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In juicy novels, magazines and movies, sex seems perfect, as if each and every time, with complete spontaneity and no preparation, two scintillating, precisely timed explosions happen at once. It can be easy to believe that a “normal” sex life must look like a steamy daytime soap opera. I’m here to challenge that.
For a lot of people with neurological illnesses like multiple sclerosis, sex can be a source of embarrassment and shame. Challenges such as loss of sensation, pain, mobility, fatigue, anxiety, premature ejaculation and other issues can make you feel isolated and stand in the way of a healthy intimate relationship.
Sexual dysfunction is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, these issues are far more common than you may think: about 50% of men and 75% of women with MS experience may be affected by some kind of sexual problem. My key to handling it? Communication, communication, and more communication.
Of course, talking about sex is never easy, but I can tell you first hand, avoiding the issue never helps. Failing to talk about both you and your partner’s desires and fears can lead to a whole host of issues, from a strained and unfulfilled relationship to low self-confidence and feelings of unworthiness – obviously things we all want to avoid.
My best (or worst?) example? Around the time of my diagnosis, fatigue and other yet untreated symptoms made normal intimacy feel more like a task instead of a spontaneous show of affection. Instead of talking about it with my partner, I silently pushed myself to be the “perfect lover,” only to create more emotional stress. I even started to wonder if it would be easier to avoid sex altogether (not a good idea!). I needed a plan to get my sex life on track and manage intimacy going forward. Just like with so many other aspects of managing my MS, I took a step back, and came up with some guidelines that have served me well in navigating sex, no matter how sticky it gets:
1. Communication is essential: Talk to your partner about how you feel and what you want. Depending on how long you have been together or the closeness of your relationship, you may find this difficult or embarrassing. But my number one tip is to push yourself to be completely honest. Discussing your needs openly will only bring you closer.
2. It’s not all about the big “O”: Try out new ways of being aroused, explore different types of stimulation, and learn what you need to avoid. You may be pleasantly surprised what you discovery. If you partner is involved, let them know you appreciate their efforts. After all, everyone needs a little encouragement. Instead of focusing only on the big “O”, enjoy being close with your partner and what you are feeling in the moment. This level of intimacy can be just as fulfilling.
3. Get to know yourself…intimately: Feeling comfortable with your own body can be a challenging task when you live with the unpredictability of MS. Adding in the pressure of being around a partner can make sexual dysfunction even more challenging. The best way to get around this is to get to know yourself intimately. That’s right, masturbate. Explore what feels good for you, learn what you don’t like, and experiment with toys and lubricants. Not only is masturbation pleasurable, but feeling confident about what you want will only increase your comfort level when you are with your partner.
4. Toys are for everyone: Adult toy shops in town or on the internet offer tools for men and women to liven up sexual experiences. Look for solutions together, and try them out together. This will only make the sensual and sexual bond between you stronger. Feel silly? Don’t worry, laughter can help lighten the mood and get things moving in the right direction.
5. Think about the other benefits: Remember, just like other forms of exercise, sexual activity has emotional as well as physical benefits, such as helping with stress management, relationship improvement, better quality of sleep, and alleviating pain.
6. It’s okay to seek help: If your partner doesn’t feel comfortable talking about sexual issues, seek help from your doctor, nurse, friend or counsellor. Inform your healthcare provider what medicines you take and which symptoms you have. Provide as many details as you can. Chances are your issue is more common than you imagine.
Experiment, assure, repeat, renew and just appreciate each other’s attempts of making you feel fulfilled. Sex should not feel like a dragged out road to results. When you feel good, beautiful, satisfied and happy, the rest will follow.