In the Guardian’s Private Lives column last week, a woman wrote to share her concerns about her boyfriend’s sexuality. He had been struggling with the idea he might be gay, and she wondered if this was a valid worry for him, or whether it might be anxiety caused by his OCD. She wanted him to discuss his anxiety with a counselor.
A lot of people in the Guardian’s comments section assumed she wanted to “therapy” away his potential desire for men, but to me, it sounded like she wanted her boyfriend to determine for himself (though with the help of a therapist who understood his OCD) whether his feelings toward men were real or created by worries connected to his mental illness.
Either way, as a lesbian I found the discussion that this column sparked as it went viral pretty interesting. Here are my own thoughts.
My understanding is that a number of straight people with OCD begin to worry that they may be attracted to people of the same gender, and that their worry leads them to focus on people of the opposite gender more, reinforcing this false belief that they may be bisexual or gay.
In my own experience, I’ve known since I was a teenager that I wasn’t interested in men. But OCD did lead me to “test” that lack of attraction a lot. I have some contamination fears around spit and hair, so I spent a lot of time worrying that maybe it was just those phobias that made me think I didn’t like men.
Because of this kind of thing, I ignored my attraction to women until I was really, really sure I didn’t like guys — and all of you with OCD know how long it takes to ever be really, really sure that something you’re obsessing about isn’t worth worrying about!
OCD can play a role in sexuality no matter which way you swing (or if you swing both ways). It can play a role whether it’s direct — worrying “Am I really gay?” or “Am I really straight?” — or indirect, due to fears of contamination or touching.
Even after I finally came to terms with the fact that, no, I’m really, really not interested in men and yes, I really, really am interested in women despite my weird fears of human contact, I don’t think I would ever have had the courage to come out of the closet without therapy.
Therapy helped me learn how to recognize when certain thoughts were coming from my OCD brain, and it taught me how to accept and move past them, face my fears, and live my life. It also taught me to be confident when something was a real feeling I could accept at face value, instead of worrying that everything I felt was fake.
(When I first started therapy, I even worried that my intense, non-stop anxiety was something I was subconsciously inventing for attention, even though I hate attention! I wasn’t prepared to accept any of my emotions as real at that point.)
When I told my therapist I was a lesbian, she accepted that at face value, and encouraged me to explore that. Exploring it “proved” that it was true and not something I had somehow tricked myself into believing. When I came out, she was completely supportive, and the same when I began exploring the dating scene.
Moreover, getting treatment for my OCD helped relieve a lot of my fears that I might not really be a lesbian. Once I was on medication to control my OCD symptoms, my attraction to women and lack of attraction to men was still there. It wasn’t the OCD, it is just who I am, and it was a huge relief to know that.
I am so much more comfortable in my own skin now. I feel like I can be myself for the first time instead of having to hide who I am — and be myself, I mean both a person with mental illness and a woman who loves other women. Therapy gave me the confidence to openly discuss my mental illness, too.
I don’t have any advice for the girlfriend in the Guardian column. I’ve never been on the outside looking in during this process. It’s probably very difficult.
For her boyfriend, if I could talk to him, I’d tell him to at least consider therapy. His feelings of attraction toward men might be real, and that’s absolutely OK. He could be gay or bisexual, and that’s also OK. His feelings may be a false attraction created by and fueled by his OCD, and that, too, is absolutely OK. However this plays out for him, he is who he is and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But why struggle to figure it out by yourself if you don’t have to? It can be a long, difficult process with help, and it’s so much longer and more difficult without that help. If you can find a therapist who knows how to treat OCD, and who will not pass any value judgement on your sexuality, there’s nothing wrong with seeking professional help. It’s not weak to need or want help while you figure yourself out.
I wish I’d known that 15 years ago.
Photo by tedeytan