Reclaiming my sex drive after chronic illness
©WireStock / Adobe Stock
Reclaiming my sex drive after chronic illness
I’ve been stuck in a game of hide-and-seek for more than three years. Not with a child or a gaggle of girlfriends, but rather, with my sex drive. I believed I’d find it at some point, sneaking upon it with stealth and strength, ready to reclaim it as my own. But alas, I’ve resorted to pacing in circles and waiting for it to rear its mischievous head. Without much luck.
After being in relatively good health for twenty-four years, the eve of my twenty-fifth birthday brought with it the gift of chronic pain and a mysterious gastrointestinal illness.
My libido was once unquenchable—when I wasn’t having sex (solo or otherwise), I was thinking about sex. I masturbated regularly and felt in touch (pun intended) with my sexual energy and ability to pleasure myself. However, this evaporated when my health challenges arose. Suddenly, the bulk of my attention was directed towards doctors’ appointments. On mitigating symptoms. On battling the demons that took residence in my mind.
This sexual void in my life appeared gradually. At first, I was awash with a mild sense of relief to not be distracted by steamy daydreams all the time. But as I listened to friends rave about their recent hookups and binge watched Bridgerton, I looked down at my cooch.
And with an unsettling feeling in my chest, I realized it had been severely neglected. The closer I examined my lifestyle changes—a barrage of medications, lower food intake, higher stress—it started to make sense. But the stubborn Aries in me didn’t just want to accept this fate. I decided to dig deeper and figure out what this hole (pun not intended) in my life meant for my wellbeing.
According to empirical data, sex has numerous health benefits. It’s been shown to positively impact the immune system, improve sleep, and lower stress due to the release of the bonding hormone, oxytocin. It’s paradoxical that those who could benefit from sex the most often have the most trouble having it. Why do the very drugs that improve our quality of life (and in many cases, save them) have to zap a foundational aspect of being human? Can research and future treatments find a way to mitigate this?
While the scientific side is its own domain, it’s more difficult to detach from the emotional messages we receive from the mainstream media. Prominent magazines like Women’s Health and Glamour offer a plethora of tips for women to have the “wildest” and “kinkiest” sex. But none of these messages are inclusive of disabled and chronically ill bodies. As I sift through this content, I become aware of another disparity. Given women’s higher likelihood of living with chronic pain and illness, why aren’t these numbers reflected in such magazines’ content?
That leads me to my next point and is by far the most difficult. I’m in the middle of grieving my previous sexual self—the one who could contort herself into acrobatic positions and rub it out for over an hour. My pre-illness, able-bodied self didn’t have to consider the repercussions of pain, a distorted body image, or fatigue. Sex was fun; sex was effortless. I realize that perhaps much of my lowered libido is due to these changed perceptions of how I view myself. What false narratives have I clung to? How can I honor my right to feel sexual, to have orgasms again?
Redefining Sex and Sexy
It’s time to take things back into my own hands. Literally.
After adjusting my medication doses and developing stress-reduction routines, I feel I’m in a better place to proceed on this endeavor. An endeavor to reclaim my sexual identity and honor the side of myself once again.
As I don’t have a partner right now, I take comfort in knowing I have the time and space for ample experimentation. This means working around my symptoms and not letting the fear of exacerbation stop me from partaking in the proverbial game. Who knows, perhaps this will serve as the impetus I’ve needed to visit the adult shop downtown. (Wink, wink.)
I must also allow myself to acknowledge the difficult reality: sex won’t be like it once was. My body has changed. My emotional landscape has changed. There will be challenges to anticipate, especially when a partner becomes involved. Symptoms may also get in the way some days, and I’ll have to honor that, too. I like to look to celebrities as a source of motivation. Popular figures like Pete Davidson and Jameela Jamil both deal with chronic illnesses and still manage to have a robust sex life. Not to mention, they’re regarded as sex symbols.
Sex is something I’ve begun to view from a zoomed-out perspective. It’s not simply a carnal desire, but a way of connecting with myself. A way of boosting my self-esteem and pumping a healthy dose of happy hormones into my body.
So, I ask myself: What will my sex life look like now? In which ways do I cultivate feelings of sexiness? While the answers aren’t so clear cut, I’m motivated to continue shining the spotlight on sex and viewing this as a journey rather than a burden. I know there are things I can control: how I dress, who I surround myself with, and the types of messages I choose to believe. Perhaps a partner will come into my life sooner than I anticipate. We’ll just have to see how things pan out. Until then, I’ll be over here doin’ me.