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When my boyfriend and I had been dating for about two months, I did what I’d been dreading. I anxiety-ed in front of him. He told me his grades and I absolutely panicked. I suddenly realised I wasn’t as smart as he thought I was, as I thought I was; in the space of that moment, I became utterly ashamed of myself. My chest tightened with increasing disappointment and I hyperventilated for the next quarter of an hour. Shortly later, I was huddled on my balcony in the cool night with my head in my hands, heaving desperately. My boyfriend was rubbing my back politely and saying kind things nervously at me. Anxiety hasn’t ruined this relationship (he still rubs my back really politely), but it’s fucked things up in the past. I haven’t done stupid things for love but I’ve done ridiculous things for anxiety.
Anxiety is the most common mental illness, with one in four New Zealanders experiencing anxiety, panic attacks and phobias in their lifetime; it’s a chemical imbalance in your brain that causes stress or unease in reaction to situations, thoughts, and just about everything else you can fucking imagine. Anxiety has a biological purpose – it’s there to motivate you in times of danger – but if you don’t have control of it, it’s goddamn awful.
According to Dr Susanne Lawrence, “anxiety is characterised by feelings of apprehension and worry, spontaneous panic attacks, irritability, poor sleeping, avoiding and poor concentration”. But this is about experience more than it is science. Anxiety is depression’s hyperactive younger sister that wants to be just like him. She bases herself in self-hatred, paranoia, and assumptions about the way people think.
Of course, you can’t feel like this without it affecting the way you relate to others. Yes, we’ve reached the point where our society no longer stigmatises mental illness like it used to – but what does all this mean for day-to-day interactions and those that are much more important? What does all this mean for how we love people and how we let people love us?
There are a lot of us. Knowing what it’s like to struggle with mental health and the guilt, pride and self-doubt that accompanies it, I would never presume to truly understand someone else’s experiences. Relationships, too, are inherently subjective and personal, so I wanted to talk to other people about their experiences as well. After some fretting and a nervous exchange of messages, I sat down with Lola and Simon, who have had similar feelings. For Lola, anxiety means “you can be having the best time but you know there’s going to be a crash.” Simon says, on the other hand, that it’s more about control: the need to control thoughts and emotions that he finds overwhelming.
Relationships can provide a particularly volatile or unstable environment for mental health. They might calm you down and help you concentrate on how great being in love is, or they might dredge up and magnify existing anxieties. Hell, they might even do both.
For one thing, you have someone that loves you, right? I never feel like it’s fair to be so damn worried all the time. How dare you take more from the people who love you? For Lola too, relationships can make her feel selfish – as if her self-esteem is tied to the identity of her relationship: “I need more affirmation because my mind can GO somewhere… What I’m going to need in a relationship is too much to put on someone… I don’t think it’s ever going to match up.”
You begin to lose sight of rationality. Simon’s anxiety became intrinsically linked with his girlfriend, and he found himself taking her offhand comments as a sign she
was leaving. He struggled with the blurred lines between rationality and irrationality: “I used the word irrational a lot to justify myself, as if to say these thoughts are irrational but this isn’t the real me.”
The point is that it’s everywhere. I wanted to say something structured about the way that anxiety makes things difficult, but anxiety doesn’t follow normal rules. Anxiety is the antithesis of structure; it doesn’t follow stable patterns. Anxiety lurks and it gnaws and it waits and it pounces. But there are some things that can help us. We learn what we need from each other, and we help where we can.
The first time I went for dinner with my boyfriend’s parents, I was so nervous. Who was going to pay? If I got the steak would they think I was being presumptuous? If I got the steak and they weren’t paying, would I be able to afford it? Shit, the fish doesn’t look too bad either… My boyfriend could see I was anxious and advised me diplomatically to hurry up and order the damn steak. His mum admonished him and I blushed. She didn’t understand (and how could she have) that this wasn’t our first rodeo. We’ve looked at menus before and I’ve told him what I need from him; he understands that it’s not the decision but the deciding.
Simon acknowledges practical steps like going to counselling with his partner would have helped, but notes: “I wish I had realised that inner strength and confidence is the most important part, and that a partner is just a positive ‘addition’… In a perfect scenario, I would have realised it didn’t work, but I’m such a romantic I would fight for anything I loved and meant a lot to me; the relationship was going to continue until it couldn’t… I wouldn’t really have done anything differently.”
Lola also acknowledged the importance of self-respect for anyone in a relationship. “Fundamentally, if you’re not getting what you need to, really think about whether it’s doing it for you… If you’re crying when someone tells you that you deserve to be happy, you’re probably not happy.” The problems are complicated as all hell, but the solutions can be surprisingly simple: work together and keep trying.
And what about those that love us? It might seem obvious, but you can’t stop people worrying by telling them to stop worrying. Without perpetuating anxious thoughts, talk to your partners about their anxieties. For partners, it is important to phrase issues that you might be having gently, without blame. Talk to them about what makes them better and what makes them worse, and take an active role in their mental health. Lord knows they’d do it for you. For me, it means actively acknowledging that I’m having a ‘bad brain day’ and then understanding that I’m probably not going to be super-rational or decisive today.
You will never be able to ‘fix’ someone, and people don’t need to be fixed. Remind yourself that there are lots of different ways that people are limited by their shit. Maybe you need to find different ways to do things, but don’t all couples have to find their own rhythm?
Love isn’t all kissing in the rain, Merlot and electricity. It involves changing dynamics: libido, children, sexuality, exes and student-poverty. Mental health is just another factor. Yes, anxiety might mean you’re not very ‘good’ at love for a while; yes, anxiety might mean that you are a little difficult to be around sometimes. But it’s worth it. One day, you’ll get a partner that doesn’t get put off by your late-night balcony-heaving, that rubs your back politely – a partner that sits down next to you while you write an article, that explains to you that you can write it, that it’s not going to be too hard, or too scary, and that they are proud of you.
If you’re having trouble with anxiety, visit phobic.org.nz ; if you need urgent help, call 0800 14 ANXIETY (0800 14 269 4389).