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Self Care

Finding Pleasure During Illness

Sexual & Reproductive Health Writer McKenzie Schwark shares how she reclaimed her body from illness with self-pleasure.
by McKenzie Schwark
Last Updated: Mar 09, 2021
Learn how to find self-pleasure after a chronic illness

There are two things on my nightstand: a bottle of synthetic thyroid hormone and a vibrator. I figure, if my apartment starts on fire in the middle of the night I can scoop them up on my way out the door and onto the fire escape. They’re the two things I want at arms’ length at the beginning and end of every day respectfully.

But I haven’t always felt that way. Both the sickness and the vibrator fell into my lap, and not in a pleasurable way. Five years ago a golf ball-sized tumor made itself at home on my thyroid. A few months later it had grown to the size of a grapefruit and effectively murdered my thyroid in the process. The whole thing had to go.

Both pleasure and chronic illness are deeply personal, and have the power to change our relationships with our bodies. Whereas getting sick gave me all these reasons to be disappointed in my body, masturbating gave me a reason to celebrate it and a way of feeling myself again.

I was 21 at the time of my thyroidectomy and didn’t know a single another chronically ill person. There was nowhere that I could turn to feel understood, or as some of the questions I couldn’t ask my doctor. My endocrinologist recommended a group called the “Early Morning Club” which was made up of middle-aged moms also taking Synthroid. Like self-pleasure, it’s just one of those things we don’t talk about and that’s disappointing because the community is such an integral part of being unashamed of our bodies.

Around the same time, I started to really get into the world of sexual wellness. I had always been the one my friends went to ask about orgasming or trying new positions, and I had just published my very first piece online about a casual sexual encounter. This thing that had always been so taboo for me was revealing itself instead as an important and joyous part of life that everyone deserved to partake in. The more I learned about and experienced pleasure, the more I saw it as an integral part of my being.

Self-pleasure was a great way for me to not only understand my body, but own it. Learning to masturbate made me feel independent, and like I alone could give myself this cool and beautiful gift.

Then I got sick.

When I first got sick I remember feeling like I was always two inches outside of my body. It was very Peter Pan and his shadow; I just couldn’t quite sync up. After my thyroidectomy surgery, I came into an elevator feeling like something was very off, and knowing it would always kind of feel like that. My body, which had always been my home, became a foreign place to me.

I felt totally powerless inside of my body. The thyroid controls so many bodily functions, and I was relearning a body I’d lived in for two decades. This new body didn’t feel worthy of pleasure, and I was too tired to try anyway.

Although separated by an entire torso, the thyroid and the sex organs are closely connected. The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped organ that sits at the base of the throat and produces hormones that are responsible for controlling the metabolic function of the cells. That includes sex hormones and the reproductive system. Thyroid problems have been linked to erectile dysfunction, infertility, decreased sex drive, and painful intercourse for vulva havers.

Two symptoms of thyroid disease are depression and fatigue, and without all the sex hormone gobbledygook, even just that can take a huge toll on a person’s sex life. Depression and fatigue are really common chronic illness symptoms, and there have been countless articles written on the toll both can take on sexuality and libido.

When you are chronically ill, you are chronically ill all of the time. There are no breaks; it doesn’t turn down when you get turned on. Every sexual encounter I enter, I enter without a thyroid. Explaining that and navigating that can be exhausting, but I never have to explain it to my vibrator.

There are measurable, studied health benefits to masturbating, like stronger muscle function, reduced stress, even headache relief. It can improve mental health, self-esteem, and reduce stress. I find the most beneficial part of self-pleasure for me is just getting back into my body, and remembering that my body still can experience and is worthy of experiencing pleasure.

I can grab my vibrator, conveniently right there on my nightstand, and there are no theatrics to perform. I don’t have to go into the experience feeling sexy, or even necessarily good in my body. It's always right there when I need it, when the mood strikes, or I want to be reminded of the ways my body is not just my illness. Masturbation is an effective and important part of my personal overall wellness. It is also very fun.

I bought my first vibrator from the one sex toy shop in my hometown. It was the week of high school graduation and my eighteenth birthday, and I knew so little about sex and sex toys that when the store attendant made a joke about having discounted used toys in the back I just nodded and kept going. She asked to see my ID right after that. I left with a glow-in-the-dark little bullet vibrator that I kept tucked under my pillow. I’d turn it on and watch it jitter across my windowsill without ever touching it to my body.

Uh, a lot has changed since then. I’ve got better sex toys and a worse functioning body. So, I keep my Synthroid and my vibrator right there on my nightstand. They are a constant reminder that whatever has been taken from me and my body by getting sick, there is still so much good to be experienced.

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