Trigger Warning: This post is about mental illness and sexuality. Please exercise self-care.
Today is the day that Bell encourages Canadians to talk about mental health. I sat down in front of my trusty laptop feeling calm and clear-headed, eager to write a pithy post about my ongoing struggles with sex and mental illness. Ironically, the challenge of trying create a light-hearted entry has set my heart pounding and brought me to the verge of tears. Seriously, brain? You can’’t even stop being mentally ill long enough to let me write one lousy blog post about being mentally ill? No, of course you can’t. That’s not how this works.
That’s what the tears and the anxiety are about. I have a brain that doesn’t work the way that people say brains are supposed to work. And the effects of my malfunctioning brain have traumatized my body. I am never more aware of this fact then when I have sex.
Some people believe that our emotional experiences stay in our physical bodies. I don’t know if there’s any scientific research to support that claim, but I believe there’s something worth considering in that idea. In order to become sexually aroused and sexually active, I have to allow my body to become vulnerable. Often times when I let that happen, my initial emotional reaction is overwhelming. It’s this kind of amorphous fear, anger, shame, sorrow and general badness that erupts from the pit of my stomach. It moves quickly, but sometimes I catch it right away and shut it down. Unfortunately shutting it down means shutting myself down as well and then no sex for me. Other times, it’s too strong and swift. It powers through me and beyond me. I start crying because the emotions are so big, I literally can’t contain them. When the tears stop, I typically feel relief…but I’m also a puffy-faced, snotty mess. No sex for me.
If our physical bodies are haunted by emotional phantoms, my body’s reaction makes sense to me. In some ways, I’m lucky. Most days, I can cope with my illness. Like I know that I’m going to be vaguely panicky for the first hour of every weekday. because getting The Bean ready for school and having the day’s “to-do” list looming in front of me is terrifying. But I also know from experience that tasks in front of me are not as daunting as my brain is telling me and that my heart rate will slow down as the day progresses and I get stuff done. I’m used to the way my heart leaps when I hear an e-mail alert or the phone rings. I’m getting better at ignoring the part of my brain that’s constantly telling me, ‘No one will care if you don’t show up, because no one actually likes you.’
Most days I can live my life in a way that probably looks pretty normal. But I can’t stop being mentally ill. So instead I strategize. I use tools and coping mechanisms, many of which involve ignoring my emotional state and dealing with the world on a more cognitive level. I constantly remind myself ‘Just because it feels bad, doesn’t mean it is bad.’ But the flip side is that just because those painful emotions are the by-product of lousy brain chemistry, it doesn’t mean they aren’t real. Even when I’m able to recognize certain feelings/reactions as “that’s the anxiety” or “that’s the depression,” it doesn’t make them go away. I’m not curing, but I’m coping.
If I want to have sex, I have to let my guard down. And if all those icky emotions that I normally push through are still living in my body, it makes sense that they kind of explode when I let myself be more physically vulnerable.
Like I said, I haven’t looked into any scientific data on this emotions-in-body theory, but I am trying a little experiment of my own. I’m sleeping naked. Back in Canada, it’s either too cold or too air-conditioned for me to sleep nude, but I find it quite comfortable in the Northern California climate. I know nudity is not required for sex, but I find nudity does make me feel very physically vulnerable. It sounds a little farfetched, but I think that maybe if I do that in times when I’m not having sex, it will give my body a chance to process and discharge some negativity, without the pressure of having it tied into a sexual experience.
Also, my grandmother told me it’s good to give my vagina some breathing room.
It’s just hard. For me living with mental illness is an ongoing process of building myself up and breaking myself down. As I build a system to cope with an aspect of my life, some other part of me is broken and I have to find new tools to shore myself up. I’m starting to realize that my sex life is not exempt from this. My sex life is part of my life, as is my illness. I can’t separate it. I can’t fix it That’s not how this works. I will never cure my mental illness, but I can keep learning how to live with it.