I don’t think we talk about sex enough in the chronic illness space. There’s so much I could write about but the conversations I have with folks tend to fall into three main categories:
Not being able to have sex, because of pain, lack of energy, and loss of libido,
Figuring out how to have sex in light of health-related limitations, and
Communicating with sexual partners who do not fully understand limitations.
Really we could write books about this but I’m going to do my best to talk a little about all three today. I’m going to get a little personal with you all so if you don’t want to think about me as a sexual being, you can stop here and turn your attention to puppies instead.
First, there are different schools of thought around whether or not we should be having sex while we’re on a healing journey. I’ve read in multiple places that men, in particular, should refrain from sex while they’re healing. Something about ejaculation being a waste of vital life-force energy needed for healing. I say do what you can and use your best judgment. Even if you can’t do it the way you used to, with yourself or others, it’s worth experimenting. Sex helps you feel alive and it can be an incredible pain reliever. If you have a partner or partners, it can help you feel connected and fight the isolation that can come with chronic health challenges. Of course, if you’re asexual, rock on with your bad self. Sex isn’t the only way to heal and feel alive.
Though there have been times in my healing journey when, even with the best toys, I was too exhausted to masturbate, let alone have sex, I have mostly found sex to be a powerful healing tool. Sex is the only thing that always dissipates my cluster headaches. It can take awhile for me to get me into the mood when I’m in pain, but I feel like a million bucks post-orgasm.
IF YOU CAN'T HAVE SEX THE WAY YOU USED TO
If, because of your health challenges you can’t have sex the way you used to, see what you CAN do. There are more ways to orgasm than there are spoken languages and now we have the internet so you can learn about all those ways. If research isn’t your thing, experiment and play! If you’d like to experiment with toys or get some one-on-one advice, my friend Rachel Dwight runs an online sex shop for people with non-normative bodies and does consultations.
IF YOU CAN'T HAVE SEX
If you really can’t have sex because of pain or loss of libido, take a conscious break. It can be devastating at first and it can bring up a lot of shame, guilt, and awkwardness if you have a sweetie, or sweeties, who want to make sweet love to you. Plus, it just sucks when you can’t have sex as much as you want or the way that you want to because sex helps us feel alive.
But, pain can be healed and so can the causes of libido loss, and taking a break can be an important part of your healing journey. Remember that it doesn’t mean you’ll never do it again. (Of course, because of paralysis and other conditions, you may not be able to have sex at all. I will not address that in this post.)
If your libido is missing in action, here are some things to keep in mind:
- You’re not alone. If you are in a support group for your illness, you will probably find a lot of others in the same boat sex-wise. If you aren’t familiar with pelvic floor dysfunction, vaginismus, or volvodynia, do a quick Google search. Folks with those conditions aren’t having a lot, if any sex, and some have bravely shared their stories on Facebook, blogs, and probably wherever you consume your media.
- People complain a lot about loss of libido as a side effect of psychiatric drugs. Sometimes drugs are needed, I’ve taken them, but educate yourself on the alternatives like herbs, breathwork, and the Walsh Approach.
- Maca powder, ashwagandha, and cannabis are known to boost libido. If you’re not excited about taking another supplement or powder, there is cannabis lube that can be very stimulating.
COMMUNICATING WITH PARTNERS
It’s natural for your partner to be disappointed if your health challenge changes your sex life in a significant way. See if you can have compassion for them and yourself at the same time. If you want your partner to do something differently with you in the bedroom, ask! They can’t read your mind but they’re probably happy to oblige. If you try something new and it’s awkward the first time, it doesn’t mean it’s never going to work. If you try something new and it doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean another thing won’t work. Talk about how you can both create a safe space for creative trial and error with each other.
If you’re not able to effectively communicate your physical reality to your partner, or they aren’t able to understand it, it might be a good time to get some support from a couples counselor or life coach who works with couples. I was shocked to learn recently that talking about sex is just starting to be an integral part of couples counseling. When you’re shopping for a counselor, seek out one that has training and/or expertise in talking about sex.
If you haven’t already, you might have a conversation about non-monogamy. It’s becoming more popular and it can actually bring couples closer together. It only works if all participants are consensual and happy with the arrangement though. More good info on practicing ethical non-monogamy, sometimes called polyamory, here. If that is something you’re interested in, and you’d like some relationship support anyway, know that there are counselors and coaches who have experience helping couples open up and navigate non-monogamy.
If your partner refuses to hear you or believe you and isn’t open to getting support, or becomes abusive in anyway, seek out support for yourself right away. Nothing will accelerate your health challenges like abuse and/or trauma.