This post was originally published at CBTSchool.com on April 5, 2021.
by Elle Warren
In 7th grade, close to a decade before knowing OCD was anything besides a preference for cleanliness and organization, I was sitting on the sidelines of the gymnasium for cheerleading practice. I watched my teammates jump and stunt and tumble, awaiting my turn to get thrown in the air. Without warning, the projector in my brain began to play a childhood memory I’d forgotten about. From ages 4-6, my neighborhood best friend and I, a girl, used to kiss. We would reenact scenes we’d seen in the movies our older siblings watched or make up our own scenes. She typically made me be “the boy.”
With this memory came the extreme distress that did not leave me for years: I became a scientist of my sexuality, dissecting attraction. Forming hypotheses and then testing them in my head. I imagined sexual scenarios with both genders to test whether or not I wanted them to happen. I agonized over what it meant that as a young child, I kissed a girl regularly. But I’m a cheerleader, I’d think, or it’s not like I’m checking anyone out in the locker room…
I noticed both men and women, hoping one was true and the other wasn’t. I had a few casual, PG flings with boys throughout high school, but it was impossible to settle into them due to the fact that I was constantly wondering, “am I actually attracted to this person?” “Is this what it’s supposed to feel like?” “Could I really be into both?” “Oh god, I hope I’m not into both.” Note: I do not believe gender to be a binary, but I didn’t know that then.
If you have never heard of sexual orientation OCD, it is a common subtype of OCD in which one feels highly distraught and fearful of never knowing their true sexual orientation. Like all OCD, it latches onto our closest values and truths, causing us to doubt ourselves. It can attack individuals of any sexual orientation. Compulsions often sound like what I described above: rumination on imagined scenarios, mental reviewing of past interactions, “checking” for attraction. Others include watching porn to see how it makes you feel and checking for a groinal response.
Our societal narrative of bisexuality also necessitates self-doubt. There is the pressure to “pick a side.” There is the dismissal of it as “just a phase” for straight people or “denial” for gay people. There is that word “bi-curious”—I first heard this on Jersey Shore, wondering if this was me, if maybe it was just innocent curiosity like Deena—as if one must meet a certain quota of same-sex interactions before being legitimized. (Hint: bisexuality does not have to mean a 50/50 split! Preferences are normal.)
One may feel they are either not “gay enough” or not “straight enough.” Amongst gays and lesbians, bisexuals have the highest rate of considering and/or attempting suicide. There is this double-life feeling: date someone of the opposite sex, and it will be assumed by the majority that you are straight. Not knowing how to break out of these boxes and feel fully seen can feel suffocating and isolating.
To feel invalid or incorrect in your identity paired with a life-or-death need to be absolutely certain of that identity is, naturally, highly distressing. I started experiencing derealization/depersonalization around my junior year of high school, which is quite common company of OCD. Of all OCD symptoms, this one has probably been my most impactful and difficult to cope with.
Derealization refers to feeling separate from your surroundings, as if you are not really there, while depersonalization refers to feeling separate from yourself, as if you’re floating outside your body. Both make you feel unreal and less than sane. I didn’t talk about this for years because I didn’t know how to. I didn’t know I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.
The same went for my sexuality: no one told me that bisexuality (or pansexuality) was a real thing. There were a couple of openly gay boys at my mid-western, relatively small-town school, but I didn’t know of anyone that loved everyone, and I didn’t know any girls that liked girls. I also grew up Catholic, and no one who grows up Catholic grows up thinking it’s okay to be anything other than straight. To my adolescent brain, the possibility that I could like girls—of course, it’s normal for children to experiment regardless of who they grow up to love, but I didn’t know any of that—was like suddenly remembering I had murdered someone.
So, I looked for advice everywhere, and this is part of the agony of OCD—taking in everything from the world, from other people’s stories, and wondering if it is also yours. “Will I also wake up one day in middle age and realize I’ve been lying to myself about my sexuality?” One time, the priest of my church poked his head into our youth group session. I can’t remember what we were talking about or what prompted this, but he said, “How can you know you like a flavor you’ve never tried before?” and whether he was referring to sexuality or not, that’s how I interpreted it. That’s how it was with everything then: every adage or quote or cliche I tried to take as a clue or “sign” to point me in the direction of my truth.
To be both bisexual or pansexual (these days I typically use bisexual, but there have times where pan felt more fitting; if you feel like your label is fluid or still being discovered, that’s okay! It’s allowed to change as you learn more about yourself) and to have sexual orientation OCD is to feel invalidated from two different angles. Depending on the circumstance—I am not denouncing religion altogether—religion can add even another layer of confusion, shame, and/or internalized homophobia.
If no one has told you this, I am honored to: whatever attraction you naturally feel is valid, and if you feel confused by that, allow the confusion. Your sexuality is not an equation you must solve, as much as OCD hates that answer. And you don’t have to “pick a side.” If recovery seems impossible, know that I now date people of all genders, openly, proudly, without shame, and I don’t feel the compulsive need to narrow myself down or be 100% certain of my sexuality.
If reading this felt like an exposure, congratulations! Sticking it out to the end is something to be proud of. Now, don’t forget the response-prevention part. If you’re wondering if my story is also your story, allow me to suggest that you don’t need to know the answer to that. All you need is an open heart and the steadfast commitment to greet yourself with open arms. If any of the LBGTQIA+ labels feel right to you, remember there is a whole community that will greet you with open arms, too.
Another great resource by Alegra Kastens (@obsessivelyeverafter) on the impact OCD can have on your sex life: https://www.verywellmind.com/impact-of-ocd-on-sex-life-5086811
If my story sounds familiar, I would love to hear from you! Feel free to comment below or follow me on Instagram @griefgurlwithocd