I wanted to take a minute to talk about something that impacts my life every day, but which doesn’t make it on to TV screens or even often into the well-loved pages of our favorite books.
I have a partner I am deeply in love with. We use the term partner because our relationship is, in every way, exactly that: a partnership.
We share the chores. While our finances are not combined into a joint saving or checking account, we share expenses. We both cook. We both see to the other person’s comfort. We make most decisions together (even when doing so means making space for the other person to be uncertain or hesitant). We both take care of each other, especially when one or the other of us isn’t able to take care of themselves.
But we share in one other thing, and it makes a huge difference in the character and shape of our partnership.
We both have severe anxiety.
Oh sure, we aren’t usually anxious about the same things, and the source of our anxiety is radically different. But we do both have it, and it affects everything about our day to day.
I don’t know that neurotypical people can understand how pervasive an anxiety disorder can be.
For an example, my PTSD makes it so that I have to think carefully every day about how I’ll interact with the outside world.
During the Kavanaugh confirmation process, as a sexual assault survivor, a critical part of my daily kit was a large, obvious, colorful pair of headphones.
The headphones were critical. If I forgot them, I went home, or bought a cheap pair if I didn’t have the option of leaving. They were important because, at any point, social media, a friend, a class, or even an overheard conversation might touch on a trigger. And because the confirmation had me deeply and constantly under stress, my usual trigger-management strategies weren’t nearly as affective.
My normal management skills were insufficient. But I had trained myself to associate headphones, and loud music, with peace and solitude. As a college student at the time, my headphones were my most important survival tool.
That’s just one dimension of how PTSD regularly changed my life. I can’t explain how often I got weird looks for being plugged into my headphones, my little bit of peace, around campus. The worst was running errands.
You would not believe the disgust middle class, middle aged, white women can level with just a look. All I was doing was listening to music obviously, and in public. But, if you saw the looks, I was given you might have thought I was performing a public strip tease at an elementary school.
My partner is similarly affected. Long to-do lists utterly overwhelm them, making it hard to function, hard to accomplish even one task on the list, much less the whole thing. Socializing is difficult, and they often feel like a burden even to me. Even when I tell them they aren’t.
Yet, because we both have anxiety, we also both respond to it with more compassion, understanding, and care than people who don’t understand all that having anxiety means.
Two anxiety-ridden people slowly supporting one another and making it through life’s challenges is hardly the image we all have of wonderful romance.
And yet, I would say that not only is this the great romance of my life, it’s by far the most romantic relationship I’ve ever had. That’s despite my previous partners having been neurotypical and in a much better position to help me “overcome” my anxiety.
What is with our savior obsession in romance anyway?
Both of us having anxiety has led to a greater degree of acceptance and understanding that I have found anywhere else. Even among the most supportive and understanding people in my circle, there is something unique about having a partner who really gets it. Who knows that sometimes, I just need to set everything down.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t problems that come with both of us having anxiety. There are. There are days when I really struggle, and my partner really struggles because we’re both anxious at the same time. We end up taking turns putting on our ‘grown-up’ hats and accomplishing the things that really cannot be set aside.
The worst is when one of our anxieties sets off the other. It’s hard to function when you don’t entirely understand why you are upset beyond your partner being upset, and wanting to comfort both yourself and them, and not knowing how.
But most of the time? Those things aren’t an issue. And our deep understanding of the feeling and discomfort of anxiety is a huge support.
I understand when my partner just needs to be held for a few minutes. I might want them to articulate why and what’s wrong, but I also understand that sometimes they can’t. If comfort is needed, it’s given. No questions asked.
My partner understands when I need things taken care of, when I struggle to make or contribute to decisions and really need life to be broken down to minute by minute experiences.
We both get it when the other person just needs distraction, and know what the best distractions are.
In the end, the complicated exchange of managing my anxiety and making room for my partner’s anxiety has led to us both being happier. We’re both more productive. We both have a better understanding of our own needs in a moment of anxiety.
We’re both more functional, more productive, and happier, because of our mutual anxiety. Not despite it.
Getting to this point definitely took work. It took time for us to understand how the other person’s anxiety presented itself. Once that was done, it took more time to learn how to soothe, distract, or recover from a moment of high stress or anxiety.
For me, I had to learn to accommodate my partner’s need for distraction before addressing the source of the problem.
My partner had to learn to take charge and recognize when I was stuck in a repetitive loop of worries. After that it was learning how to re-direct, and to convince me to take a break instead of trying to power through anxiety and panic attacks.
That work is ongoing. It isn’t in the nature of people, or mental disorders, to remain constant. As we change, and conditions change, we’ll need to continue the work of understanding each other and understanding how to help each other.
But in doing that work, and striving for that deep understanding, we’ve fostered a connection I wouldn’t trade for anything. It’s out there. It’s real.
I guess, one of the reasons I wrote this is a feeling both my partner and I had before finding each other. We both had a very real concern that we were too ‘broken’ to have a real, healthy, relationship.
We’d both had previous partners who had mis-understood our anxieties. We’d both had partners who had actively taken advantage of our anxiety to manipulate and control us.
But, neither of us was or is too broken for a healthy, dream-fulfilling, relationship.
We weren’t broken.
Neither are you.
Real love is possible, no matter what you’re dealing with.
I’ll keep a light on.
P.S. The featured image is by luizclas from Pexels