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"How do you navigate a relationship when you have issues with mental illness? And how do you find a partner who is willing to handle it? I have an anxiety disorder and some depression, and it makes just being in any relationship hard, let alone a healthy, serious, long-term romantic relationship."

-Question submitted by Anonymous

Kristin Says:

Well, hello.

Let me start by saying that I struggled with pretty intense anxiety for several years in my late twenties and, although I haven’t had a bad panic attack in years, I now wrestle with depression. (I learned recently from my therapist that anxiety and depression are closely related, and that a lot of people who once struggled with an anxiety disorder later deal with depression. So, way to go me for being right on track.)

The next part of me telling you about me is to say that I was in a longterm relationship of five years when I was struggling with anxiety, and I’ve now been with my wife for seven years, several of which have overlapped with my depression. Both my ex and my wife understood mental illness from differing places: My ex had also dealt with anxiety and knew it first hand; Jenny has never dealt with anxiety, but has wrestled with depression and is incredibly good at listening and working to understand what I need when I’m feeling low.

I tell you all of this, Anonymous, because I want you to know two things right off the bat:

1. Many (many, many, many) people deal with mental illness, in varying ways and shapes and forms and intensities. Not as many people TALK about those struggles, which is something that I hope changes over time, but we are here and you are far from alone.

2. It is completely possible to have a beautiful, healthy, awesome relationship with another person or other people while also dealing with mental illness. The biggest requirement is communication, and partnering with people who are able to listen and take mental illness seriously. In my opinion, those are characteristics you’d want to look for in someone regardless of if you had anxiety or depression or not!

As someone who has been on this journey for a long time, I can tell you that the more I know myself, the better I become at communicating what I need. That is the place that I’d suggest you put the bulk of your focus; reflect on your interactions, moments that make you feel uneasy, places and things that make you feel safe or help you feel calm. Recently, my therapist suggested that I make a space for myself somewhere in our house that was just mine – a place where I could go to read quietly, listen to music, or just sit and breathe for a bit. It’s helped me so much already, and it’s given me another option to turn to when I am struggling. I lean on Jenny, of course, in many moments, but I’ve also begun to build supports for myself outside of our relationship. That, too, is important. Your partner(s) can and should listen to you when you talk about your feelings and experiences, but they can’t be expected to carry all of that weight. Neither should you!

Write down a list of people close to you who you can talk to, and a list of activities you can do (coloring, writing, running, singing?) or places that you can go to (under your desk, the gym, church, your attic??) to help mediate the anxiety and depression. If you aren’t already in therapy, I’d highly recommend it. Many cities have accessible mental health options (check your local LGBT center for resources!). Explore what works, take notice of what doesn’t. Our lives are spent learning, and this is included – I learn more about my mental health EVERY day.

In my experience, if you are working toward a better understanding of yourself and the tools you need (including medication, there is no shame in medication – it is incredibly wonderful for so many humans!!), your partner(s) will be able to be there with you. They will be patient when you struggle because that is what a partner does. Yes, there may be times when you lean too hard or not enough, and times when they say or do the wrong thing, but that’s true of all relationships – and if you continue to communicate, you’ll learn the best ways to coexist and support each other.

Much love to you! ️ <3

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"How do I talk to my girlfriend about getting a sex toy? (I’m also a girl.) And at what age do you think it’s appropriate?"

Question submitted by Anonymous

Constance says:

Ok first off: I work at a sex toy shop and out of all the questions I get, this is one of my FAVORITES. There’s nothing I love more than working with people who are putting themselves out there and exploring a new part of their relationship.

When it comes to bringing up the topic of sex toys with a partner, I’ve personally always preferred a blunt approach. I’ve found that dancing around the topic just makes things more awkward and opens it up to confusion. Try to find a casual, comfortable moment when the two of you won’t be interrupted (this may not be a conversation to have at the local coffee shop) and directly bring it up. Being upfront about it can show your girlfriend that this isn’t a big deal, which can help everyone be more honest and comfortable about what they’re feeling.

You might find it helpful to start off with a comment about how much you enjoy whatever things you’re already doing before mentioning something you think might be fun. Something along the lines of, “Hey darling, you know how much I love it when you X my Y? I was thinking that it might be even more fun if we also had a [insert whatever sex toy you’re thinking of here].” The point isn’t that you’re unhappy with whatever bumping-and-grinding you’re getting up to, but that you think there’s something fun that you could bring in. (Sidenote: If you are unhappy with your sex life with your partner, that’s a whole other conversation. Remember that a sex toy isn’t the magic cure—honest communication is going to be your best friend there.)

Some people recommend buying an inexpensive sex toy before having the conversation so that you can be like, “Hey, I found this and thought it might be fun to try!” The idea there is that you’re keeping it casual and making things simple by presenting one concrete thing to consider rather than a bigger question of sex toys in general. I’m not a huge fan of this approach because I think it can feel more like “Surprise! Let’s Do This!” rather than opening up a conversation. Instead of buying a toy before the conversation, I recommend having a plan you can offer of what it would look like if she’s into the idea. Do some pre-conversation research to get a sense of where you might get a sex toy, what the options are, what your potential budget is, and so on. This can help give specifics for her to think about without springing a sex toy upon her without warning.

The best thing you can do in this conversation is be honest and open with your girlfriend and be willing to listen to her concerns. She may not want to run out to get a sex toy right at that moment, but these conversations are important for couples to understand each other even more.

As for the second part of your question: I’m not really sure there is an inappropriate age to get a sex toy. For those of us who have sexual urges, the instant we begin to experience them is usually when we tend to find sex toys all over the place. Early sexual desire drives innovation as we find new uses for washing machines, handles of hairbrushes, or the classic electric toothbrush. If someone is old enough to be repurposing household objects for sex toys, then I don’t see what’s wrong with them having something that’s actually intended for that purpose. I will say that not everyone agrees with me on this and that you should check to see what your local restrictions are on getting sex toys: Can people under 18 go into a sex toy shop in your state? Can you buy them online?

Exploring our sexual desires alone and with our partners can be filled with anxiety and joy. Sometimes things aren’t going to work out like you hoped, but the important thing is being able to communicate what you need and listening to everyone involved. There’s no surefire way to know how things will turn out, but you can’t go wrong with plenty of research, empathy, and kindness. Sending my best wishes to you.

***

Constance Augusta A. Zaber is a New England writer interested in history, sex practices, libraries, what she’s going to eat next, and Virginia Woolf. She writes about books (particularly those by trans authors) online, sells sex toys in a college town, and is working on an undergraduate degree in Sexology. Her personal, professional, and academic work is based in her experiences as a white, Jewish, trans woman with clinical depression and anxiety. Follow her on Twitter @augustazaber
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"I identify as bisexual, and have been dating a guy for nearly two and a half years now. For the past several months I've been having very strong feelings for a female colleague of mine and this weekend we hooked up. She has feelings for me as well but we can't date because of workplace rules. Is it worth breaking up my relationship with 2 years guy for a person I can't even be with? I can't be out at work or at home. Thank you for taking the time to read this."

Question submitted by thisispoppycock

Kristin says:

Hello there, Poppycock.

Here is the thing: breakups shouldn’t hinge on whether or not you have the opportunity for another relationship or not, they should hinge on how you feel about the person you are dating.

From the tone of your question, I am getting that you are in a monogamous relationship. You have feelings for another person, and those feelings turned into making out… and guess what? Your feelings for this other person didn’t go away. They intensified. Which also means that, dating or not, you are in an emotional (and now physical!) relationship with this other person. Even in many non-monogamous relationships, this would be past the point at which you would need to tell your partner about these feelings (and those actions).

I totally get having to stay closeted for various reasons, but, all on its own, that can be a very heavy weight to bear. Adding on to that heavy stuff with another, ongoing secret is going to slowly press on all your bones and muscles and tendons and cells until you find yourself swirling around on the inside of it all, totally confused and very, very lost. That lost and confused part is where most of us make super careless decisions and do things we wish we hadn’t.

Another thing that I would like to point out: you didn’t tell us anything about how you feel about your boyfriend! Not to read too much into the absence of that content, but liiiiiiike… my gut tells me that your feelings for him are rooted in the history and length of your relationship together and not the current state of the partnership itself. Your question essentially says: “If this girl and I could date, I would leave him without thinking twice.” That means that you and this boy should not be together, because, if for nothing else, it is incredibly unfair to him.

I think you need to come clean with your boyfriend and/or you need to break up with him. If you decide that telling him about the girl would only add insult to injury, fine, skip it, but it’s time to walk away. You have things you need to explore, and you aren’t going to be able to do that and also be a good partner to him at the same time.

It’s scary to take that step into the unknown, and many of us are afraid of being alone – but it is when we take those steps and find that solitude that many of us actually discover what we need and who we are.

Good luck. <3

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“I want to make friends with/potentially date a woman in my grad program. I met her during orientation, and I was immediately drawn to her enthusiasm and wit. I’m taking online classes from out of state, but I will move to campus in the next semester. She’s on campus now. We are Facebook friends, but we haven’t talked much. How can I start getting to know her without coming on too strong/only talking about school? P.S. I know she’s at least bi because she mentioned an ex-girlfriend. I am also bi.”

-Question submitted by Anonymous

Claudia Astorino Says:

Well, hellooooo there, Anonymous!  As I write this, it’s a beautiful Friday—the sun’s out, it’s not freezing-my-butt-off cold, the weekend’s nigh, and I’m feelin fine! In celebration of this OMG IT’S ALMOST SUMMER weather, enjoy this silly classic Muppets video I love, “Mahna Mahna.” Hey, is it cool if I call you Mahnanymous?! I SURE HOPE SO (cuz I’m doin it).

So. Mahnanymous. Having crushes can be S T R E S S F U L L L L L, but they can also be kind of fun problems to have. I mean, cute folks! Daydreams! Nervous flutters!  POSSIBLE SMOOCHES (if you’re into smooches—hello, lovely asexual friends)! Or a rad new platonic friend! Lotsa good stuff can come out of crushes.

If you’re a grad student, then you’re likely going to be spending a TON of time with at least some folks in your program. With these folks, you’ll be: in class together, in the department together, in the library together, having study parties together, having actual parties together, and generally hanging around one another ALL THE DANG TIME. As long as the folks in your department aren’t particularly cliquey, you will have approx a zillion billion opportunities to make friends with and get to know your fellow grad students.

Including your crush. *heart eyes emoji*

The fact that you’ll be coming to campus next semester gives you perfect excuse to contact her—and the fact that you’re already Facebook friends gives you a low-key way to do so! I’d suggest contacting her via Messenger with something like the following:  “Hey there! This is Mahnanymous, from [your grad program]—it was great to meet you at orientation! How are you liking [the program so far, particular class, place your school is in]? I did my first [length of time] online, and am excited to be moving onto campus next semester! It would be great to hang out when the new semester starts—want to get [coffee, a beer, a doughnut] together sometime? Hope you’re doing great!”

BOOM! And just like that you started talking to her—GO YOU!

image

If she takes you up on that hangout, that’s great! But if it doesn’t work out, you’ll have AMPLE opportunities to talk. See above: you’ll be around your fellow classmates 23 ½ / 7. And the fact that you’ll probably be doing at least some of the same work means that you can use work stuff as an excuse to hopefully talk about non-work stuff! Ask her if she wants a study buddy at the library, to work on homework together, to bone up for your upcoming exam. AND REMEMBER, YA CAN’T WORK *ALL* THE TIME. Ask if she wants to take a break to go get coffee, a beer when you’re done, a doughnut (YOU CAN SEE I’M NOT TERRIBLY CREATIVE, BUT YOU GET THE POINT, RIGHT). Tell her you really wanted to go see this movie, this cool exhibit at a museum, this great restaurant, this show—does she wanna come too?

Y’all, I have gotten a lot of crushes on women I met through school, and this chat-and-chill method has def worked for me. I had crushes on some women and then ended up not having any chemistry with, but remained either great classmates or my besties. And, my dear Mahnanymous, it’s worth mentioning that my amazing girlfriend of 5+ years? I met in class during grad school. I said hi cheerfully when I saw her, even though there wasn’t time to talk besides that. I paid attention to when she was in lab and tried to study around the same times she did. When I needed a break, I asked if she wanted to grab something from the corner deli, or walk around the block a few times. I invited her along when I hung out with other students in my class. And eventually, I asked if she wanted to go on a date. AND SHE DID.

One last thing you should think about, Mahnanymous, as you get to know your crush: dating someone/breaking up with someone in the same academic field has major pros/cons. Dating someone that’s in your same academic field can be fantastic. There’s something amazing about dating someone who just GETS IT: who knows the words you’re using, who can intelligently pick apart theory, who can act as a sounding board for your ideas. IT’S GREAT.

That being said, if you break up with someone in your grad program, you’ll still see them regularly. In class, in the lab, at seminar, at journal club. And well into your academic career—at the conferences every year, at the symposia you organized, at the women in science workshop you’re going to. You should ask yourself: Is this person awesome enough that I’m willing to date them knowing that I’ll have to see them forever after we break up? First things first—talk to your crush! Save that ish for later!

Well, Mahnanymous, I hope this helped!  Good luck talking to Crushy McCuteface, and best of luck in your grad program! <3

***

Claudia Astorino is an intersex activist living in NYC and a Point Foundation Scholar for LGBTQ students.  Claudia is the former Associate Director of Organization Intersex International’s USA chapter (OII-USA).  She coordinates the Annual Intersex Awareness Day (IAD) events in NYC and writes for Full-Frontal Activism: Intersex and Awesome (her personal blog) and Autostraddle. Follower her on Twitter @claudistics

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“I have just started seeing a fabulous lady and we’re getting to a point where it seems likely that we’ll have some form of sexual contact soon. I’m a trauma survivor and I have boundaries for what I like in bed and what is triggering- how do I bring this up with a potential partner without scaring her away or divulging too much personal info the first time we’re in bed together? I don’t want things to be weird!”

-Question submitted by Anonymous

Rachel Halder says:

How exciting that you’ve met such a fabulous person! It is incredibly exciting when we meet that special someone who just makes our heart sing. As an abuse survivor, I also recognize the apprehension in divulging on a very personal history with someone you want to impress and keep around. It’s a tricky scenario!

Sharing this vulnerable history can feel like an unfair aspect of being a survivor. But sharing parts of your past isn’t something that only survivors need to do. All relationships are influenced by a person’s history—we all carry old patterns, thoughts, and cycles into new territory. This isn’t necessarily a beneficial thing to do, but it is a very human thing to do. Therefore, anytime we open up a space with another person—whether that be a romantic partner or just a new friend—there will always be a sort of navigation that takes place between two people’s emotional, psychological, and spiritual histories.

We all have some sort of trauma we are carrying around within us, too, and that typically comes up eventually in one way or another. My personal belief is that if we share that trauma with someone we are about to be sexual with, and they run away or don’t want to go there with you, then that person wasn’t really as fabulous as we once thought. It’s not that they are “bad,” but it does mean that they don’t have the ability to be compassionate and/or vulnerable with themselves, and are therefore unable to hold your history, experiences, and life within themselves. If someone is unable to open up and share that space with us, then are they really worth our time and energy? I personally don’t think so. I want someone to see all of me, just as I want to see all of them.

My greatest relationships—both romantic and platonic—have been the ones where I can speak honestly and upfront about my life experiences and not feel shame because of it. My greatest relationships have been formed around a compassionate container of listening and understanding where our hurts are held and loved. My greatest sexual relationships have been built on a groundwork of speaking openly about sexual desires, fears, and apprehensions. They have been based on safe words and the idea that if a person says “no” or “it’s too much,” that it is respected and understood. They have been built on honesty and open communication, rather than projection and apprehension.

Because of the uncomfortable and shaming aspect of a lot of these topics, there’s never a “perfect moment” to bring up these conversations, so if that’s what you’re searching for, you may never find it! But that doesn’t mean there won’t be windows of opportunities to talk to your lady. I always find it helpful to rehearse what I want to say so I understand my own feelings, emotions, and understandings around the story I want to share. I also find it’s best to go into the conversation without expectations. If I expect the other person to respond in a particular way, I am almost guaranteed to be disappointed. I can hope for a particular response, but it’s also good to be prepared for a response that may not be ideal, so you can work with that outcome as well.

I also think it is best to have this conversation with a significant other before getting into bed with each other. Perhaps if you’re on the couch making out and you’re really feeling it, you can say, “Do you mind if we hold up for a second? There is something I would like to talk to you about before we move forward.” You could also even set- up an evening to vulnerably share your “secrets.” When I was 19-years-old I did this with a boyfriend, telling him about an abusive relationship I had when I was 15. It felt necessary to talk to him about this past story because I hadn’t had sex since that relationship, and I had the feeling that I wanted to open up the sex dialogue with someone again. I did not know how to open up dialogue about sex, though, without also speaking about my fears and shame about this past high school relationship.

Relationships are hard, and so are the aftereffects of trauma that we carry in our souls and bodies. But both can be worked with, healed, and restored, but only if both parties are open and willing to go there. Make sure you surround yourself by lovers who can understand and hold you. If this chick is as ultra fabulous as she sounds, she’s going to be right there with you, holding and understanding your pain, and hopefully sharing some of her own.

***

Rachel Halder is currently an MA in Religion candidate at Claremont School of Theology, studying holistic spiritual trauma healing for those who have been marginalized by the Christian Church because of sexual abuse and/or LGBTQIA sexual identification. She is passionate about interspirituality, believing that mystical spirituality is the origin of all world religions, and that at their mystical core all spiritual paths lead to Love. She blogs about sexualized violence at Our Stories Untold, about spirituality at Heart of Thought, and when she’s not writing or speaking you can find her hiking mountains or walking through the forest, communing with pachamama’s beautiful earth creation. Follow her on Twitter @raegitsreal

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