I left the bathroom, quietly shut the door, and climbed back into bed.
“Are you OK?” My partner sleepily reached his hand toward me. I thought about how I had just spent the last 20 minutes curled on the bathroom floor, sobbing my eyes out, and leaning over the toilet to dry heave every two minutes.
“Yeah, go back to sleep.” He kept his hand on my wrist, and I kept sitting upright because I was pretty sure I was going to have to go back to the bathroom any minute.
We were in Florida, and it was my first time meeting his family. We’d been together for about eight months, and I wanted nothing more than for this visit to be great. And it was, except I spent every morning locked in the bathroom crying, wondering, What the f*ck is happening to me? Am I going crazy? Is he going to end things with me when we get home because of this?
Anxiety has put me through a bunch of sh*tty things, but it has also been an unexpectedly amazing force for authenticity in my relationship.
He didn’t, and we’ve now been together for almost three years. While I’ve had anxiety in some way most of my life, that experience at his parents’ house was my first panic attack, and things got worse before they got better. I tend to refer to “my journey” with anxiety a lot, but the truth is, it’s ours. Anxiety has put me through a bunch of sh*tty things, but it has also been an unexpectedly amazing force for authenticity in my relationship. It has, without a doubt, made me a much better partner. Here’s what I mean.
I’m more willing to be vulnerable.
It’s kind of hard to convince someone you’re OK when you are crying, running to the bathroom every five minutes, and walking around with an expression on your face like you just witnessed a horrific accident. The physical symptoms of my anxiety are so intense that I literally can’t hide them. And I’ve tried. I have uttered every lame excuse, tried every makeup trick, and taken anti-nausea meds, all to try to at least look normal. Nothing works, so I have no choice but to let my partner see me be a snotty, scared mess—which forced me to let go of the idea that I always have to have my sh*t together all the time.
I’m better at admitting I need help.
I’d known deep down, for a long time, that the level of anxiety I was feeling wasn’t healthy, but I didn’t do anything about it until after that first panic attack. That trip marked a turning point not just in my relationship with anxiety, but in who I am fundamentally: I had to get help to manage my anxiety (therapy) and I had to learn to ask for help in other areas of my life—especially my relationship. If I’m clear about how I’m feeling (which means actually talking about it), then my partner can do a better job of supporting me and meeting my needs.
I take better care of myself.
The biggest change I’ve had to make is putting myself first a lot more often than I did before. To help manage my anxiety, I’ve made some huge lifestyle changes. I work out five days per week, I rarely drink, and I try to eat as healthy as possible. I’m extremely strict about my sleep schedule, and I’m careful about how many social activities I plan during the week.
Exercise is the best way to manage and prevent anxiety (for me, anyway), and while dripping sweat after a high-intensity interval workout isn’t my favorite feeling in the world, the benefits far outweigh the effort: I have more energy, I’m more cheerful, and my anxiety is much less frequent and intense. Taking care of myself means that I’m also taking care of my relationship; I’m working to make sure that I’m at my best both emotionally and physically so that we can have a great life together. Plus my arms are starting to get super ripped.
I’m comfortable facing my fears—and speaking up about them.
Shortly after I started having panic attacks, my partner told me he would want to think carefully about committing to someone who had a chronic health problem, even though he wasn’t talking specifically about me. While I totally get that (and would go through the same decision-making process myself), it was absolutely terrifying to hear.
Because I was vocal about my fears, I learned that saying the thing that scares you is actually a huge relief.
Every day I’d worry: What if I don’t get better? Am I going to be able to walk down the aisle on my wedding day? What if I can’t parent like this? I was struggling with the reality that my dreams might all be gone. I felt a lot of pressure—from myself—to get my anxiety under control as quickly as possible. It took some long, difficult conversations to get all of that out in the open and really talk about it.
Because I was vocal about my fears, I learned that saying the thing that scares you is actually a huge relief. No matter what comes after—whether it’s a fight or a happy moment—getting that thing off your chest feels good.
I have to trust my partner, and he has to trust me.
My partner had to learn to leave me alone and not feel bad about it. He had to trust I would come to him if I needed him. And I had to learn to trust he would be there when I did, and that he wouldn’t resent me for needing him. Over the course of a year and a half, I learned that if I told him I was feeling anxious, he would drop everything and talk to me until I was feeling better. He learned if I don’t ask him for help, I really don’t need it and he can keep working or go out for drinks or whatever. I know he means what he says, and he knows the same thing about me.
I’ve learned to make room for someone else.
I am ridiculously independent. Like, to a fault. So when my panic attacks started, I tried really hard to take care of them by myself. I remember one morning in particular when I felt really anxious before work and sobbed quietly in the bathroom so as not to wake my partner up. I thought that if I just went to work it would get better. It didn’t, and I called him on my lunch break. He said he wished I had told him before I left so that he could have been texting and encouraging me all day.
I realized that if I truly wanted him to be my partner, then I had to treat him like one. In the same way that I had to make room in my life for the anxiety—and change some things accordingly—I had to make room for my partner. I learned to be intentional about how I spend my time and to make sure that he gets a big chunk of it. I learned that we need to be together on purpose, not just because we happen to be home at the same time.
I’m more empathetic and appreciative.
I like to think of myself as a pretty kind person, and anxiety has played a huge part in that. A panic attack is an especially difficult experience, and a lot of the fear wrapped up in it is that you’ll be judged and found lacking or crazy or weak. Experiencing that fear so acutely has helped me realize how important it is to practice empathy and validation.
Experiencing that fear so acutely has helped me realize how important it is to practice empathy and validation.
I’ve learned to listen to what my partner is actually saying instead of what I assume he’s going to say (still working on this one, TBH). I’ve learned to express my appreciation for him, and not just by saying “You’re so hot” (though I definitely say that). Sometimes I need him to tell me something I already know, like that he loves me or he’s not going to leave me, and I try to do the same thing for him. We both say “Thank you” and “I’m proud of you” a lot because we both know that the absence of those things not only leads to anxiety, but to a breakdown in the partnership. In the same way I spend time managing my anxiety, I learned I need to spend that time and effort on my relationship too.