We don't talk enough about how anxiety disorders change our sex lives
I’ve always been a very sexual person. As soon as I hit puberty, I was fascinated by sex.
My best friend and I talked about it all the time, putting our heads together to imagine what it would really be like. Would it be like it was in the movies, in the books we got at the library?
We knew it couldn’t just be how it was described in our sex education class, and we definitely weren’t on board with the idea that sex was only for procreation.
As I’ve gotten older (and actually had sex), my relationship with the act has shifted.
Most of this has been the result of not only my coming to terms with my body and what it does and doesn’t like but also coming to terms with another part of my existence: my anxiety disorder.
Sometimes I love sex. Other times, though, I feel too trapped in my own head to do anything sexual at all. My partner is often the first to notice. We’ll be sitting on the couch and watching Netflix or be making dinner, and she’ll say, “You seem far away.”
It isn’t until my mental state is pointed out to me that I realize what’s happening. In these moments, I feel both warm and cool, like I’m breaking a fever. I feel tired and drained, but I mostly feel like I’m not actually there. I know, technically, that I’m present, but I don’t feel like it. It’s exactly how my partner puts it — I just seem kind of far away.
In those moments, it isn’t that I don’t want to touch someone or be touched. It’s more that it doesn’t even occur to me to reach out and stroke her hair, or put my head on her shoulder or kiss the back of her neck. I feel so distant and so totally not present that touching feels like an impossibility.
Even when I do reach out, the motion feels hollow. It’s like I’m actively telling my body to move, limb to limb, muscle to muscle, instead of my body doing as it pleases, craving touch as it usually does.
This is the result of my anxiety disorder, and because of it, I can slip into hours or sometimes days where I’m not interested in being touched — and I’m definitely not interested in having sex.
Sometimes this causes me to totally panic. I Google “lesbian bed death” and read articles online that make me feel guilty for not giving my partner what she wants or needs. I feel like I’m jeopardizing my relationship and like I’m putting our connection at risk by robbing us of our physical relationship.
But then I step back. And I think about who I am and what I’d tell (and have told) my friends — sex is chill, but it’s not a constant necessity in a relationship. I push away the gross guilt we put on people when they don’t want to have sex, and I remind myself that I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to or even really feel physically or mentally capable of doing.
Whether it’s a kiss or an orgasm, I don’t owe anyone anything of my body. No one does.
Luckily my partner isn’t the type of person who would ever coerce me into doing anything. If anything, she’s the opposite. Like I said, she can always tell when I fall into this mode — it would be beyond bizarre and creepy if she decided to push me into sex anyway. Why would she want to have sex with cold, robot me instead of warm, giggling, fun, actually there me?
I wish I heard more conversations about how mental health impacts sex. I wish I saw less from media outlets about how sex is essential, about how we owe each other our bodies, about how we should do it even when we don’t feel like it.
Sex isn’t a requirement. Ever.
Mental health hugely impacts physical health and physical status, for me and for many other people. In my relationship, consent as I define and practice it can’t function if I’m in the midst of an anxiety attack or don’t even feel like I’m in my body.
I've been learning that it's OK to not always be sexual, and it's important that we spend more time talking about how anxiety shapes our sex lives — especially in terms of consent. We owe it to ourselves to gain pleasure as we desire it and to not feel guilty in the moments when we don’t desire it — or anything else — at all.
Author: Rachel Charlene Lewis is a writer, editor and co-founder of The Fem, a feminist literary magazine. She has written for HelloFlo, Brit + Co, HelloGiggles, Her Campus LGBTQ+ and other publications, and currently edits the blog for No Gender, No Problem, a project raising funds and visibility of LGBTQ and non-binary identities.