I’ve been wanting to write a post like this for awhile now, especially after seeing the many “How To Date Someone With Anxiety” blog posts that have been floating around the Internet. These other posts are usually being written by someone who has anxiety, essentially helping their partner understand what they’re going through and how to best encourage them.
Personally, I’m in the opposite boat. I’ve been dating my sweet boyfriend for about 2 1/2 years now, and he’s struggled with anxiety for much longer than that. This has been a journey for me because I’m always trying to figure out how best to be there (or, not be there) when he’s having an anxiety attack or going through a rough patch. I decided to interview him and find out exactly what he’d want me to know. So, this is Josh’s story. We hope that you can take a piece of this experience and use it to inspire someone (maybe your partner, as in my case) to be a better friend to those dealing with this darkness.
Give us some background. How long have you been dealing with anxiety?
My anxiety is something that manifested in me around my sophomore year of high school. So, I’ve dealt with it for close to eleven years. It’s something that’s hereditary for me. At the time, at that age, not really understanding what it was, I didn’t identify that other people in my family also struggled with it. Now, it’s pretty evident. My father and my brother have both struggled with anxiety, and hearing stories about my grandparents on my father’s side, I think it’s something that they struggled with as well.
It became bad for me when I was about 19 years old. I think it was just the time where I realized that life is really changing for me, and a lot of unknowns were becoming evident. It was really tough for me. I struggled with it for about four or five months on my own and not really knowing how to talk about it. My parents got me some help, but the first person I went to was not extremely helpful. She basically told me that this was life, this was how your body adjusts to growing up, and this is who you’re going to be. Fortunately, I got a second opinion.
That’s when I was put under the direction of some medicine that’s been able to help me sleep, which was the big problem, and calm me down. It helps keep, for the most part, that stuff in check. I’ve been on medication now since I was 19, so about 6 1/2 or 7 years. It’s something that flares up from time to time. You’re going to have your bad days, but the majority of mine are good. You have things that happen in your life that kind of feed into it and draw it out, but it’s something that’s easier to deal with the longer you’re dealing with it. When you go to that dark place or when you feel the effects of a full-on anxiety attack, it’s a terrifying feeling – but, when you come back from it, it makes the next time a little bit easier, because you know you can.
My anxiety has tended to be based around the unknown. For instance, situations in my life that could be or are taking place where there is no definitive way for me to affect the outcome. The feeling of being unsure and powerless feeds into it.
What’s something you’d want someone without anxiety to know?
How you are when your anxiety is high or you’re having a difficult time with it is very different from the person that you really are when you’re not struggling. For me, I become hypersensitive to things that are being said or perceptions of what people think about me. Or, minute details that my mind blows up into being a bigger deal than they are. In that mindset, when you’re struggling with those issues, you’re not thinking as clearly as you could. You don’t see the longterm impact of what you’re thinking or what you’re saying, because you just can’t seem to clear your mind or get the full picture. So, that becomes a vicious cycle, because it feeds into your anxiety even more.
From my perspective, when this happens, I’ve just wanted someone there. I don’t need them there to tell me or do anything, just be there. Early on, when I started having these issues, the person I wanted to be around was my brother, because he’d dealt with it before. He’s been down the road. There’s a lot of times when it’s nice to have someone else tell you that it’s going to be okay. But, most of the time, my brother would just be there to be there, because he knew that it was a comforting feeling knowing that you’re not struggling alone. Being there with someone when they’re feeling this way, or when they’re having an anxiety attack, is very comforting.
In terms of us being in a relationship, what would you want me to do when you’re having an anxiety attack?
Well, in the context of us dating, it would probably be what I said before. I’d just want you to be there for me. The main thing that helps me is when you put your hand over my heart, because that’s where the physical feeling of anxiety manifests for me. It’s a tightness in my chest. It’s not necessarily a pain, but it feels like you’re wearing heavy duty clothing that’s three sizes too small for you. It’s laboring to push your chest out to get a full breath of air. That’s just your body not knowing how to react to what’s going on. Then, when you start feeling like that, you start worrying, which in turn makes it worse, which makes you worry worse, which makes your anxiety worse. It’s a never-ending thing. In my mind, when you put your hand on my chest, it’s a light in the dark of you saying ‘It’s okay.’ It’s a feeling of ‘One way or another, everything is going to be alright.’ So, that’s the biggest thing relationship-wise. It’s that physical connection of being there in that moment with someone else. I’m not just seeing you, but I’m feeling that you’re near to me. That helps me.
Is there any part of dealing with a relationship that’s made harder by the fact that you have anxiety?
Yeah, it definitely does make things harder. We’ve run into this in our own relationship. And, when I say we, I mean me. [Laughs] You know, the thought of getting married or having kids are huge unknowns, and that’s something for me that really feeds into my anxiety. It’s something I’ve had to deal with. It makes you super sensitive to perceived issues in a relationship. You just want to be in the know all the time, especially if you think your partner’s upset. You want to know what it is and what’s wrong. That feeling of not knowing personally feeds into my anxiety because not knowing means I start speculating on what it could be. And then that leads to it being blown out of proportion and becoming a huge thing. It’s basically throwing a match onto a can of gasoline. It doesn’t take much to start it, but once it’s been lit, it’s very hard to put it out. You can’t quiet your mind; it’s just running repeatedly. So yes, it makes certain aspects of a relationship very difficult.
In some instances, it makes you very self-conscious, too – especially early on in the relationship. You don’t necessarily want the other person to see you like that because you don’t know how your partner is going to perceive it. You also don’t know what effect it will have moving forward in terms of how they see you after the fact. Some people might feel like it’s too much baggage to bring into their lives.
Is that something you’ve personally struggled with?
Yes, especially in terms of medication. I feel like there’s a stigma attached to taking medication. I don’t really think that there’s a strong stigma attached to having anxiety, but once you go to the level where you’re prescribed something for it, people start to say, “Oh, oh you take MEDICINE” in a judging way. They make it seem like taking medicine puts you in a different category. And, with my medicine, it’s something I’ve struggled with from a family perspective. With my mom being as religious as she is, she was very against me taking anything for my anxiety. She did not want me to do it. And, to this day, she still brings it up. She asks me, “Do you still take that medicine to help you sleep at night?” That’s the way she looks at it – like it’s only medicine to help me sleep at night.
Lately, you’ve seemed to be less anxious about the future. Is that something you feel like you’ve grown out of, or something you suppress?
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to be able to accept the unknown a little bit better. There are still things that peak my anxiety when I think about them from the standpoint of the future, relationships, what could happen, and what you want to happen. But, for the most part, I feel like I’ve grown way past the point even that I was a year, or two, or three ago. I’m a little more at peace with knowing that there are going to be good things that happen and there are bad things that happen. I used to let them get to me a lot more, which then lead to more bad things happening than good. It’s a gradual thing that took time for me to come to peace with over the years.
If you were to tell your 19-year-old self about this journey that you’ve gone through, what advice would you give?
The biggest thing that I struggled with when I was really hit hard with anxiety was me feeling like I would never be me again. I’ve always been a really positive, outgoing person. Generally, I’m pretty happy. When I went through the four or five months when I was really down, it was basically the other end of the spectrum. It was really hard feeling like that, feeling like I’d never get back to where I was before. That’s why, when the first person that I saw for help told me, literally, “You’re not going to feel like you did before,” it felt like a punch in the gut. If I could tell myself anything, it would be, “Yes, this sucks. Yes, you’re going to have to go through this. But, you are going to be able to get back to where you were before. It’s going to take time, there are going to be some really shitty things that are going to happen, and you’re going to feel badly for awhile – but you can climb out of it and you will climb out of it.”
Do you feel like you’re back to where you want to be?
I definitely do, and I’d say I’ve probably felt back to myself for the last five or six years. Like I said, there are going to be times. For me, these originated around life-changing moments like graduating from college, serious health problems in my immediate family, and changes with a job. Granted, this isn’t a blueprint for everyone that struggles with anxiety. Triggers are very unique from person to person. But yes, I definitely feel like I’m to the point where I was hoping to get back to.
I don’t think it’s something that you can ever really be “cured” of. But, I think the longer that you deal with it and the more you learn to live with it, the easier it gets. I do think it’s something that I’m going to deal with for the rest of my life. On the other side, though, I think it’s going to be something that gets easier to deal with the older I get and the more life experience that I have under my belt. And, the more I talk about it, share my experiences, and hopefully help other people with it, the easier it becomes for me.
In a relationship, is there a specific quality that you’d want in a partner that would help you?
I would say, from my experiences, the biggest effect that anxiety has on me is my self-confidence. I’ve never been extremely confident in myself anyways throughout my life, so it’s something that definitely becomes worse in those dark moments. You’re feeling down, you’re not feeling like yourself, and then you start analyzing a lot of things in your life. Basically, you become your own worst critic and picking yourself apart. So, I would say that the two qualities I’d want in someone are encouragement and patience.
I think sometimes people who have individuals in their life with anxiety feel like they should be able to say “Everything’s going to be okay” and then that person is going to feel better. It’s encouraging to hear those words, but it’s not a fix-all. It’s a process of going through a day or three-day or however long span of not feeling like yourself before you can come out of it. Obviously having someone there or encouraging you will help and may help you come out of it quicker, but there’s not necessarily anything you can do to just magically make it happen.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I think that the biggest thing I’d want people to know is that if you’re struggling with anxiety and you come to a point where you need to take medicine, you shouldn’t look at that as a weakness. Coming from my really religious background, medicine was perceived as a weakness because a lot of people thought that I should be completely reliant on prayer. Not to say that’s not something that could help you, but I’ve run into a lot of people who demonstrate the same characteristics as I did before I started medicine. Some have been close friends. When I’ve asked them about it, they’ll say, “Yes, I do think i struggle with anxiety, but I don’t want to take medicine. I don’t want be dependent on something like that.” Granted, that’s to each person’s own prerogative, but I think people sometimes say that because they think it’s a weakness.
In my mind, it shows strength, because you’re taking action to move yourself from down in this dark place to become who you want to be. Why would I turn away from that? Anxiety has been an issue for me and it’s affected multiple facets of my life, but it’s not a problem I’m ashamed of or a problem that I feel bad about talking about with somebody. The more you live with it, the more you learn about it and the more ways you can help someone else who’s going through it.