[Essay] Asexuality and Mental Health (A Carnival of Aces)

What follows is not especially helpful. It is not a suggestion for reform of the community or a guide to resources for individuals. It is not a solution to anybody’s problems, not even mine. It was supposed to be an essay on neurosis and ‘ace guilt‘ – the feeling that asexuals in relationships owe their partners something, whether to satisfy their partner’s (or partners’) desires or simply because it’s part of a ‘healthy’ relationship (read ‘one similar to that of the statistical majority’). What it turned into is a confessional about asexuality, abuse, suicide, autism and bipolar illness (and these terms, in bold, are hopefully good enough as trigger warnings). It is presented more or less unedited, in the hope that it does anyone any good at all.

by relatablealien

I haven’t really felt comfortable even saying the word “asexual” to therapists, and at this stage I’m hesitant to do so unless I’m asked. There’s one therapist – my most recent – with whom I had to discuss the matter, though, because unloading my barrel of neuroses involved dealing with an awful lot of guilt, and an awful lot of that was tied to my concerns about being adequate as a lover, or even active as one.

While not sex-repulsed as such, I’ve mostly seen sex as something done for other people: people to whom I might be attracted romantically, platonically or sensually to the point where the opportunity arises and I don’t say no because – well, because who wants to say no to making people happy? There’s also, of course, the nagging feeling that you’re supposed to pursue sex, even if it’s dysfunctional, disappointing and emotionally disastrous, like most of my encounters as a “late-blooming heterosexual” during the late teens and early twenties.

That’s the real devil that lurks behind the kindly eyes of therapists, I think: the allosexual world which might have stopped classing asexuality as an illness in its own right, but still frames low or absent sexual desire as an aberration, a symptom of some other sickness or syndrome. And after a while, you begin to wonder if it might be true: after all, you’re in the care of the system because you’re sick, because your own mind is out to get you. And what’s mental illness, what’s neurodivergence, if not a distinction from the statistical norm? Is this only a symptom of something, or is this who I am?

It’s difficult for me to separate low or (relatively) high sex drive from my bipolar disorder, or the asexual spectrum from the autistic – as difficult as it is to identify exactly what this slow, smouldering feeling, this yearning for contact and company and consensual sensuality actually is in terms of taxonomy and hierarchy. What kind of asexual am I? What’s my orientation? How do I give this thing a name and understand it? It’s remarkably like pathologising an illness: give the condition a name and deploy strategies to manage it and incorporate it into your life.

My very written style is a characteristic of my conditions – conditions which flare up into paralytic rage, or fear, or self-pity, when the fact of sexual function and dysfunction emerge. I’m lucky in that my romantic relationships, consecutive or concurrent, are loving and forgiving to a point which almost frustrates me, raised as I was in a climate that’s left me craving conflict in domestic life like I crave fresh air to breathe.

I’m unlucky in that relationships with allosexuals often bring up the fragility of the sexual experience for me – asexuality stacks with autism and insecurity and a word or a facial expression out of place means I cease to function, first sexually, then verbally as I flail around for means to express my guilt, and finally emotionally, until I can punch the wall and get some sort of clarity back.

I’m unlucky in that relationships with asexuals are always at risk from accidents of biology – a sexual function, a response to stimulus, which has nothing to do with what I actually want. Inconvenient boners are a challenge to my identity as asexual and proud, engaging in sex on my terms or not at all, and a threat to the trust on which relationships are built. In moments of weakness I hear a lover’s voice, alarmed – “I thought you were ace!” – and the guilt and the insecurity rise, and with them come the mood swings, the nonverbality, the symptoms of the illness and the difference.

Illness and difference. Cyclothymia is an illness; it’s debilitating, and while there are some bipolar folks who’ll take the manic highs in which they get shit done if it means the depressive lows in which they don’t, I’m not one of them (at least, not now, in the middle of a downward swing. I may feel different tomorrow). I can’t process those intense feelings; I don’t like not knowing why I’m feeling what I’m feeling.

Perhaps that’s the autism talking, rejecting the chaos that arises with that intensity of emotion. And yet I don’t view the autism as a ‘disability’ – the rhetoric around it leads me to say it’s a divergence, a difference, with strengths as well as weaknesses, even though the strengths are functionally not that different from the mild mania in which I do my best work and the weaknesses are so frustrating – the nonverbality, in a professional communicator, is terrifying. I am not a person if I cannot speak, cannot articulate what is happening to me; I am a professional failure if I cannot understand, cannot parse the words or read the intent in the articulacy of others. I am a personal failure if I cannot communicate with my lovers, if I cannot read their faces or gauge their desires.

On top of that, my autism, like my asexuality, is self-diagnosed – or mostly. It receives a nod, an informal acceptance, from those in the know, in the community, but it lacks the legitimacy of a pathological diagnosis, the official stamp. A name has not been given to it. A strategy has not been formed. A prescription has not been formalised. There’s a kinship there – and maybe, in an odd way, I’d be more comfortable as ace and autistic if, like my cyclothymia, they were named, diagnosed, and legitimised by the power of the clinic.

Legitimate or not, difference or divergence, there are some practicalities that I have to consider. I would love and hate to be more involved, to do more for others, to help and in so doing earn a place among the community at large and be helped, in a quiet way, through that. The truth is, though, that I can’t handle large, vociferous communities, or even meet-ups. Discussing these things out loud paralyses me with fear and shame and guilt – how will people react? Is this something I can say?

Online interactions aren’t much better: the community frustrates me. Ace Tumblr, at least the ace Tumblr I follow, is obsessed with taxonomy, with answering the frightened questions of people who don’t know if they’re proper asexuals yet and assigning their exact orientation and position and perspective a series of names that I can’t follow or trace or understand. The fussiness of it, the granularity, seems to divide us rather than unite us – there’s more energy put into the perfect label than into engaging with the outer world. But is that me? Is that me following the wrong people, not understanding how to navigate the social currents, track the right tags, meet the right people, network in a way that’s so hard for someone who can’t read faces or hack social politics.

I don’t have the answers. I can’t help the ace community be more inclusive, because I don’t know how much I want to be included. Whatever I do will never be enough for me, and will always be too much. I am still learning how to cope. Indeed, what precipitated me into all of this – this string of identifiers, ace and bipolar and autistic – was the breakdown of all my coping strategies, one by one. I learned to be a particular kind of human: an eccentric, eclectic, brilliant-but-lazy student, always with a lover on his arm and more engaged with their pleasure than with his own. Little by little, that pose and posture’s worn away; I’ve run out of scripts and strategies, and what’s left is frightened and flayed and, on one chilly night in March, stood on the parapet of Westminster Bridge and looked for reasons not to jump.

Four months later, after my last therapy session, I proposed to Robin – my ‘primary partner’, if I were inclined toward putting my loves in order and deciding who I loved the most. She accepted, as she has accepted these revelations, one after the other – your lover is bipolar, your lover is asexual, your lover is autistic, your lover is polyamorous. Like it or not, I am loved, I give care, I am encouraged to father children and to be a father to them, which is more than my father managed to do for me. I look for reasons to go on living: people to care for when I won’t care for myself.

And I am terrified, now, at the time of writing, that at some point I am going to have to explain all of this to the delightful family of hers, who have taken me in and tolerated me for all these years without ever knowing how poorly I fit the expectations of a son-in-law to be. It has to be done, though. I refuse to hide any more. Hiding hurts: honesty is healing. We can give a name to our pain, look it dead in the eye, accept it for what it is, and get on with our lives.

Hello. I’m Jon. I’m asexual. I am also mental as anything. I hope you’re all right with that.

3 Replies to “[Essay] Asexuality and Mental Health (A Carnival of Aces)”

  1. I do think a large part of Ace Tumblr is definitely obsessed with definitions, taxonomy, rules, etc. Not all of it, but a lot. That’s why I started a side-blog called still-a-valid-ace, because I think people need to be reminded that you can have all these caveats to who you are, what you have experienced, etc, and still be a perfectly valid asexual. It’s sad that anyone needs to speak out and say “hey, it’s okay to ___, you’re still ace” but… well, someone does. I think more people do.


  2. It’s strange: a lot of the discourse I see on theasexualityblog is people asking “I do this and this and this, am I still ace?” and receiving an answer along the lines of “You could well be [insert highly specific romantic/grey subcategory here]”, which… I don’t know about you, but that wouldn’t really be a very comforting answer. Asexuality itself is still struggling for visibility, and having all these sub-terms fight for traction as well doesn’t feel helpful, and sometimes people are asking if they can be part of something bigger, not something specific… I don’t know. ‘Tis aw a muddle. I don’t feel like forcing the definition beyond “asexual” myself, at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

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