The official story is that I was diagnosed with and treated for generalized anxiety disorder when I was in my early 20s. It was around that time that I nearly blacked out as a result of a panic attack in my then-girlfriend's dorm room. I was convinced I was having a heart attack, going crazy, developing brain cancer, or some combination of the three. She drove me home, my parents took me to the family doctor first thing in the morning, and I was promptly put on medication. I improved. Although that panic attack was a watershed moment, the one that prompted me to seek professional help, in reality it was simply the latest in a long string of troubling, anxious incidents stretching back into my early childhood.
What I remember most vividly about my anxiety when I was young is being irrationally afraid that my parents were going to abandon me. It started when I was around seven, and I was terrified. I wouldn't let my parents leave me anywhere—school, sports, sleepovers. I thought they'd drop me off and never come back. This particular fear lasted into my teens. It was eventually replaced by more creative but equally irrational fears, like cancer, tropical diseases (even though I had never been out of the country), heart disease, and more elaborate abandonment issues. My sex life was all but crippled because I thought, despite all the precautions I took, I was going to catch a sexually transmitted infection.
Throughout it all I had hookups and girlfriends, but my relationships were all marred by a debilitating fear of sexual contact, panic attacks, and other manifestations of my anxiety. My partners tried to empathize, but they couldn’t.You could see the patience running out, that look of frustration beneath the cracks in their honest attempts to get it, to finally understand. And I couldn't blame them. Being with me was, at times, incredibly frustrating. It was an exercise in futility—nothing they did could help. I often felt like they thought I was weak or blowing it out of proportion. Sometimes I thought they might be right.
Then, I met my fiancée. She doesn't have clinically diagnosed anxiety, but she gets it.
From the moment we started dating, my fiancée went out of her way to make me feel normal. There wasn't any resentment, there wasn't any frustration (at least not any that stemmed from my anxiety) and she never told me to get over it. Sure, she was a little taken aback by the ferocity of my panic attacks, and yes, she struggles at times to make sense of the strange ways my anxiety can manifest, but she never makes me feel like my anxiety is somehow my fault. She's curious, not frustrated.
After I have a bad day or a bad week, she often tells me, “It is what it is. We will figure it out, we will get through it together.” She gives me space when I need it, but she comforts me when that's the best remedy for the moment. A lot of the time, she knows what I need before I do. She makes sure I am taking my medication, and she gently guides me away from triggers. Most of all, she makes sure I know that I am not defined by my anxiety.
My fiancée doesn't have any special training, and she doesn't have other people in her life who struggle with anxiety. What makes her different is that she's all in, and she doesn't treat psychological disorders any differently than physical ones. She sees my disorder like any other chronic disease: something out of my control, not something I brought on myself. She empathizes with my condition, but she doesn’t pity me. She encourages self-care, but doesn’t think it’s “all in my head.” She recognizes that I am sick, but doesn’t treat me like I am damaged.
Maybe it’s because I was young, or maybe it’s because we were young, but the serious relationships I had before I met my fiancée always seemed guarded, as if both of us already had our big toes out the door just in case something went south. It always went south. But now, my feet are on this side of the door, and the door is closed, locked, and bolted. Her, too. We are a partnership, the aim of which is to make it work. And when you’re committed to making it work, you simply take things as they are and as they come. For my fiancée, my anxiety is one of those things. It’s a part of me, and it’s a matter of fact. She does what she can to help alleviate it, but she doesn’t try to change or solve it. And as a result, she doesn’t resent the fact that she can’t.
It could be that I committed so fully as a result of her not stigmatizing my anxiety. Or it could be that she didn’t stigmatize my anxiety—something she’d never really experienced before—because I committed so fully. In any case, having a partner who refuses to define me by my anxiety has made me sure she's the one I want to marry. She loves all of me. She accepts all of me. She likes me for me. And I can't wait to spend the rest of my life with her.
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Photo Credit: Illustration by Jocelyn Runice, Texture by Shin Tukinaga / Getty