There is room for you to redefine victory in your life. To have a sexuality that actually works for YOU in your real life, not based on what someone else told you that you have to have, because otherwise you are failing or defective.
“My name is Victory.”
These are the words I recently tattooed on my body (and yes, rib tattoos do hurt as bad as they say).
The surface level meaning of this tattoo plays on the meaning of my name Nicole. While “Nicole” is a French name, the origins of Nicole/Nicholas actually go back to ancient Greece; it is a compound of the words “victory” and “people” so it has been roughly translated to mean “victory of the people.” Ancient Greek mythology includes the goddess Nike who personified victory. So “My name is Nicole” and “My name is Victory” have some crossover if you happen to be interested in etymology.
However, this tattoo means so much more than that.
Just over a year ago, I wrote my most vulnerable blog post to date called “It’s Time To Name It” in which I finally named the journey I have been on for now 9 years with a sexual pain disorder. I had danced around it and talked about it without naming the diagnosis before, but it was time to write about this taboo topic that no one wants to talk about. This is an excerpt from that post:
“Even just defining and describing all of this feels uncomfortable, because even though I’m just talking about body parts, women have been taught that discussing “our lady parts” is inappropriate and shouldn’t be talked about. Which leaves people in isolation when they are struggling, feeling like they are uniquely defective. That’s how I’ve felt for so long. Uniquely defective. Deeply broken. An utter and complete failure…
I know that shame thrives in secrecy, but the kicker is that there aren’t really a lot of pre-existing safe spaces to talk about this. There is no vaginismus support group I can drive to. Our American culture says they have all the answers about sex, and on the opposite end so does the Christian church I grew up in. And yet neither of them creates a safe space to talk about something like this. I’ve clearly been shaped by both cultures and yet both left me completely ill-equipped to face this reality.”
————-> (If you’d like to read the rest of it, you can do that here: https://nicolecliftonblog.wordpress.com/2019/06/ )
To put it lightly, this has been a pretty significant part of my 20s and certainly the most challenging part of my marriage since literally Day 1. Since all of my tattoos represent either wisdom that I’ve gleaned, truth I need to remind myself of, or a painful part of my story that I’ve worked to transform into power and passion, it’s no surprise to me now that I would end up with a tattoo representing this part of my story (even though in the first few years of marriage, I couldn’t even have imagined doing so because I was so ashamed and just wanted this part of my story to disappear and be erased).
So I’ve been mulling over getting a tattoo to represent this journey for 4 or 5 years, and my personal process with tattoos is that I have to want that tattoo for at least a year before I’m willing to permanently place it on my body. I’ve been sitting with this design for probably 3 years, but the meaning of the tattoo has changed since then and made it even more sacred to me. While there have been a few times over the last few years that I almost got this tattoo, I finally decided that I wanted it for my 30th birthday……..but then COVID happened so I had to wait until late May to actually get the tattoo.
I wanted it on my ribs because I wanted it in a place you could not easily see. It represents where I have battled my deepest shame and so I feel protective of it, not a story that I want to explain to a grocery store clerk or an acquaintance at a business meeting who might see one of my other 7 tattoos (depending on what I’m wearing) and ask about their meaning. People warned me that getting a rib tattoo would be excruciatingly painful, and it was, but honestly it felt fitting for what has resulted from the most excruciating battle against shame in my life. This intimate story, forged of deep pain, where sometimes it felt like I couldn’t breathe because the shame was so thick and sharp made all the sense in the world to me that this particular tattoo would be over my ribs, a natural protection for our most vulnerable, essential organs that keep us alive and breathing, that keep us from being crushed.
So I knew 4 years ago I wanted this tattoo, wanted this placement, wanted it to represent my journey with my sexual pain disorder, but back then I had an entirely different definition of what victory meant. Back then, I thought it meant that in order for me to have victory, I needed to obliterate this pain. I needed to conquer it and banish it from my life, never to return.
When I returned to counseling with this new therapist (who took me MONTHS to find and waiting to find the right fit was absolutely worth it because she is the actual best), that is what I set out to do. I was so desperate to defeat vaginismus, to move on and never look back. Ironically, that’s not how therapy works; I knew that, and yet that’s what I wanted anyways. I had bought into the lie that “victory” in this area of my life could only mean one thing, that I needed to be permanently 100% healed. It took a LOT of sessions, a lot of EMDR to help re-process my trauma, a lot of crying, a lot of letting my shame rise to the surface and letting my critical voice “fight” with my therapist in order to start to realize that I had to learn how to love, forgive, and accept myself first before I could actually do any healing. I wanted a guaranteed formula to rid of vaginismus and then thought that I would just automatically be better. I had to start with how I talked to myself, how damn hard I was on myself for “taking too long” and not “doing enough” to defeat this. I was cruel and harsh towards myself, blaming myself for “failing” over things I actually couldn’t control, which just grew my shame and made me even more hopeless.
You see, I was deeply afraid that if I couldn’t claim victory over this, that eventually my husband would get tired of it and leave me. And if that happened, I would always be alone because no one else would ever want to love me and put up with this, with me. And until I named that fear, faced it, talked it through with my husband, I couldn’t move forward (because the reality is my husband is incredible and him eventually leaving me if I couldn’t heal myself from vaginismus wasn’t actually an ultimatum he wanted to communicate).
I had to realize that my best efforts were more than enough, and that there were some things about my particular case (like I already have a full body auto-immune disorder that includes chronic pain, muscle tension, etc. that there is no cure for….. so unfortunately, why wouldn’t that also affect this part of my body since my uterus and vagina contain muscles, which would make my body less receptive to treatment/typical treatments to have less impact than they would for others with vaginismus) that might mean I would never be able to fully eliminate, conquer, or vanquish vaginismus from my life. Which meant…. I was probably going to have to learn how to live with it. I may experience some success, some progress, some healing, but I also may continue to have some level of symptoms. So I could either figure out how to accept it and love myself so that I could create a sexuality that actually worked for me in my actual body in my actual life instead of comparing it to whatever ideal I had…….. or I could be miserable and hate myself for all the years to come, living in fear that I eventually would get divorced and be destined to be alone.
I decided to do the hard, slow, vulnerable work of learning how to offer myself unconditional love.
I decided that I needed to change my definition of what victory meant.
The reality is that diagnoses like vaginismus and vestibulitis are fairly rare and that can feel lonely. What’s not rare (and what I truly didn’t understand) is that SO MANY people struggle with complications in their sex life. It’s not like everyone else has it figured out and I’m the only one who has issues. Be it sexual pain disorders like mine, differences in sexual desire between partners or differences in different sexual activities, changes in desire due to SO MANY things (stress, mental health, age, etc.), body image shame, sexual boundaries, sexual communication, physical health issues or disabilities that impact sexuality, physical carrying shame from past experiences, carrying shame from lack of past experiences, struggling with being able to be present, the damage of purity culture, the impact of abuse, internalized homophobia or transphobia for members of the LGBTQIA+ community because of what people/society have communicated about their value & worth, SO MANY THINGS. So many people carry shame around sex and were taught unhealthy things about themselves, sex, their bodies, etc. I am not alone in that and neither are you.
There is room for you to become, become who you want to be. There is no timeline, you have not fallen behind; there is time enough for you to become. You don’t have to have all the answers now; you don’t have to be a “master of sex” now or a “sex god/goddess.” That’s way too much damn pressure and nobody needs that.
There is room for you to redefine victory in your life. To have a sexuality that actually works for YOU in your real life, not based on what someone else told you that you have to have, because otherwise you are failing or defective. There is room for you to do the work of facing those shame tapes you have playing in your head, of dismantling the power of the lies you’ve believed that are not serving you.
You deserve freedom and victory. Mine didn’t end up looking like what I thought it would when I first dreamt up this tattoo, but it’s more true and honoring, more authentic and nuanced, than the vision of victory and freedom I held before. This authentic version of victory allows me to celebrate my 9 years of marriage tomorrow in sweeter, new ways because I have fought for my marriage and I deserve to celebrate. You deserve victory, freedom, and goodness even if you can’t “fix” yourself or make the messy parts of your story go away. You are still deserving of love, empathy, compassion, kindness, and commitment. From others and from yourself.
You were made for more, for goodness. So was I and I am learning to trust that more and more.
My name is Victory.
Nicole Clifton is a life-coach with Restoration Counseling. She has her Masters in Psychology and a decade’s worth of coaching and mentoring experience. While she is not a licensed therapist and cannot treat anyone for mental health conditions like vaginismus, do EMDR, etc. she is available to walk with people through challenging relationships, processing harm from purity culture, faith deconstruction, etc. You can find out more at https://www.restorationcounselingnoco.com/nicole-clifton or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to talk about individual, virtual sessions.
Nicole is also a writer, speaker, and leadership development specialist. If you’re interested in partnering with Nicole on topics like this blog, head to www.nicoleclifton.com to learn more. You can also follow her on her public social media pages: Nicole Clifton – AlwaysNYourCorner on Facebook or nicoleclifton_inyourcorner on Instagram.