I’ve only ever wanted two kids. So after our second, I hung a “closed” sign on my uterus. But I might as well have shuttered up the whole area. Making such a declaration flipped a switch: I started to fear sex. It was how babies were made, and I didn’t want any more babies. See, birth control isn’t simple for me—I’ve never been able to do the pill or an IUD and I’m allergic to condoms.
The weird thing was that I never lost desire. I didn’t suffer from the kind of postpartum body issues that wreak havoc on a sex life. I wanted sex; I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. As the anxiety grew, all it took was for my husband to look at me suggestively and my heart would start to race. And not in a good way. One night, while shaving my legs (because let’s face it, when a mom shaves her legs, she’s prepping for sex), I had a full-on panic attack about hitting the sheets together.
I tried to keep him in the dark as best I could. I figured once he had a vasectomy, everything would be OK. My hope was that with his little snip-snip, I would be cut free from my strange sex phobia. Then I found out that vasectomies are only 99.85 percent effective. My anxiety worsened. When he showed up with the (supposed) all-clear from the doctor, I knew I had to fess up. We weren’t going to have sex that night. Or any other.
He took the news better than I expected. He wanted to work together to fix it. He had me make a list of the things that triggered the anxiety: kissing, hugging, getting into bed on a Saturday night. My brain had decided the only way to prevent pregnancy was to abstain. And because intimacy leads to sex, I cut that out, too. We realized that this was beyond us, and that I needed to talk to someone, so I called my employer’s free therapy call centre. A teenager answered the phone.
“Can I help you?”
Was I buying a sweater? I clammed up.
“I’m suffering from anxiety,” was all I could confess. She booked a time for a specialist to call back.
The first thing the therapist asked me to do was sum up my feelings.
“Every time my husband touches me, I throw up in my mouth.”
“I’m not that kind of therapist.”
But it turns out he was a great listener, and we had a very frank talk about fear, anxiety and sex. He said I had two options: Just go for it (that so wasn’t going to happen), or find slow, non-triggering ways to be intimate and gradually work our way back to the bedroom.
Thankfully, my husband was into the slow-and-steady approach, so we sat down with my original list of triggers and used it to build a series of steps—like a ladder to sex. The first few rungs were miles away from sexy. First, we needed to reconnect as a couple (on my abstinence plan, we’d essentially become roommates) to bring back the intimacy without being physical. So we took sex off the table—and we put a board game on it. Every Wednesday night, after the kids had gone to bed, we played Carcassonne. As we built our little towns and roads, we started to rebuild our relationship. Soon we were laughing, joking and talking again.
Our goal was to work on each step for a few weeks at least. So after two weeks of games, we moved to on to gentle touching. This progressed surprisingly easy. A brush of a hand turned into full-on ass grabs on frisky days. Next was hugging—my favourite step by far. There’s nothing like a squeeze from my husband after a long day of butt-wiping and searching for sippy cups.
We kept climbing, from G-rated touching and hugging to sexy massages and blow jobs (my husband had input on this list, after all).
Then, one ordinary night, after 10 months of no sex, I felt ready. I turned to my husband and asked for sex. It was quick, but nice. It’s been a year since then, and my anxiety still creeps back occasionally. But when it does, we go back to the steps, starting with Carcassonne.
This article was originally published online in February 2016.