disregard reserved for women when they writhe about in pain, the elephant in the room, a large, foul-smelling disbelief. As her ovary died in a crowded Brooklyn emergency department, calling out in the starkest language the body has, Rachel—Joe’s wife—was hushed and ignored.

Gliding over sand-filled holes, cigarette butts and the occasional Jack Russell, Fil leaps about ecstatically at the park, boasting—by way of long limbs and pinned ears—his speed, his aptitude. It’s especially fun to watch for those who know his history. How he pissed himself anxiously (and almost endlessly) the first day we met, how he was unable to tip-toe through narrow halls and how, the first time he collided with a playful German Shepherd in a quiet field, he sat timorously on the grass and cried and shivered and cried some more until I came running, assuring him that everything is fine. That he is alive and well, that he is better now. When he gallops freely, his tongue a stride and a half behind, he performs his betterness the only way he knows how.

For those of us who live with a chronic ailment or illness, ‘betterness’ isn’t a straightforward recital. When it arrives, it always intends to leave. This I know now.

Once, in the peak of my betterness, I made eyes with a man who sipped ale quickly and keenly on a rooftop bar. He was neither here nor there, with a kind of sweet face I’d forget in an instant if surrounded by a rabble of other sweet faces, but he was the perfect canvas: somebody to decorate with my recovery, somebody to perform sensual tales of healing and revival on. In much the same way that Fil tears grass out from underneath him as he runs freely, I was intent on doing so myself, on lapping his body with a sort of rallying pleasure. Good, not just because. But good because I was owed that goodness now. And yet later, in the warmth of his bedroom, my betterness upped and left and I lay there, wanting to wail loudly, angrily. Not only because sex was a spasming badness once again. But because no tale of recovery ever accounted for this, for how non-linear betterness is, for how it taunts us.

When I first wrote publicly about ‘overcoming’ vaginismus, women from around the world reached out earnestly, projecting ideas of betterness onto me. I was a two-legged, convalescent woman who had done the hard yards and was now reaping the rewards. At first, I found it liberating. Every ‘thank you’ I received I kept stored in some kind of betterness archive, only to taunt myself with it later. I’d wrap each angry tampon that refused to enter my body in said ‘thank you’s’, hoping that—in some kind of cocooning fashion—they’d come out eventually, ready to glide in, ready to settle into my tolerant body. It didn’t add up, though. I had assumed that—a little like a tertiary degree—despite how many times tests are flunked, if ‘betterness’ is acquired, it is the only thing that remains. It is the thickset piece of costly paper you are gifted at the end. There is no leaving, no room for concession, no scape for contradictions, compromises, slippages and disgust, as Phillips writes. We graduate from hurt with an inflexible mark. There is no room in the vocabulary of betterness to feel positive, or at least content, about what it means to take two steps backwards. We are bound by a kind of progress that does not forgive us when we stagger. I no longer attempt to use tampons. Blood is more forgiving than betterness, it seems.

Sometimes in the night as Fil sleeps, he whimpers. His legs jerk about and it appears he is running, but from what I am not sure. I wonder what it is I find myself running from in the dead of night. If there are moments of renewal, of recovery, I just don’t see.

Madison Griffiths is a writer, artist and poet whose work has been published in The Guardian, VICE, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Overland and more. She is also an online editor at literary youth journal, Voiceworks and producer of the Tender podcast, an audio-documentary that explores what happens when women leave abusive relationships. Her work revolves predominantly around issues concerning women, digital medias and resistance.