My parents shunned any type of conversation about sex. In fact, I have never seen my parents kiss even and probably saw them awkwardly hug a handful of times in my life. I lived a very sheltered upbringing. In fact, I’d purposely take off my contacts in High School health class so I wouldn’t see the board or occupy myself in a book in the back of the classroom. I didn’t want to know anything about sex. As a Muslim, Pakistani American born and raised in Connecticut and a Hijaabi (I wore the head scarf out of peer pressure from the girls at the Mosque) at the time, I had no intention of engaging in sex because it was shunned. Even at the mosque, we were separated from the men and if I saw a boy, I would lower my gaze and he’d do the same. My only interaction with boys were my cousins. And in Islam, we are allowed to marry our cousins. When I hit puberty, I started falling for my cousin. I looked forward to weekend family gatherings just so we could chat. I felt intense emotions for him that I can still remember feeling. A handshake was everything. Perhaps this is why sex has been the biggest taboo and the biggest part of my OCD in my life.
When two lesbians were invited to be guest speakers in my 10th grade health class, I got curious. As I listened to them talk about coming out, it hit me. I looked at the girl sitting in front of me. She had a tight shirt on and her small waist looked beautiful. I fixated on that waist and it was my very first trigger into my HOCD. From that moment, the entire world flipped upside down, like I was really in the upside down (Stranger Things reference). Every woman, even my own mother made me spike. A spike is a strain in my body, like in my stomach and vagina (I still don’t know what it really is). My favorite Bollywood actresses made me spike. A beautiful voice singing, siri, an operator, the Doctor’s secretary all made me spike. What was going on? I was surrounded by women everyday and it felt like hell. I couldn’t look at them. I was analyzing them. Do I like them? Do I want to be with them? So I wanted to avoid them, isolating myself and wanting to stay home and not even go out in the world.
Before this, I only ever imagined to be with my male cousin. I thought I was in love with him. And this whole time I felt so alone, unable to express any of this to anyone. It was so embarrassing. So, I called a gay hotline that I found online and asked them what was going on with me and they made it even worse. Their triggering words were ‘You just haven’t let yourself like a girl yet, just try it.’ I remember playing badminton with my sister and suddenly fell to the floor in a massive panic attack. I told her everything. She comforted me, telling me that even she thinks about women sometimes. These words gave me ease. It was my first compulsion. I don’t remember when it disappeared but it did. Probably because my OCD content shifted to ‘weight OCD.’ I then fixated on my body. But I’ll get to that in a bit.
My HOCD came back in full force at 19. It was like the devil. I started googling ‘gay Muslims’ to find out if this was even okay as a Muslim. I found Faisal Alam, a gay Muslim activist who founded an organization for gay Muslims. I started to talk to a gay muslim man on Faisal’s forum group, and he told me that I wasn’t actually gay. Again, a sigh of momentary relief. I finally found a therapist. I don’t even know how I had the money for it. He was in Connecticut. He was an old white man. My first thought was, ‘how is an old white man going to understand a young, South Asian Muslim girl?’ I was so nervous that he’d tell me I was a lesbian and my life and my dreams of a husband and kids would be shattered. He gave me reassurance instead. He told me being gay or straight was a choice and that reassurance helped for a bit. I would continue seeking reassurance from him and he kept giving it to me, unable to truly resolve my real problem, OCD.
As my HOCD disappeared, my OCD was transfixed on being thin. After my trip to Pakistan, I had lost some weight because I was awfully sick from the food there. The triggering words from my older cousin saying ‘you look good thin,’ made me anorexic in highschool and eventually I began to binge eat in college. All I thought about was food and I constantly got relief from going on fitness blogs, reading stories of people who lost weight, and writing out meal plans over and over again. Every morning I’d hold my shirt tight to see the shape of my stomach and measure my thighs with my fingers. I had feelings of cutting off my thighs. Mind you, I am 5’1 and petite. I would take diet pills, and obsessively exercise, sitting in a deep depression. The pressures of being very thin in Pakistani society is a huge problem. The aunties look at you up and down. Their approval means everything. The words ‘you’re too thin,’ ‘you look so thin now,’ were like sweet honey to my ears. I needed to look perfect, especially since my skin tone was dark and I was told by elders that my hair was too curly and ‘rough,’ and my skin, too dark. I didn’t feel beautiful. I didn’t believe my mother and father when they’d tell me I was beautiful. I gave them hell. In college, my weight OCD lead me to a dietician, I hoped she’d give me some magical advice that would make me thin forever. Instead, she told me to see a mental health counselor. She was a white female counselor and extremely smart. As I described my thoughts, she was the first to tell me that I had OCD. I didn’t know what that meant and dismissed it. I didn’t get the therapy I needed and stopped seeing her because she wasn’t helping me get thin and that was all I cared about.
Eventually, my HOCD came back in my senior year of college, I had a boyfriend. I didn’t truly love him but I wanted to be like my other friends. I wanted to be in a relationship. He was Pakistani like me and it was the ‘right’ thing to do. So when I watched porn for the first time, and felt terrible about it because of my religion and was turned on by the woman, my HOCD was debilitating. I didn’t do well in school my last year either. I seeked lesbian forums several times asking them if I was a lesbian and awaiting their reply. When they’d reply back telling me that I wasn’t a lesbian I got momentary relief. I was checking online over and over again to give myself relief. I compulsively went on advice columns, called my sister for reassurance and finally found a website called brainphysics, which is now gone. I met Mark on that site and he had blogged about HOCD saying he was gay with OCD (about natural disasters) but we (HOCD folks) are not. I emailed him and have stayed in touch with him since 2008. He would constantly reassure me that I wasn’t a lesbian giving me momentary relief. I had a new therapist now. Again, I was so nervous meeting another older white man feeling like he wouldn’t understand me. He also had no clue how to help me. I was again afraid he’d tell me I was a lesbian, which he didn’t, but he did want to talk about it. He put me in a deeper hell hole analyzing my thoughts. While I was with my boyfriend, I was analyzing the women we’d see at the mall or anywhere we’d go. I would compulsively check my feelings for my boyfriend and reassure myself that I was in love with him, then go on the dearcupid forum for reassurance over and over again, and eventually broke up with him. I went to my therapist and said for the first time, ‘I think I have OCD,’ he said ‘oh yea, I think you do,’ and referred me to a psychiatrist. In our culture, taking medicine for mental health is regarded as crazy talk and not something I needed so I took my medication for a week and stopped.
Throughout the years, I also had ROCD (usually they go hand in hand.) OCD intensifies my positive feelings and even things I don’t like. I was obsessed with the fantasy of a guy I had met online in 2013 and we eventually met in person. He was Egyptian and gorgeous. I was head over heels for him. However, I moved to Abu Dhabi to teach because he wasn’t showing interest. He decided to come to Abu Dhabi to visit me out of the blue, as a friend. We had a magical 3 days together but on day 4, it was hell. All of a sudden he started looking like one of my cousins and I couldn’t stand it, his nose flared, his body language looked gay (see the recurring theme.) I began analyzing his every move. I didn’t want to see him and was glad he was leaving the country so I can be alone. After him, I avoided men I liked, avoiding eye contact for fear that I’d find something wrong, have a panic attack and hated myself for it. And throughout all of this my parents have felt terrible that I am single at 32 and unmarried, constantly telling me to get married. There is that pressure too.
I had gotten a pretty good handle on my HOCD because of Acceptance and Commitment therapy from my therapist in Washington, DC. I was also using CBT that I had learned from books, online, and from my black American therapist who told me about the book ‘The Happiness Trap.’ However, there were times when he also didn’t know how to truly help my OCD and did not do any ERP treatment. There were times I said some offensive things because of my OCD and he fell in the trap of analyzing my thoughts rather than letting them go.
My HOCD came back the summer of 2018 when I watched a play about 2 lesbians and then a Black Mirror episode about 2 beautiful lesbians. I called a friend that I met at the Landmark forum, a self help course that is good for people but not those with mental health issues. She used the same triggering words I remember from high school ‘you just haven’t let yourself, maybe you should join tinder.’ I had the biggest pit in my stomach. I didn’t eat much for a month. I told myself that I had a big black cloud hovering over me which is why I couldn’t like a man (ROCD) and therefore am a lesbian (HOCD.) I would leave work and go on long breaks to call my friends to tell them I was lesbian or bisexual. My new therapist, a white gay male told me to accept my bisexuality and go online to learn more about it. I called up my lesbian Muslim friend in tears telling her that I’ll be brave. I read ‘The Gifts of Imperfection,’ by Brene Brown and was analyzing every word she wrote. I had to ‘accept my homosexuality,’ is the message I was obsessively convincing myself of. I joined tinder and miserably swiped women. I met a woman, had a sexual experience with her, and hated it. But I told myself that I needed to try again, with a more attractive woman. Though I haven’t yet. I fell in a deep depression.
Mark and I finally met at the end of the summer 2018 and he told me about the Behavior Therapy Center of Greater Washington in Silverspring, Maryland. He had given a talk on OCD there. I was interested in helping minority youth (as I am an educator) that had OCD. He put me in touch with a psychologist and PhD specializing in OCD and BDD just to volunteer my time. But instead, when she was kind enough to talk to me on the phone and told me I have 100% OCD, I realized I still needed the right therapy this time. I am finally being understood for my OCD and know I am in the right place. I am currently doing Exposure and Response prevention by hearing myself on a recording and telling myself that I want to get stronger and that I want the uncertainty! I also go to a GOALS OCD group at the Behavior Therapy Center and meet people just like me. I feel a sense of belonging with people I empathize with, though there are times when there are only white people in the group and that makes me uncomfortable. It gives me doubt.
I have felt so isolated. The pressures of being a Pakistani Muslim American, I couldn’t tell my parents. They’d tell me to pray or to shoo away satan. We hide everything from them. I have done volatile things and rebelled because of my religion and culture. I feel more like myself and don’t wear hijaab because I want to do it for me, not for others. I want to tell Muslims around the world that this is not a ‘white’ mental health issue but a human mental health issue and I have OCD. I am in therapy and I am using the book ‘Stopping the Noise in Your Head,’ ‘The Happiness Trap,’ to do ACT and ‘Overcoming Obsessive Thoughts,’ to help. I tried meds for a month but my OCD became about the meds, again probably because of my culture. My therapist now tells me it’s not the content because OCD will fixate on anything I let it fixate on.