I define 2019 as the year of me fully coming to terms with my traumas and learning how to navigate them. The first thing to go when I decided I wanted to get to the root of what triggers my anxiety, depression, and anger was choosing to be celibate for at least one year – even if it was the last thing I wanted to do. Like most people, learning to fulfill my needs over my wants has been critical in almost all of my successes, and I realized that the level of growth I wanted to achieve by the end of the year wasn’t any different.
It’s important to note that my relationship with sex has always been fraught, traumatic and stressful at best.
So many things play into that: A conservative upbringing rooted in East African cultural norms where sex, even dating, was never talked about is a huge factor. I also didn’t grow up seeing many healthy relationships, I internalized the idea that if I ever did have sex then it would mean that I HAVE to marry the dude and would grow to eventually hate him. My Mom’s way of protecting me from the life she found herself in was telling me repeatedly that if I ever wanted to find a way, it would be on my own without relying on anyone but especially not a man and more importantly, my family was relying on me to make it.
In many ways I’m thankful for those lessons – it’s why at 24, I’m conventionally “successful.” There isn’t a thing on this planet that you can tell me I can’t do and there isn’t a thing I’ve pursued that I haven’t achieved. I believe my self-reliance, my tendency to be a disrupter and lack of care of patriarchal norms or tradition that isn’t inclusive in the workplace or in my day-to-day life are tied to the many lectures my Mom sat me through.
But all that said, an upbringing with high expectations, financial instability and varying levels of abuse did impact how I viewed sex with men specifically and led to a general lack of interest and deep distrust in those who approached me. Later, a sexual assault made sex something which only further caused stress, fear and induced anxiety.
Eventually, with therapy and having a supportive circle I was able to develop a healthier relationship with sex and sexuality. Definitely still a tense relationship but one with way less stigma, minimal shame and better understanding of what I like, don’t like and what my boundaries are. Getting to the point of actually enjoying sex was a huge turning point for me and after working so hard to get to that point I never thought I’d willingly abstain for it for a time period.
But like many post-grads the year after college was shockingly emotional. I found myself struggling to get by, and as depression tends to do when you aren’t checking in on yourself regularly, it pushes you to a dark place where things you’ve ignored demand to be recognized.
A range of things ramped up my depression to an overdrive: Moving back home into the root of my trauma and instability, trying to maintain a relationship where we’re both in love but also simply not mentally or emotionally stable to support the other and later deal with the breakup, feeling incredibly financially insecure, the chaos and impact of a relative being incarcerated and being reminded that I’m responsible for many aspects of your family’s life because I’m their American Dream are the highlights. This was all backdropped by an intense sense of being alone and isolated – it wasn’t until I was in the moment of a suicide attempt that I realized how dark, alone, unwanted and useless I felt.
In the weeks ahead of the suicide attempt, and a few weeks after, I was in a weird place of seeking sex for all the wrong reasons, which is totally unlike me. I wanted to distract myself, I wanted to have fun, I wanted to feel less lonely and I wanted to hurt someone because I was angry at the world and feeling bad about myself. I wanted someone to help me ignore the feelings of being lonely, hurt, and stressed. It never worked. Ever.
Casual sex when you’re in such internal turmoil isn’t really possible –
you can’t fuck yourself out of feeling bad, despite what your friends say.
I’ve seen so many people try to do it and it usually leads to two things: either them just more unstable or them ending up in a relationship where their partners care more about them then they do – and them still unsure and unhappy. I wasn’t interested in either of those two options. I wanted to do the work to get to a place of being better.
Me being me, I made it a practical decision: I was at the internship of my dreams getting trained in what I always wanted to do and my emotional turmoil was impacting my ability to learn. My messy, miserable sex life was draining energy that I needed to do my job and slowing down the healing process I really wanted to go on. So I decided to be celibate for one year. Sex, no matter how casual, is a moment of energies exchanging, It’s a moment of vulnerability and you don’t have to be in love to be impacted by that. I wasn’t in any shape to handle someone else, let alone myself.
It’s the best decision I made in my mental health journey. Depression is ongoing, I can’t say that I’ll never feel the level of pressure I felt this time last year or that I’m “totally healed” but I am better than I’ve been in a long time. I’m prepared to navigate situations and can balance my emotions better. I’m less secretive about my feelings. I’m more understanding of other people’s ways of dealing with turmoil in their own lives. I’m a better person who can remove my pride out of a situation that may affect me but has nothing to do with me.
Going without sex required discipline, but it also forced me to re-focus my energies on myself unapologetically. Celibacy forced me to deal with the impact of traumas. It let me re-exam what I want sexually and romantically, it gave me the room I needed to get over my previous relationship, it let me embrace my sensuality on such a deeper level than casual sex for distraction could have ever let me do.
Not everything is for anyone, so I won’t preach that celibacy is the way for you. But for me, not worrying or thinking about sex for a time period let me grow further in my mental health journey than anything else I could have done. It’s the best gift I gave myself. Whatever it is that you need to hold back on to get better, love yourself enough to practice self-discipline. Do it for you – so you can thrive and be happy in so many other areas of your life. I can promise you it’s worth it.