CLIMBING into bed with her boyfriend, Katrin Maslenkova was excited about the prospect of having sex for the first time.
But what should have been a night of passion turned out to be pure agony.
The accountant, from Toronto, Canada, was overcome with an excruciating stabbing and burning pain that made her feel like she was "hitting a wall".
And it left her struggling to feel like a "whole and complete woman" as a result of not being able to have penetrative sex.
Since then, Katrin, who is originally from Bulgaria, has been diagnosed with vaginisimus and is sharing her story to raise awareness for the agonising condition.
She said: "The toughest part is feeling incredibly alone, with no one who seemed to understand.
"Even though I had a supportive family, friends and partners, unfortunately loving people can't relate to those with vaginismus fully; they just haven’t experienced the excruciating pain, both physical and emotional."
Katrin first realised something was wrong when she first tried putting in a tampon.
She said: "Many perfectly good tampons went straight into the bin with my unsuccessful attempts.
"They were impossible to use; I tried, experienced a sense of hitting a wall, or really intense, sharp pain.
"This was the first sign something was wrong, and I just decided to stick to pads when it came to my period.
"There were a few occasions when I really wanted to put a tampon in and I did, but once after a volleyball tournament, I almost fainted from the pain as my pelvic floor clenched around it as I tried to take it out.
"In those few times I was able to put it in and later in the journey, taking the tampon out was the most painful part; my body was holding onto it for dear life."
And things took a turn for the worst when Katrin tried having sex for the first time at the age of 18.
I tried penetrative sex with my first boyfriend; it was like he hit a wall. He just couldn’t go inKatrin Maslenkova
"I tried penetrative sex with my first boyfriend; it was like he hit a wall. He just couldn’t go in," Katrin said.
"During another attempt or two, I did my best to relax and some penetration was possible but just a little bit of him being inside me felt like a constant stabbing sensation, with silent tears streaming down my eyes."
In the weeks following their first time, Katrin and her boyfriend continued to struggle to have penetrative sex.
And while her partner was very understanding of her challenges and supportive throughout the process, their relationship ended for that and other reasons.
Katrin said: "It brought feelings within me that I wasn’t good enough and he just deserved better.
"The feelings weren’t caused by him - just what I felt for myself.
"For a long time, we had non-penetrative sex and after some time with seeing no progress - and having disappointing attempts at penis in vagina sex - I started to loathe where intimate touch was leading.
“So, I started to avoid it - or at least not look forward to it as it was always coupled with a sense of not being good enough to give both of us the pleasure of a "home run".
Desperate to not let her struggle to have sex ruin her life, Katrin went to her family doctor in January 2010.
However, the medic she saw immediately dismissed her symptoms and said her body just wasn't ready for penetrative sex yet.
Unsatisfied with this conclusion, Katrin begun searching for answers online to figure out what was really happening.
She said: "I discovered the word vaginismus on the internet; after waiting for a bit, I went back to my family doctor and requested more help, asking for a gynaecology appointment.
"After quite a wait, the gynaecologist did a pelvic exam and the word vaginismus wasn’t mentioned either.
"I also went through a vaginal ultrasound, in which I experienced the most pain.
After listening to me cry through it, the ultrasound specialist told me, ‘don’t worry honey, it will get better after kids’."
Katrin soon turned to a sex therapist - who finally confirmed she was in fact experiencing vaginismus, a physiological response to a perceived danger in the form of an involuntary contraction of the pelvic floor muscles around the opening of the vagina.
This proved to be a turning point for Katrin - as the therapist gave her recommendations to ease the symptoms.
She added: "Only later did I get to see a sex therapist; this is where I had a pretty uncomfortable experience with her trying to dig into my life to see what my discomfort with penetration originated from.
I felt relieved that at least someone else agreed with the fact that the pain was not in my head and that this is a real thingKatrin Maslenkova
"I did remember a childhood injury that may have created my association my private parts being a place of pain and I have since discovered other potential contributors to my body’s response of vaginismus.
"Although the sessions did not help me make progress with overcoming vaginismus, she was the first to mention vaginismus to me and recommend that I try dilators.
"I felt relieved that at least someone else agreed with the fact that the pain was not in my head and that this is a real thing.
"After the relief, I felt overwhelmed with the road ahead of me overcoming vaginismus, but was motivated to finally live a pain free and intimate life."
After sharing this with her parents, they came home one day with a box of dilators.
Unfortunately, the dilators lay hidden away in her closet for many months at a time, since she lacked the support in how to use them effectively.
Then, in March 2017, Katrin started dating her now fiancé Dmitri, 33, who helped her with the condition.
She said: "I went polar dipping with a group of Russian-speaking guys, and my now fiancé was one of them.
"So, I met him on January 15, 2017 at a parking lot by Lake Ontario in Toronto.
"He hadn’t heard about such a thing before and was really glad that I had worked through it.
"He felt sorry for me for what I’d gone through, as well as the men in my life prior to him, who also experienced painful emotions and potentially were traumatised in the journey alongside me."
With Dmitri's help, Katrin had penetrative sex pain-free in 2016.
She said: "My current partner has also benefited from my experiences, as through the journey I’ve become more attuned to my sexual desires.
What is vaginismus?
Vaginismus is the body's automatic reaction to the fear of some or all types of vaginal penetration.
Whenever penetration is attempted, your vaginal muscles tighten up on their own - you have no control over it.
Occasionally, you can get vaginismus even if you have previously enjoyed painless penetrative sex.
Vaginismus does not necessarily affect your ability to get aroused and enjoy other types of sexual contact.
The common signs of vaginismus include:
- Finding it hard inserting a tampon into your vagina
- Struggling with vaginal penetration during sex
- A burning or stinging pain during sex
Treatment usually focuses on:
- Managing your feelings around penetration
- Exercises to gradually get you used to penetration
"I now know what I want to get me sexually aroused, I’m able to communicate my desires and also willing to experiment outside of the ’status quo' in order to create a fulfilling sex life.
"He has also learned how to help me with trigger point release massage, an internal massage practice that is beneficial for anyone feeling some discomfort during intercourse.
"This is a wonderful practice to release the ‘kinks’ in your vagina, as you may get kinks in your neck after an uncomfortable night’s sleep.
"Occasionally, the stresses of life create these internal tight spots even when you’re able to have pleasurable penetrative sex.
"He has been curious, willing to experiment, and has been supportive in my work to bring guidance and support to those experiencing the body response of vaginismus.
"This has been a journey for me, and he has been encouraging through the process of creating my educational materials and getting them out into the world.
"My goal is to create a world where sexuality is something to be celebrated and love is at the forefront of all human interactions."
Katrin has since quit her job to help other "vulva owners" with the same painful sexual experiences.
More on women's health
Katrin added: "Overall, my partners showed an incredible level of support, patience, understanding and compassion.
"They saw me for more than my sexual ‘abilities’ at that moment and of course we also worked through times in which I sensed a level of sadness, hopelessness and disappointment."
You can find out more on Katrin's website here.