No matter how many doctors I saw, the pain persisted. It was making me feel broken.

I met my high school boyfriend through a friend of mine. I was infatuated with him right away. He was a few years older, went to a different school, drove a car, and even had a little bit of sexy stubble.

To adolescent me, he couldn’t have been cooler. I was thrilled that he liked me back.

He was the first person I had sex with. I was young and nervous, but he was gentle and kind. Still, the pain was immense.

It felt like he was trying to push into an opening that wasn’t there. When he did finally penetrate me, it felt like my vaginal opening was covered in a thousand tiny cuts with salt rubbed in the wounds. The burning and stinging was so unbearable we had to stop.

“It’ll get easy,” he told me. “The first time is always the worst.”

But it didn’t. Not for a long time. And for most of my adulthood, I didn’t know why.

Since that first time, I saw countless doctors about the pain over the years. Many explanations were offered, but none stuck.

In my final year of high school, I went to a specialist to get an internal ultrasound of my uterus and cervix. As the probe was inserted inside me, I told myself it’d be OK. “Just bear through the pain,” I thought, “and you’ll have your answers.” But the tests came back blank.

The doctor told me that everything appeared normal. I could assure him — it wasn’t.

As much as I wanted answers for myself, I also wanted them for my current partner. I wanted to be able to say, this is what’s wrong with me. Then I could be treated, and we could have sex like a normal couple. I wanted to be able to share something special with my boyfriend, something other than apologies through tears.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” I would say on repeat and cry into his chest. I felt like a failure at sex and a failure as a girlfriend. I also wanted to be able to enjoy sex like everyone around me seemed to.

An anger and hatred toward my body began to brew inside me.

During my university years, I continued to see a steady stream of doctors. More often than not, I was sent away with a prescription to treat a urinary tract infection (UTI). I’d had a UTI before and knew that whatever was going on with me was very, very different.

Still, I would oblige. I’d inevitably develop a yeast infection from the antibiotics I didn’t need and return to the pharmacy days later for another treatment.

My life felt like a circus of medication that did nothing, and an onslaught of pain and discomfort.

I felt alone, frustrated, and damaged.

Sometimes I would try and just deal with the pain. While having sex with my partner, I would get on top and shove my head into the pillow beside him, biting down on it to block out the agonizing stinging.

Afterward, I would run straight to the bathroom, saying I needed to pee to avoid another UTI. Really, I was wiping away the tears on my face.

I was desperate to be able to have sex like everyone else. But no matter how many doctors I saw, the pain didn’t stop. It made me feel broken.

As it turns out, I’m not alone — painful sex is extremely common.

In fact, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, 3 out of 4 women experience some form of painful sex during their lifetime. There’s a wide range of causes, including pelvic floor dysfunction, vulvodynia, endometriosis, ovarian cysts, and fibroids.

One day I ended up at a women’s health clinic and was diagnosed with vaginismus, a condition that causes the muscles around the vaginal opening to involuntarily contract during penetration. This makes sex, or inserting a tampon, extremely painful.

It’s hard to know exactly how many women live with vaginismus, as the condition is often misdiagnosed or left undiagnosed. This is in part because many women don’t talk about their experience. However, it’s estimated that 2 in every 1,000 women will experience the condition in their lifetime.

My doctor told me there’s no official cause of vaginismus, but it’s usually linked to anxiety, fear of sex, or past trauma. As someone who lives with generalized anxiety disorder, this correlation wasn’t hugely surprising to me. In fact, it was starting to all make sense.

I had been beating myself up for years for something that was not only out of my control, but was also a lot more common than I thought.

I wasn’t broken. I was just a woman with anxiety navigating a world that didn’t understand the nuance of women’s health issues.

There wasn’t a cure for my newly diagnosed condition, but there was treatment and management. It wasn’t all peachy, but it was a start.

Treatment involves squeezing and relaxing my vaginal muscles daily, applying numbing cream to my vagina and vaginal opening and then applying touch, and most important of all, talking openly about my condition with those I trust. That includes my doctor, close friends, and sexual partners.

It took a long time to get to a place where I could even toy with the idea of pleasure during sex. It had always been a painful burden to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Now that I had a plan of action, I began to understand I could be sexually desirable despite my condition, and that I could have pleasurable sexual experiences.

I’m glad I persisted with doctors until I found some resolution. It was a frustrating and exhausting journey to find answers — but I’m thankful to be equipped with knowledge about my body and a doctor I can trust.

Learning about vaginismus and how it affects me has lifted a huge weight from my shoulders and from between my sheets.

If you experience painful sex, I encourage you to do the same. Keep going until you find a doctor who will listen and give you the answers you deserve.

More than anything, I encourage you to go easy on your body and treat it with kindness and love.

For years, I hated my vagina. I blamed it for making me feel empty and broken. Eventually, I realized my body was just trying to protect me, even though it was in an undesirable way.

That realization allowed me to let go and learn how to love my body, and my vagina, instead.

Marnie Vinall is a freelance writer living in Melbourne, Australia. She’s written extensively for a range of publications covering everything from politics and mental health to nostalgic sandwiches and the state of her own vagina. You can reach Marnie via Twitter, Instagram, or her website.