A Beautiful Lifeline for Sexuality Spikes: What if I’m gay/straight? (SO-OCD)

by | Feb 25, 2024 | Intrusive Thoughts, Sexuality, Trust Yourself | 23 comments

About a year ago, a man named Steve from Pittsburgh, PA, started responding to comments on my blog, especially on the topic of intrusive thoughts and sexuality spikes: What if I’m not the sexual orientation that I think I am? How do I know? What if this means I have to leave my partner? This is now known as SO-OCD – sexual orientation OCD – in the mainstream psychology community. His comments were so full of wisdom and support that I felt inspired to reach out and ask if he would be willing to share his journey of recovery from this most debilitating intrusive thought with my community. Gratefully, he agreed. As you’ll read, he poignantly describes the mental torture of being caught in this spike, and also shares what helped him find his way through. There is so much gold in this essay. If you struggle with SO-OCD – or any intrusive thoughts – please read this slowly and carefully. And Steve: thank you for bravely sharing your story. I have no doubt that it will serve as a lifeline for anyone who struggles with this theme. 

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Obsessive Thinking around Sexual Themes

It was early December 2019. My wife and I were on the roof of our house, hanging Christmas lights as we started decorating for the holiday season – a season which we both thoroughly enjoy.  As I moved from the front of our house to the back, where the roof is much higher from the ground, I thought to myself: “If I fell off the roof onto my head, maybe my memory would erase, and I could start over and forget about all the fear I now have about HOCD and ROCD and everything in between”. The logical side of my brain tried to chime in – “well you’d lose all the good memories you have and would need to learn everything all over again”. The reply – “yeah but it would be worth it to stop all this noise and 24×7 buzzing”.

At this point, at 41 years old, I was one year into my journey with OCD. The main “theme” that “introduced” me to the world of OCD, was SO-OCD – or sexual orientation OCD, otherwise referred to as HOCD (homosexual OCD – i.e. fear that you have turned gay or were gay and never knew). Throughout this year, I had bounced between SO-OCD, ROCD and Harm OCD. The irony is that while experiencing each “theme”, I would wish for the prior theme to return, because the “new” one felt worse at the time. The truth is that the themes never mattered; it was the fear I was associating with the thoughts and feelings that caused so much distress.  The fear of what consequences would prevail should this noise my brain was throwing up have any actual relevance.

The “buzzing”, as I refer to it, is like a constant state of anxious energy. It feels like your mind and body are basically in a constant state of alertness, a constant state of vibration, which prevented me from the huge spikes of panic. My theory here is that I was in such a state of de-realization and de-personalization, and apathy, that there was no room for flight or fight.  It was just constant compulsive protection from my mind. While that may sound nice, it also prevented the parasympathetic, or “rest and digest” response – meaning my mind and body were never “spiking” because they were never relaxed. They were in a constant state of anxious awareness. Constant state of monitoring. Constant fear.  Why was this?  Why did intrusive thoughts regarding sexuality cause so much distress?  Why couldn’t I let this go and trust myself?

OCD with sexual themes is much different than experiencing a shift in your desire or orientation. It typically will strike “out of nowhere”, and suddenly you begin doubting something about yourself you had never given second thought to. It doesn’t just come in as “what if I’m gay” (although it may start with that). It comes in with statements – “oh look at him, he’s attractive, yep you’re gay”.  It comes in with memory challenges – “did something happen to me as a kid, did I miss something?”  It comes with dreams and images, scenarios, word-associations. Anything and everything you can imagine AND all the feelings that come with it are not pleasant – fear, shame, terror, guilt.

When this happens, and why it’s so powerful, is that it doesn’t just stop at the sexual stuff; you start to wonder who you truly are. You question your entire identity, your likes and dislikes, your personality, your humor and character. You start to fear yourself, your mind, your body. Confidence all but disappears, and the doubt grows and perpetuates into your entire life. Even if you are functioning, which I was, I was not fully living. I have this visual to describe this year of my life: I picture my body on the surface of the earth, above ground.  I’m walking, you can see me, I can see the physical presence of people, trees and buildings. I can speak, and hear, I can smell and taste. But I am not fully there. My mind and soul are buried, beneath the surface, under the dirt, branches and rocks of intrusive thoughts and feared emotions that feel too sharp to climb onto and above. The buried me is screaming: “I’m down here, can anyone hear me, see me?”  But they cannot, as I cannot even see myself. I’m only presenting the world the shell of my body that is barely hanging together.

While I never really felt an actual urge to leap off my roof that December, I was fortunate enough to find a percentage of space in my mind to gain some awareness through the weeds of hopelessness and apathy. I realized that despite thoughts of escaping my tortured mind, I wanted to live. I wanted to move ahead, and I decided then to commit to working on my mental health. I had started true OCD treatment in November, but it wasn’t until that December that I truly committed to working to understand OCD and how to navigate it, and my mental health. I dropped the resistance, dropped the need for a quick fix, and allowed myself to absorb therapy and perspectives. In a sense, I gave myself permission to move forward, and this permission was a huge turning point.

My therapy followed a traditional OCD approach: CBT tactics to work with intrusive thoughts and learning about thought patterns, thinking, and how OCD works, mixed with ERP.  Now I could list out all the exercises I did with ERP, but I’m going to refrain from doing that. Why? Because even during my therapy, I chased ERP.  And chasing anything, sadly, is a compulsion. It’s a way of trying to institute control, to achieve a feeling. I not only was doing the ERP with the therapist and the homework assigned, but I was also researching other exercises I could do. I became obsessed with OCD itself and how to beat it.

Not only was I compulsively researching ERP, but I was also investigating any modality that claimed to have success. I read that ACT was super beneficial, so started compulsively watching you tube videos on ACT while still chasing exposures as well. I started finding all sorts of acronym-based techniques and was bouncing back and forth between all of them.  I was questioning acceptance, after all, what was it I was trying to accept?  Worst-case scenario: how the heck does someone accept that? While I was making some progress on the theme of SO-OCD, the progress was disguised by the fact that my obsessive mind found something else to become compulsive about. Some folks call it “meta-OCD”, or OCD about OCD.  I like to refrain from labels here, as quite frankly that’s part of why I was in this mess to begin with. What was happening was that I was not paying enough attention to my behaviors, and I was just soaking in content from the shiny screen of my phone or laptop, thinking it was the key information I needed to magically get rid of this whole OCD thing once and for all.

Now, not all research is negative. The fact that we live in an era where information is abundant can be a good thing, and a helpful thing. But we must proceed with caution. Not everything we read on the internet is true, and while something may help someone, it doesn’t mean it applies to you. ERP should not be wrapped in a box and produced in mass quantities that you can then purchase at your local department store and just open and go. It needs to be effective. Just copying another individuals’ exposures is likely going to result in frustrations. For example, if you’re a heterosexual with SO-OCD, you may read that going to a gay bar is a “good exposure”.  If the point of this exposure is to spike up your anxiety so that you can sit with it and habituate to it, what happens if the anxiety never spikes? What if going to that bar doesn’t really strike into a core fear? Further, say you do have anxiety going into this bar and you eventually habituate to it. Are you ever going back there? Was there value in habituating yourself to entering a gay bar?

I understand that’s not the point of exposure, but from my perspective, if exposure is not targeted at allowing you to return to activities that you are either avoiding or white-knuckling your way through, then what’s the purpose? What are you learning? For me, I learned that most targeted exposures didn’t really ramp up fear and emotions as much as my imagination and mind did. So, for me, the greatest exposure was my own thoughts, and learning how to create space between a thought that occurs to me, and compulsive thinking, was crucial to improving my overall mental health. Learning that I cannot control a thought, but I can control my thinking – that I have a choice in what I focus my attention on – allowed me to alter my entire perspective on what was happening. Slowly, I gained more confidence in my mindset, my confidence in my ability to notice what was happening up there, and more confidence to break the obsessive thinking that I feel is the deepest behavioral habit those with OCD of any theme need to work on.

Throughout my compulsive research, I really struggled with the concept of acceptance.  I read so many stories that said, “just accept you could be gay”, or “just accept you could be a pedophile”, or “just accept your partner may not be right for you”, or “just accept that technically you could someday stab your child in the face with a knife”.  It was pitched as pure gold – just do this and you will have peace of mind. You will be free from worry and the world will be sunshine and rainbows and unicorns. I kept trying to accept things.  I was working through worst-case scenario’s saying, “Ok, I accept this, even if it happens, I will be ok”.  Essentially, I was compulsively trying to reassure myself that certain horrible things wouldn’t be so bad. It was like a backwards way of trying to neutralize the thoughts and feelings.  What I eventually had to learn was that acceptance is not an action. You cannot force yourself to just accept something. You cannot “work” on acceptance by ruminating about it.

To me, acceptance is no longer fighting with your thoughts and fears.  It means when your mind is wanting you to make sure you’re attracted to that person you always have been, and continue to want to be attracted to, you can feel that pull to be compulsive, that urge, and say “I don’t have to prove this to myself anymore”.  When you’re watching TV and you see a sexual scene or there’s an attractive person on there, and your OCD is urging you to check for arousal, you let that go. Let the arousal happen on its own. When you’re with your partner, and this can be excessively challenging, the same thing applies. Get out of your head. Focus on them. You will feel the pull to check, to think, to analyze. Bring the focus back to your partner, the TV show, the person you are speaking with. Practice the power of AND. I can have these thoughts AND be intimate with my partner. I can have these thoughts AND bathe my young child. I can have this anxiety, fear, shame and guilt AND go out to dinner for Valentine’s day with my spouse or partner. I have OCD, I’m struggling, AND it’s a beautiful day.

With it being 2024, I am now 5 years past the initial hurricane of intrusive thoughts, OCD and anxiety. I continue to have ups and downs. Is that because I am not “recovered”?  Is that because I failed in my healing?  No. It is because I am human and learning how to be human takes time and patience. It takes an openness to see where you might be practicing unhealthy mental habits, even in areas that do not cause you distress. I’ve been able to see how quickly my mind can go into rumination about any topic. How I aim to avoid discomfort at any costs, and how that cleverly overlaps with how my mind falls into compulsive activity around sexual thoughts as well. So, when I’m doing that obsessive thinking on any topic, I’m practicing it. Which makes it much easier to fall into when intrusive thoughts come knocking. I’m continuing to uncover fears that exist below the surface of the thoughts, and tie in things that I never “associated” with OCD to follow the same core fear. I’ve found that shame around masculinity has been a major topic for me.  And changing my beliefs on what masculinity is NOT, and beliefs about my own perceptions of myself, has helped take the weight off that mental topic and provided more natural acceptance of my strengths and flaws.

If you find yourself in a spiral of obsessive thinking around sexuality, or other themes that can often coincide, take a breath and slow down. Work on not chasing answers. Identify what safety behaviors you are doing, especially up in your head.  If possible, work with a therapist, but do not look for a set length of time you would spend there.  Avoid putting a time frame on it (“oh we typically have people come to us for 6 months, or 12 visits”). If you cannot work with a therapist, be careful what you find online. Look for reputable places where certified specialists are contributing to the content. If someone is saying they alone have the “key” to OCD or anxiety, I suggest you disengage because there is no key. You must find your way. A good therapist will help, but ultimately you hold any “key” that could exist. Someone may show you the door, but you have to unlock it and walk through.

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23 Comments

  1. So much truth!

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  2. So beautiful and well-said. When I went through my most horrible dark night of OCD (I actually prefer not to label it but it’s the closest thing), I found I just had to let go of any particular technique and just trust myself. Paradoxically, I’ve found that that dark night of self-doubt is what forced me to trust in something deep within myself that I had always had so much trouble trusting all of my life. It’s still a process, of course. But I remember there came a point where I just had to choose not to identify with any storyline. To accept that I cant find the answers in my mind. That I am not my thoughts, that I am my soul. And that is beyond mind.

    I also would add that with contemporary society’s emphasis on identity and individualism, sensitive humans are feeling so much pressure to have some kind of “fixed identity.” I had to realize too that none of us are limited enough to fit into a box or a label, and then I could just choose to be in the present moment and accept the gift of life more as it is. Again, a process 😉

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    • I love this post so much! It speaks so much truth and I relate closely. Thank you Steve and Sheryl for sharing.

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      • I’m in Pittsburgh, too Steve!! We should start a PGH Sheryl Paul intrusive thoughts healing community here 🙂
        Thank you so much for your vulnerability I saw myself and my process in your story.

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        • 🙂

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    • Julia I relate to this. I’m wary of labels, for myself. To apply a label feels a little too medical, clinical. I suffer, sure, but I feel out of step with the mainstream ‘OCD community’ because I don’t particularly like acronyms, labels and dogmatic treatment styles. Of course we are all individual, and different things help different people. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, despite what our brains may tell us sometimes!

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    • Yes – well stated. Falls in line with the points I was making around how I “chased” ERP and other modalities. Sure these labels can help with guidance on where to start or statistics on success but other than that the reality is you need a mix of understanding, patience, compassion, pain and frustration tolerance and vulnerability to slowly change your perspective

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      • I’m in the middle of a huge ocd flare that has lasted a year. I can hear my logical rational side that tries to have me be present but I have been in my head for so long that it’s so hard to not be, Steve do you have a therapist you liked or could you recommend someone? I have been having a hard time even finding someone that even that has turned into an obsession.

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        • Alicia, I strongly recommend you take one of Sheryl’s courses, if you haven’t already. It provided me with a lot of light and insight.

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          • Josh, I have been a member for the last 10 years and have taken a course. I had a flare up last year and it is still going . I have a lot of fears and seem to question everything

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            • Hi Alicia,

              “Flare ups”, or “step backs” or “spikes” can be extremely difficult to handle. Especially if things had been going well for some time. It can feel like starting over, like everything you learned and accomplished got washed away in a flood of heavy emotions and spinning thoughts. However, one thing we can always come back to is that feelings are not facts. Even when we FEEL as if we are back in the cycle, which is very distressing, discouraging and frightening, deep down we still have the tools we’ve learned. We still have a new foundation we started to build, we just need to keep building it. Take the step back, notice what you are doing to perpetuate the cycle, and give yourself permission to stop the compulsive activity.

              When you’re in a state that feels as if everything is happening so fast in your head that it feels automatic, you likely will add more pressure and stress by forcefully trying to constantly be present. It’s easier said than done but you have to allow all that noise while still continuing to do what you want to do, even if your suffering while doing it. We don’t have to be black or white here, you can be in your head AND START to be present at the same time. Slowly, this will help shift.

              For therapy, I know EXACTLY what you are going through. I was contacting my 5th therapist/mental health center in my area when the kind individual on the other end said, “Steve, it may be possible that your very condition is preventing you from starting treatment”. The suggestion was that I was trying to perfect the “right treatment” before even starting. The recommendation, was to stop searching, pick one and go. Even if it doesn’t work out, and you have to change, the message was that I needed to take action. I suggest if possible, find one that is local that you can start treatment in person. Virtual options are great, and would be better than nothing, but you are more vulnerable in person and you need to “release” that vulnerability to help move forward. Now I wouldn’t recommend going to a marriage counselor for help with OCD or Anxiety, just like I wouldn’t recommend going to a heart surgeon to fix a broken leg. But if you’re searching amongst several who have the same backgrounds pick one and get started.

              If folks cannot afford therapy, one thing that I found helpful along my journey, in addition to this tremendous space, is the podcast called the OCD Stories hosted by Stuart Ralph

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  3. Thank you, Steve! It feels soothing to read about your experience and your encouragement and advice. 🤗❤️

    Warmly,
    Jamie

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  4. Thank you for this vulnerable and helpful post. I resonate with so much of what you wrote. I remember the nights searching how do I know if I’m gay? Finding one “answer” that allowed my mind to quiet down, but shortly after searching the validity of that “answer”. The question of did something happen to me when I was younger and have a committed an inappropriate act? Hearing other people’s stories helps ease the shame and guilt of these thoughts. The silver lining is one night searching led me to Sheryl’s work, where I finally understood my suffering and had safe place to share my thoughts. As you said MH is a journey that ebbs and flows. The awareness is the key to unlocking our minds and taking back our own power. Your brave words are helping others to heal.

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  5. Deep gratitude to you Steve, and Sheryl as well. Your insights apply to many areas of anxiety & I’m holding those truths close to my heart. I love this metaphor for our “over-thinking” minds…The mail person delivers loads of letters, (our thoughts), but we can choose not to open them all and read the stories and contents….return to sender please 🙂
    Being gracious & patient with yourself was an underlying energy I really felt. I will continue to do the same for myself.

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  6. Perfect portrayal of obsessive intrusive thoughts and how they affect their host. Great read and it hits home although the subject matter is not of a sexual nature for me

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    • I’m thankful for your comment, as while I did want to highlight the sexual theme, I also wanted to write in a way that would highlight how irrelevant the theme is in the end, as whatever fears we have all bring us similar suffering/experiences and also similar opportunities to rise above and grow

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  7. Just wanting to echo how brave this share is. ❤️ It is so helpful to see the core universal themes that shine through all the various forms of anxiety. There is such power in seeing ourselves reflected in the stories of others – of normalizing anxiety so it doesn’t become a source of further isolation and shame. Thank you for posting.

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  8. “There is no key. You must find your own way.” I strongly relate to this.

    In my own journey, I’ve learnt that, for me, exposure involves exposing myself to the GOOD things in my life, the things that my mind wants to pull me away from. Engaging with my marriage and my work, and my commitment to my own therapist, despite what my mind is throwing at me – that’s exposure. It doesn’t involve ‘chasing’ anything, or seeking out gay bars 😀. I agree, you can’t get this from a manual; each person needs to ascertain what is best for them, and what ‘’ for one person might not work for everyone. I too get extremely hung up on labels and acronyms, but that’s really all they are. We are all unique individuals on our own special paths.

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    • Joshua,

      Love this – “exposing myself to the GOOD things in my life, the things that my mind wants to pull me away from”. Bringing attention to what I value, what is right in front of me, has been a constant shift to practice over these last 5 years. Even if I’m stuck in my mind on something that does not fall into any of the labels (i.e. overthinking on a conversation or if my son’s knee really is ok or if he needs to get an MRI tomorrow, etc. vs. “intrusive thoughts” on typical OCD themes), I’m still stuck in my mind, still ruminating. Still “practicing” compulsive behavior. The shift, to expose yourself to what’s happening in your life right now, AND experiencing any distress or any noise in your mind, is tremendously beneficial, and your brain learns from this behavior shift

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  9. After years of my own struggles with this, guidance from Sheryl’s work along the way, and also a talented EMDR therapist, I wrote this last summer on the Reddit HOCD forum, and people there found it helpful. I wanted to share it here, because it echoes so much of what’s in this post, and that echo may be helpful to people who are suffering from this pattern of thought:

    Too often for me, summer has meant going to the pool/beach and seeing women in ever-skimpier clothes and men with no shirts and freaking out about who I may / may not be attracted to. Or it’s Pride Month reminding me that I can’t seem to figure out my sexuality. Am I heterosexual? Am I lesbian because I feared I was in high school and I’ve been lying to myself? Am I lesbian or bi because I like XYZ music or performers or books? All the pride flags!

    But here’s the thing… you have to not let the thoughts and the fears matter. Yes, you’ll notice people. Maybe it’ll mean something. Yes, there are pride flags around, at least where I live. You’ll see them. But none of it HAS to mean anything. OCD will try its best to convince you that it does. It’ll try to steal the life you want.

    In my case, the life I want is not to have to leave my family because I’ve been living a lie. OCD is a master of telling me that’s just what I’ll “have” to do… but until that happens, I am who I am. I love my family and I love my husband. As Pride says, Love Is Love because I love who I love and I choose them every day. That is my truth right now and I accept it 100%.

    Key to my better days/weeks/months/years has been accepting that one day, my truth may be different, and if it ever is, I’ll know. Yes, accepting is hard. It means being aware of a thought and letting it go, without ruminating on it, as Steve says. But until then, every day, I may have to just be uncertain about my sexuality. I may *never* get to have the apparent certainty that coming out or not suggests. Maybe all I’ll ever be able to come out with is SO-OCD! On my better days, fully accepting that uncertainty lets me go to the pool and truly enjoy myself. I live into the idea that sometimes women are attractive, sometimes men, and none of it has to mean anything. I can let go of the need for certainty, in breathing in and reminding myself to let my shoulders release because I’ve been holding in the fear too long, again.

    I wrote this first during Pride Month after my kids came out and gave me rainbow bracelets. I found that there’s a joy in wearing those beaded bracelets and realizing it does not matter what people think, this bracelet will not make me gay. Being told Happy Pride will not make me gay, or make me leave my family. Putting Pride flags outside our home will not make me gay and will not make my deepest fears come true. They are only bracelets and flags and ways of celebrating that love is love. Pride is for allies too, and one of the best ways I’ve found of not letting OCD win is to lean fully into that celebratory spirit and just let go, or try to.

    Try to love and trust your actual self. You are not your OCD and OCD cannot change you, it can only confuse you and hurt you. You’re strong and you’ve got this!

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    • Awesome post, thank you for sharing

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  10. Hi Steve

    What a thoughtful and courageous piece of writing, thank you. As a therapist working with patients who are struggling with anxiety and OCD this piece really speaks to me in how to be more supportive and empathic to their issues. It can feel so shaming in sharing some of the thoughts and I feel very privileged in my role to support them on their journey. Thank you for your insight and your strength. Best wishes, Gail

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  11. This is my first ever comment, but I felt ‘compelled’ (ha) to say how much Steve’s story resonated with me too. It was beautifully written and heart-rending.

    I too, have had years of SOCD, and ROCD. In the past few years, it has morphed into a triggering fixation on an ongoing ‘difference of opinion’ between my husband and I. This polarized difference of views is something that is being played out in the media too, on many topics including the one we differ on. It’s as if the ROCD just glued itself to this one toxic debate.

    I have read SO much self-help, and done therapy etc. Some of it has helped…but if I look at my patterns over the years, boy am I trigger-happy.

    I think trying *not* to ruminate is key. I have found comfort from the OCD website and methods of Dr Michael J Greenberg.

    Thanks to Steve and Sheryl for sharing this piece. I think it is brilliant and brave.

    Reply

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