DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I am a woman in my late thirties who was burned very badly in a cooking accident four years ago. I have been struggling with PTSD ever since and see a therapist weekly, which has been immensely helpful. One of the unfortunate side effects of my injury is that I no longer wish to engage in much physical contact with my husband. We have had sex only a handful of times in the years since the accident, and not once in the past two years. We have been in couple’s therapy for several months now to work on this issue, but I am frustrated with the pace of things. Not only do I not want to engage in sex, but kissing, cuddling, hugging and even casual physical contact make me incredibly uncomfortable. Prior to my injury we had an enjoyable sex life and were very affectionate with each other. I miss that, but even more I feel an overwhelming amount of guilt for denying my husband even the most basic physical contact. It feels cruel but I can’t help it! My burns are mostly on my chest and torso so they are front and center when we are intimate and I believe that may be contributing to the issue. I’m no longer in pain but my skin is quite sensitive and my husband forgets this sometimes, which is another issue. Add to that the trauma of my treatment, when I was trapped in the hospital, constantly being poked and prodded in horrible ways. The anxiety caused by that loss of control over my body creeps in whenever he initiates contact.
I honestly don’t know how to move forward. All our therapist wants to do is discuss my self-esteem in abstract ways but I desperately need concrete suggestions for how to get over this. I want to rediscover the level of intimacy that we had before I was hurt but it feels impossible because I’m no longer the person I was before I the accident. My husband is endlessly patient and understanding, but he is a human being! It’s not fair to either of us that we are stuck here. Please help.
DEAR UNTOUCHABLE: I’m so, so sorry this happened to you Untouchable. Feeling like you’re cut off from intimacy with your partner can be maddening. When even little things like simple physical touch is off limits to you – for whatever the reason – then it can feel like you’re absolutely isolated and alone, even when you’re surrounded by people. It’s made all the worse when you’re unable to have that simple, casual intimacy with the people you love. It’s amazing how much things like feeling your partner’s hand on your back or being able to put your head on their shoulder can mean so much… and how much you don’t realize this until you’re cut off from it.
Unfortunately, some of these issues are far beyond my pay grade; like I’m often saying, Dr. NerdLove is not a doctor, he’s a loudmouth with an advice column. Some of the things I would suggest are things you should definitely run by an actual medical professional first. It may be that doing things to alleviate the physical symptoms of anxiety could make life easier for you; if it’s legal in your area, smoking weed or a couple of edibles might help calm your anxiety enough for at least casual affectionate contact with your husband. I understand that occasionally beta-blockers have been used to help people with PTSD as well and that MDMA also shows promise; it may be worth your time to see if you can be part of a study for the effects that those may have on recovery from trauma.
The other thing that immediately comes to mind is going to sound a bit weird, but stick with me: you might want to incorporate kink into your life. If, for example, you find yourself triggered by loss of control, then it may help to set things up so that you are absolutely in charge. If your husband is, say, tied to the bed and unable to move his arms or legs. then you’re in the position of not just initiating contact but controlling how much, how long and how far it all goes. And while being tied up may seem like a lot just to, say, be able to rest your head on his chest… that might be a way to bring a level of contact and intimacy back into your life together as well as increase your feelings of agency and control. Similarly, having him be tied up and blindfolded may give you the confidence to be physical in a way that you haven’t been able to enjoy since then. After all, this would mean that you have all of the control, not just of your body but his.
If that seems like something you think would be worth trying, see about finding a munch in your area or look into the feminist and female-owned sex shops in your area. They often have workshops and lectures about intros to kink, rope-play and other venues of power exchange that may be what the not-a-real-doctor ordered.
But the other thing I want to bring up is your therapist. One thing that people often forget – or never realize – is that if you can advocate for what you need from your therapist. While dealing with your self-esteem is important – learning to see yourself as more than your scars can be huge – if what you need are ways to be more intimate with your husband, then ask for it. And if it feels like your therapist doesn’t understand you or isn’t meeting your needs… you can find another therapist. It may well be worth your time to visit the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists’ website; they have a referral directory that can help you find a sex-positive counselor or therapist in your area who may be a better fit for you and your needs at this time.
You’re lucky to have your husband, Untouchable, and he’s lucky to have you. I hope you two can find some ways to overcome this impasse and find ways to regain that affection and intimacy you’ve been missing.
And please, don’t hesitate to write in and let us know how you’re doing.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m 17 and ending off my junior year. I’m having a lot of trouble with the girls at my school. Here’s my situation, I’m still a virgin but have had girlfriends here and there, nothing too outstanding. I’m pretty average looking, but I’m on the shorter side, 5”7. I’m fit, outgoing, and pretty funny. But my main problem is that no girls at school even give me a damn chance. I can get any girl I wanted online, but I’m losing interest in online relationships or long distance.
I’ve been told that I’m cute, handsome, hot, by multiple people but no matter what I do I can’t get a damn date.
Is it my height? That’s the only thing I can think of to be honest.
DEAR SHORT ROUND: I’m 5’8″, SR, and I can tell you that my height has never been a handicap. While there will always be women who’ll want dudes of certain heights, all that means is that they’re simply not compatible with you. It’s a shame, but it just frees you up to find the folks who are. There’re plenty of women who’ll dig you.
Because, straight talk, SR: the issue isn’t your height. The issue is that dating in high-school is a goddamn dumpster fire. High-school is less like education and far more like a maximum security prison, filled with people whose hormones are surging so hard that nobody knows if they’re coming or going. Everyone’s confused, everyone’s freaking out and everyone is trying to figure out who they are and what any of this means. That’s why people start playing weird status games and sectioning themselves off into cliques; everyone’s trying to find identities and personas that fit. This is why my standard advice for folks in high-school is to not sweat dating.
You’re a junior. You’ve got a year left of high-school, and if I’m perfectly blunt, the odds that any relationship you start now won’t survive past graduation. 99% of the folks in college aren’t dating the people they were dating in college, especially past the midpoint of their freshman year. Your best move here is to focus on developing the social skills and emotional intelligence that’ll let you be ready to hit the ground running once you graduate high-school… when you’ll be setting foot out into the real world, when things will start to actually count.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)