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OCD made me question every aspect of my identity — even my sexuality. Here's how I overcame it and found the love of my life.

Elle Warren   

OCD made me question every aspect of my identity — even my sexuality. Here's how I overcame it and found the love of my life.
  • For almost 10 years, I struggled with a type of OCD known as sexual orientation OCD (SO-OCD).
  • SO-OCD made me question my sexuality; internalized homophobia made me desperate to know the answer.

As a friend and I walked to class in middle school together, she joked, "What would you do if I was just like, 'I'm a lesbian?'"

I laughed. "Ummm….I don't know."

I made a yikes face and widened my eyes. We were both in on the joke, but she didn't know that I'd been obsessing over whether I was a lesbian for months.

You've heard the classic OCD tropes — someone who likes to keep a clean house or do things "a certain way." In reality, it doesn't involve preference or enjoyment at all. It's debilitating. It's known as "the doubting disease" because it can make you doubt anything valuable to you and your identity, including your sexuality. There's a nickname for it: sexual orientation OCD — or SO-OCD for short.

It plagued me for years until I learned to overcome it and found the love of my life.

For almost 10 years, I tried to 'solve' my sexuality like a math equation

SO-OCD gripped me for the rest of grade school. It told me I just needed to plug in the right facts and figures, and I'd come to a final conclusion and be rid of anxiety.

I looked at kids my age at the mall and pictured kissing them to see if I liked it. I looked at girls' bodies to see if I had any physical reaction to them. I wracked my memories for clues about myself that would point me in one direction or the other. I worried that boys were more into my best friend than me because they could secretly tell I was gay.

There were times the obsessions — Does X thought mean I'm gay? How about X action? — were quiet, but the quiet usually came only after the compulsions provided me with a temporarily satisfying answer: that, of course, I was straight.

Alegra Kastens, LMFT, founder of the Center for OCD, Anxiety, and Eating Disorders, told me: "OCD doesn't exist in a vacuum. It is influenced by the world around us." While we don't know exactly what causes OCD, it's thought to be some combination of genetic and environmental factors — and one of those environmental factors can be homophobia.

It came from all angles. There was my Catholic upbringing, the jokes my friends made, Disney movie romances, sitcom punchlines, and friends' fathers asking if I had a boyfriend yet by the time I was 5. I internalized all of that.

OCD made me have obsessions and compulsions, but internalized homophobia made me desperate to be straight.

After high school, I moved far away from home and met queer people

When I was 20, my mother died. My OCD — and the depression that came with it — turned unmanageable in the throes of grief. I went to Denver because my brother said I could stay with him there, and I needed to do something that made me feel like I had control over my life.

After a few months, I transferred to a school there and moved into student housing. One of my roommates was queer. She had a queer friend who lived in the building, and that friend flirted with me. By the time this began, I'd been living in Denver for six months, and I felt free because the worst thing I could imagine — my mother dying — already happened.

Every other fear paled in comparison, including my fear of being gay. I felt like a blank slate.

I'm now going to marry the love of my life

Over time, I stopped being afraid of queerness and started to embrace it. Meeting more queer people served as a sort of real-life exposure and, over time, undid a gnarly chunk of that harmful homophobic messaging that was knotted in me.

One day, I asked myself if I was attracted to the girl who lived in my building. I noticed I wasn't asking obsessively — with a desperate need to know for sure and control the outcome. I felt no sense of dire consequence. Instead, I just felt curious.

After almost 10 years of agonizing, queerness became obvious to me in an instant. I lay in bed one night, unable to fall asleep, and my brain lit up with it. It felt right and true.

A few months later, I moved back to my Michigan hometown. I got on the dating apps. I had my first casual courtship with a woman before meeting the one I will soon marry. When I met her, my world shook in a magical — not terrifying — way. Today, our life is so beautiful, and after almost three years together, I continue to be in awe of how much disbelief my younger self would be in over it.

Desire seemed so complicated then. Now, it is very simple.

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