by Abby Rotstein
I have a bit of experience coming out of closets. First, I told everyone I loved that I’m gay. Then, years later, I told those same people I have OCD. More recently, I disclosed that I have depression. I’m like a Russian nesting doll of closets. If I unearth anything more about my personality, I hope to come out of that closet dancing.
It wasn’t easy coming out as a lesbian. I certainly didn’t twirl. Mostly, I experienced years of denial, shame, and confusion. I didn’t recognize that warm, fluttery feeling I had with women as attraction. It was something mysterious and interesting and I had to get to the bottom of it, but not too quickly. I finally admitted to myself — my first coming out — that I was gay in grad school. It wasn’t that I was a bad detective; it was more like I was scared to be gay, and the world didn’t provide many examples of living out loud and proud. I grew up in the 90s, when Ellen DeGeneres came out and promptly had her show cancelled, when Melissa Etheridge said, “Yes, I am,” and I wondered if I could ever be so bold. People talked about being gay as an accusation, rather than as just one part of someone’s identity.
Fortunately, the world is changing and becoming more accepting of LGBTQ+ individuals. Which is not to say the fight is over. We still struggle, sometimes personally within our own families and often politically and institutionally; we don’t want to be tokens that drive the bottom line, but active participants in the world, contributing to conversations and growth.
I can’t speak for the entire LGBTQ+ community nor do I know how to take on the world, but I can speak to the power of small steps. I’m fortunate to have a strong support system who said all the right things when I came out to them. My sister even offered to kick some behind (her words were a bit stronger) if anyone messed with me. While we can’t intimidate people into acceptance, it’s nice to know that we have allies who will speak up on our behalf.
As far as institutions go, it’s a relief to see organizations like the IOCDF take steps to be more inclusive. Of the Annual OCD Conferences I’ve attended, I was always happy to see that there was an LGBTQ+ support group. There have also been talks that focused on our community and the challenges we face. Of course, we exist outside of conferences, where attendance is often out of reach, so the real work happens in our daily lives.
In my life, talking about OCD, even recognizing that I needed to get treatment, was urgent and necessary and painful. But that wasn’t obvious to me when my symptoms first appeared. I was around 10 when I experienced my first earthquake, and shortly after I realized I was responsible for the health of the San Andreas Fault, and if I didn’t do something about it, my entire family would die in a collapsed building. Naturally, I made up an incantation, which I repeated in my head any time I heard a loud rumbling noise. But then, as intrusive thoughts go, they morphed and became even more distressing. Soon I was worried about death visiting my loved ones in all forms, from car crashes to disease to even seeing the guillotine coming back in fashion.
This all happened over a period of several years. By the time I was a teenager, I knew that my thinking was disordered, but I didn’t have the words for it. Plus, I was busy grappling with my sexuality, and I could only come out of one closet at a time. Soon the internet became more widely available (oh the 90s), and I was able to research my symptoms in Stone Age WebMD (not recommended). I knew something was wrong, and yet I didn’t tell anyone or seek care. I was afraid, and besides, I thought, I could handle it.
I handled it throughout college and grad school and my first decent job by struggling to suppress my rituals. I handled it by praying for a “normal” brain. And then my friend died. In a car accident. My OCD came true. This wrecked me, and my compulsions and anxiety finally forced me into treatment. I was at my most vulnerable state, never having sought therapy before and grieving. Just making the call to set up an appointment was unbearable.
Ultimately, I was lucky. My treatment team, which also included a therapist for the trauma and grief, was welcoming and supportive. I wish that for everyone seeking care. This is also where it’s vital for treatment providers to understand the LGBTQ+ community. Often, many of us come for help when we’re at our lowest. We can’t be expected to open up if our therapists don’t understand our whole selves. We need to know we can trust our care providers. OCD is never treated in isolation.
As for telling people about my OCD, coming out as gay gave me a framework for doing so. My sister will fight you if you say anything disparaging about OCD, and the rest of my family and friends have provided support that I’m grateful for every day. Sometimes I imagine an OCD Pride parade, where I triumphantly ride atop a hearse as a way of facing my fears about death and all the floats behind me are symbolic in their own way and include other triumphant people who have successfully faced down their fears. For now, my wish is for everyone to have access to quality care and the support of people who love them. And let there be dancing, so much dancing.