Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?
Sexuality goes hand in hand with identity. It is a partnership between sense stimuli and brain chemistry. We are inspired by love and intimacy, visual titillation, a word whispered low and for our ears only. But when we get very sick, lust disappears.
This is only temporary if we have an acute illness such as the flu. But chronic illness leaves permanent disability in its wake, changing our bodies and what we have come to know about how they work.
The more important question is: Do I feel sexy? When our lust is intact, we are feeling pretty much like ourselves. Feeling sexy equates with normalcy. Feeling sexy is also dependent on predictability. Arousal anticipates a successful climax because that has always been the result. After an initial spike in cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine—the stress hormones--dopamine and serotonin then flow freely afterwards, the resulting sensations of which resemble those of amphetamines and cocaine. But in the aftermath of a trauma—such as a flare or a temporary worsening of symptoms—our brains are engaged in firefighting, a 911 response to the crisis of the moment. Cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine raise blood glucose to help the body repair itself. But serotonin and dopamine seem to have skipped town.
Whenever someone asks me what it felt like during my first MS attack and its aftermath, I often say it was like suddenly aging from 41 to 90 over a two-week period. People seem to understand that analogy best. Maybe they picture themselves juxtaposed with their elderly parent or grandparent. It evokes that difference between vigor and decay, moist fecundity and dried husks; one is driven by an abundance of sex hormones, the other is exhausted and spent by their scarcity. One of the earmarks of aging involves the ebbing of estrogen and testosterone which naturally deplete after age 40. Chronic illness can bring about a kind of premature aging, where numbness and pain, weariness and slowness creep in long before our energy and lustiness and joints and organ function should be breaking down. Even if we develop MS at a young age, the emotional impact can mimic a hormone depletion. In this case, trauma kidnaps our mojo and can hold it hostage for years.
Brain chemicals, hormones, libido--why the emphasis on the science of sex? Because it’s all in our minds. Arousal occurs in the brain. And because it does, body dysfunction can be circumvented and our ability to feel aroused can be re-wired and restored. It might take a fair amount of practice and exploration, but with the potential of feeling pleasure and excitement being the carrot on the stick, what better motivation could there be to rediscover and restore our sexual selves?
Author Erica Jong, who is in her seventies, has spoken frankly about her husband’s aortic aneurysm and its aftermath. He had to take medication that rendered him impotent, but that was not the end of their intimate life. Through exploration, they discovered that he became sensitized when an area of his back was stimulated, and that led to arousal. Their new approach to sex took them to places they would never have experienced otherwise, a place that was more deeply intimate than sex had been before his illness. This made me think about people who have lost their eyesight but also experienced heightened other senses such as hearing and touch. We can lose one function and gain another in unexpected ways.
There are some very practical tips to consider that can help us feel more relaxed and open to intimacy. In R. Morgan Griffin’s “MS and Your Sex Life,” the author lists so many useful things for us to do to get back in touch with how our bodies work now. It starts with being alone in a locked bedroom and a relaxed fifteen minutes’ worth of simply touching every part of one’s body to find out what feels good and what hurts. It doesn’t involve masturbation, although it can—but the point of the exercise harkens back to that old chestnut: Know thyself. Or in this case, rediscover thyself.
To read Griffin’s complete list of tips for having a better sex life with MS, click on the link in the reference section below. They're really good!
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