I had never said the words out loud, but I felt I could trust my psychiatrist. I was 16 years old and had been seeing him for nearly half my life. I took a deep breath and uttered the words: “I think I might be gay.”
“Okay, let’s explore this,” he replied. “Do you like women?”
“Yes,” I said. It was the truth—I did like women.
“Okay, then you’re not gay.”
"Could I be bisexual?" I asked. I knew what bisexuality was for as long as I could remember—and thought it really did describe my attractions—but I had never met a single person who openly identified as bi. So I wanted to hear what the mental health expert had to say.
“You’re not bisexual," he answered. "Bisexuality really doesn’t exist in men, and I don’t want you obsessing over this.”
Looking back now, I see he was trying to prevent a spike in my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which I was diagnosed with when I was about nine years old and had been treating with 200 mg of Zoloft daily, the max dose for children. He must have thought I was experiencing sexual orientation OCD (SO-OCD), a subtype of OCD that is characterized by intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors around a person's sexual orientation.
People with SO-OCD "spend far too much time questioning their sexuality to the point where it can ruin their life and their family’s life," says Joe Kort, Ph.D., certified sex therapist and co-director of Modern Sex Therapy Institutes.
But in dismissing me the way he did, my psychiatrist not only made my OCD worse, but cut off the self-exploration that could have led to me to embrace my bisexuality way sooner.
That's the challenge of treating bi patients with OCD. "They begin feeling internal pressure to choose a sexual orientation, and the more they worry about it, the worse the situation becomes," Kort says. "They constantly are trying to prove their true sexuality or reduce their obsession with their perceived sexual orientation and their thoughts can spiral out of control to the point their OCD condition can become disabling."
After my psych session, I was a wreck. I think I knew, somewhere deep, deep down, that I liked men and women, but my psychiatrist insisted I was straight. That kind of cognitive dissonance is a nightmare for people with OCD. Your brain can't rest until you've landed on a definitive answer.
Throughout college, I constantly questioned my sexual orientation. It consumed my every thought. The thing is, I would get boners looking at hot dudes, and that seemed pretty gay. I’d also get blacked out and hook up with men, and that seemed very gay. So I’d tell myself I was gay, and immediately, I’d get a crush on and start dating a woman. So I figured, nope, not gay! But then I’d start to second guess myself. I’d tell myself I was actually gay and simply deluding myself into thinking I liked this woman. But then I’d love having sex with her, which seemed pretty fucking straight!
I remember being in my room one night, crying, and thinking to myself, “I don’t even care if I’m gay or straight. I just want to know which one it is, so I know who I should fuck and date."
Still, even if my psychiatrist had told me I could be bi, and encouraged me to explore my attraction to men, it wouldn't have cured my OCD. I would have obsessed over other shit, but it would have saved me a half-decade of sleepless nights where I laid awake thinking, “What am I?” as if I were this AI robot who just gained sentience.
But alas, he said what he said.
The psychiatrist should have encouraged me to explore my sexual attraction to men, Kort explains. "Straight men with SO-OCD worry about having an attraction to men and try to force the attraction, but in the end, do not have it," he says. "So I'd recommend someone like you to explore their sexuality safely, acting upon it, and then seeing if it's actually enjoyable."
Nevertheless, even if you have a queer-friendly therapist who encourages you to explore, it can be hard for bi people with OCD to figure out their identity. You may be so in your head while exploring, you can't even tell if you're enjoying the experience. Not to mention that sexuality is fluid, and I’d argue it's even more fluid for bi folks. Most bi people do not have an equal attraction to all genders. Some bi folks prefer to date nonbinary folks, whereas others are more sexually attracted to men but romantically attracted to women. Sexual and romantic attractions also change over time. I know I'll find myself wanting to sleep with more women at times, and at other times, I'll only want to date men. Since people with OCD crave definite answers and love seeing the world in black and white, fluidity is one of the hardest things for us to accept and embrace.
But it’s not impossible. I was able to embrace my bisexuality and my fluidity, first and foremost with therapy. When I was 23, I started seeing a new therapist, who, on our second session, said I seemed very clearly bisexual. When I said, “That shit doesn't exist in men,” he replied, “Zach, you’re too smart to think that.”
Getting that definitive answer about my identity—having a trained professional say, “You are bisexual”—was huge. It made sense of all my thoughts, desires, and behaviors and gave me the certainty I'd been craving. So much of my anxiety and obsessing came from feeling a way that I didn't think was legitimate—and so my brain desperately tried to fit me into "gay" or "straight" boxes. Knowing there was a middle ground—bisexuality—was a way of embracing the uncertainty. It wasn't just validating my sexual identity, but it was also the very thing I needed to ultimately manage my OCD. Still, I had doubts. It wasn’t like my anxiety disappeared overnight just because one therapist said I could be bisexual.
What really helped me to embrace being bisexual was when I re-conceptualized what bisexuality meant for me by allowing for fluidity within a concrete label. Here’s what I mean: I know that I’m bisexual even if I never sleep with a man (or woman) again. I know that I’m bisexual even if my attraction to certain genders ebbs and flows. I know that I’m bisexual no matter what because bisexuality includes a range of sexual and romantic attractions to various genders. So I’m able to embrace my fluidity while still having a definite label. This allows me to do date and fuck whomever I please.
Since I embraced being bisexual seven years ago, I’ve also noticed that my OCD symptoms have gone down exponentially. Being able to embrace being bi and the fluidity that comes with it has allowed me to also embrace other aspects of my life that aren’t black and white. As a result, I’ve become more comfortable sitting with uncertainty in a way that I never could before. That’s why being bisexual is a gift to me, one that initially compounded my mental illness but is now helping me embrace the world's many shades of gray.