In one of the more provocative episodes of "Grey's Anatomy," the hospital staff was stumped when a young woman came in having what first appeared to be seizures ... but turned out to be orgasms.
They smirked and giggled. There was even a touch of envy as the interns gaped at their patient. As bizarre as it seems, though, the story line is based loosely on a real though rare disorder called persistent sexual arousal syndrome, or PSAS. A 2001 study published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy was the first to identify it, citing "persistent feelings of sexual arousal in the absence of sexual desire" that are "intrusive and unwanted." Since that study, however, word has been very slow to get around.
Nancy Brown said her life was devastated about six years ago by the onset of unrelenting, unwanted, sexual arousal.
"It was so intense I couldn't concentrate on anything else -- only the desire to have sex with someone who isn't there," she said.
Nothing relieved the symptoms. Nancy says she turned over all the household chores to her husband, Glen Brown, and fell into a deep depression.
"I was embarrassed, I felt shame. And there's no help. There's nothing," she added.
Sleepless for nights on end, she said, her symptoms even brought her to the brink of suicide. "I told him that he didn't deserve this, my kids didn't deserve it, they didn't deserve to live this way and I couldn't go on with it anymore," she said.
Heather Dearmon understands Brown's desperation. She had just gotten married and was pregnant with her son when symptoms of PSAS began for her.
"I woke up one morning, and I just felt these strange sensations," she said.
Though she had no sexual desire, she had to bring on an orgasm to get any relief from the constant pressure. But relief didn't last.
"As time went on, the sensations grew stronger, and it would take me longer and longer to be able to achieve orgasm," she explained.
But the relief was only temporary.
"It got to the point where I was having it in the morning. I would make it go away for an hour or so. It would come back. I would have to masturbate again. And I would actually be crying while I was masturbating. There was no pleasure in it at all," she said.
Dearmon's life was turned upside down. She no longer went out. She couldn't take care of the house or her son. Frantic, she looked to her gynecologist, who sent her to a psychotherapist.
What followed, Dearmon said, was a series of visits to doctors and therapists, with no results. She became suicidal and had two stays in psychiatric hospitals, which, she said, only made her feel worse.
"The psychiatrist there suggested that I was sexually suppressed and maybe I should try lesbianism. And then the nurse there got very upset with me. And she said, 'Oh, well, I wish I could stay home and masturbate every day like you.' So, it was just a very hurtful experience," Dearmon said.
Like Dearmon, Jeannie Allen began experiencing nearly constant unwanted sexual arousal long before doctors knew what it was.
"My own gynecologist, who was a male, smiled and told me I was every man's dream. And I was mortified. I wasn't thinking about sex. I didn't have any fantasies; I wasn't involved physically with my husband. I wasn't watching anything, reading anything. But it was there," she said.