Picture this: you’re a 26-year-old woman who’s recently fallen in love with a man. He’s round your house right now. You’re still at the honeymoon, bodily-function-denial stage, so before he arrived you kicked yesterday’s pants under the bed and did some groundwork on your rugged moustache.
You’re discussing what to see at the cinema and he casually pulls your laptop towards him to check the show times. You think nothing of it. In fact, you rather like the implied familiarity. Then, when you see his jaw drop, you realise – he’s seen the sentence which you’d typed out in huge Helvetica earlier that day and left maximised on your screen: “Maybe I’d like to kiss Charlize Theron on the boobs.”
This was the most embarrassing moment of my life, but not for the reasons you might think. The sentence wasn’t a note-to-self, but rather, as unlikely as it sounds, part of exposure therapy for obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
For 10 years I’d been experiencing obsessive doubts about my sexuality, as a symptom of OCD (otherwise known as the “doubting disease”). My inability to reach unequivocal certainty about my sexual identity left me as fraught and exhausted as the obsessive who can never be sure that the door is locked. The anxiety of not knowing was debilitating, and my compulsive answer-seeking only made it worse.
Exposure therapy refuses to indulge this compulsive need for certainty by gradually exposing you to triggers and encouraging you to embrace doubt. Your therapist is soon getting to watch sex scenes from famous movies while writing down lists of acts you might want to perform on the protagonists. And before you know it, you’re being prescribed three hardcore pornos a day – one to be taken before breakfast, preferably.
Undergoing such therapy while trying to maintain the mystique of young love is frankly nuts. My boyfriend knew I was having treatment for sexual obsessions, but when it came to the homework exercises I’d never told him the ins and outs, so to speak. To admit, in a hypersexualised world, that even the tamest sexual imagery made me anxious, felt inexplicably pathetic. Now here that truth was, uncovered prematurely, mortifying me. And here my new boyfriend was, very sweetly putting down my laptop and pretending not to be fazed.
Too late. I’d seen that split-second surprise in his face and it had cut me like a hot wire. I stomped into the kitchen – it’s a funny thing, embarrassment, so close to rage – and began furiously washing up. He followed me and tried to hug me and tell me it was OK. I squirmed free, unable to look at him, charged back into the bedroom, flopped face down on the bed and lay there, rigid with whole-body cringes and wounded slobberings of “don’t touch me” and “go away” into the pillow.
But such laid-bare embarrassments can themselves be therapeutic, as the American psychologist Albert Ellis understood. Growing up, Ellis had been acutely embarrassed talking to women, and had avoided doing so at all costs. Recognising that his avoidance only fuelled his feelings of embarrassment, he decided, aged 19, to tackle them head on. He spent every day of July 1933 in the Bronx Botanical Garden near his home, forcing himself, despite his seemingly insurmountable feelings of embarrassment, to sit next to women he didn’t know and strike up conversations.
“I would give myself one minute – one lousy minute! – to talk to each one of them,” he said. Over the course of the month he approached 130 women and found, to his surprise, that nothing terrible happened. “No one took a butcher knife and cut my balls off. No one vomited and ran away.” Building on such insights, Ellis went on to pioneer rational emotive behaviour therapy, which, among many things, encourages people to stop self-defeating avoidance behaviours.
Getting back to the boob in question: after an hour’s silence I pulled my squashed-flounder face from the pillow, took a deep breath and walked towards my boyfriend. I sat on his lap, looked into his eyes for a few wincing seconds. Then we burst out laughing. It was the first time I ever understood the ironic power of embarrassment to bring about new intimacy.
Since then I’ve written and spoken publicly about my obsessive compulsive disorder, and that has brought with it a million little cringes. Yet no one’s run away, no one’s vomited (at least not to my face), and every mortification, every sliver of honesty, has made me less afraid.
In the moment, embarrassment can hurt beyond words. But to be embarrassed is to be vulnerable, and vulnerability can give you wings.
• Rose Bretécher is the author of Pure, published on 24 September