Coming out to your therapist
The doctor’s in, but Alexandra Penelope is not quite out.
"So… are you gay?"
I laugh awkwardly and start babbling. "Oh, well, you know, I'm just a huge supporter of LGBT rights. I believe the human experience is so vast, and..."
Lies. I am so gay.
Typically, I take every opportunity to let other people know just how queer I am, short of throwing confetti in their face whilst sporting a "FEAR THIS QUEER" badge, but as I sit across from my new therapist, who I've known for all of thirty minutes, suddenly I'm finding every way of shimmying back into the closet.
It isn't just the question, but the slightly patronising tone she uses as her eyes bore into mine. I feel like I'm liable to turn to stone just looking at her. Confronting the fact that you're mentally unwell enough to see a therapist can be tough enough, and attempting to find a therapist who syncs with your personality adds another level of stress, but there's something even worse when talk of my sexuality comes into play.
I have been diagnosed with Panic Disorder and Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) for a number of years, and in attempts to curb its symptoms, I've used medication, exercise, and deep breathing, to varying degrees of success. Additionally, I've frequented the offices of a multitude of therapists, but never lasted more than a few sessions.
It's not that I don't enjoy talking about myself, because believe me, I'm a treat. It's just feeling open to discussing all the bad bits of your life with a virtual stranger requires frank bravery, which I struggle to possess even on my best days.
When the subject eventually comes around to my sexuality, I feel myself shutdown further. There's always the worry of the personal opinion of a therapist regarding LGBT+ sentiments. Of course, they should be operating professionally, but there's always the chance they believe you shouldn't have basic human rights.
In a study done by Stonewall in 2008, half of lesbians and bi women were said to have negative experiences with healthcare professionals, and only another half were out to their GP (no, you really don't understand, I don't need birth control). Then there's the issue of how a therapist will regard your sexuality in comparison to your mental health. Will they try to make some deep, Freudian connection between my desire for women and my deep, paralysing fear of flying?
The desire to bond with a therapist is based in my want to be understood, to feel safe and vulnerable enough to better myself through dialogue. My sexuality is a core part of who I am, and it is an injustice not to include it when in therapy, but there is also fear of rejection, assumption, and the inability to connect.
Despite feeling alone in my mental health journey, I know three quarters of lesbians and bi women experience symptoms of anxiousness or nervousness, and that number only increases for queer women of colour (QWOC). To say the root of my (or any queer woman's) mental health issues stems from sexuality-based oppression, but equally the aggressions of living life as an out and proud queer lady can take their toll. Similarly, closeted individuals should feel safe to explore their identity with a therapist, not struggle to maintain a semblance of heterosexuality.
I don't have an answer. Awareness has been perpetrated through studies, encouraging better training in health care professionals to meet the specific needs of LGBT+ patients, but the practical results of such efforts certainly have their shortcomings.
Various UK LGBT-friendly therapists exist - check out Shoreditch Therapy if you're in London, or Pink Therapy, a UK wide directory to find one near you - but people's accessibility to such resources varies by location and economic situation. I'm fortunate to have a tremendously supportive network of friends who I can wholeheartedly open up to in times of crisis, but it isn't quite the same as a trained professional.
What I hope is no queer woman, myself included, feels she can't seek help due to judgment or fear of oppression. Taking the initiative to better oneself should be rewarded, and handled carefully and sensitively. Talk of sexuality or gender identity should be done on your terms, as you feel it applies to a situation or symptoms.
As queer women, we should demand respect from health care professionals, settling for nothing less than open-mindedness and acceptance.
If you are in need of mental health support or treatment, consider these resources put together by mind.org.uk.
Only reading DIVA online? You're missing out. For more news, reviews and commentary, check out the latest issue. It's pretty badass, if we do say so ourselves.