The dude has graciously agreed to answer some questions about what it’s like to be the partner of someone with anxiety, because he’s the best. Please forgive my crying and general smittenness – I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your general experience with anxiety.
WL: My name is Will, and I’ve been dating Alexis for a bit here. It’s been going pretty well.
WL: My personal experience with anxiety… I don’t think I quite realized until maybe the last year or two the extent to which anxiety played a role in my life. I knew that there were things that would make me anxious, but I don’t think that I ever thought of it as Anxiety, exactly. So it wasn’t until I was dating someone who struggled with it enough to treat it like a capital A sort of thing that I started to think more critically about it in my life and then realize that actually it had been something that had bothered me for a long time in various ways. I remember even as far back as first grade not wanting to go into the lunchroom because it was this, you know, walking in and am I going to find a seat? Am I going to like what there is to eat? and there was a time when almost every day I would go to the nurse’s office before lunch because I just didn’t feel well. Looking back on it, that was sort of the beginning of some kind of struggle with social anxiety. And it was never enough that I ever felt paralyzed; I’ve never had a panic attack or anything, but it’s something that has been with me for a long time, mostly in social situations. A little bit in athletic, performance situations, but socially it was always a little bit more debilitating. The short version is it’s something that I’ve struggled with, but never has quite risen to the status of a problem for me.
When you experience anxiety, what is it like for you? What are the physical symptoms or thoughts that you have?
WL: The first thing that comes to mind is that it is an intense desire not to do something I really don’t want to do. I don’t have any severe physical symptoms. The stomach tightening, a feeling that I think many people would relate to, is about as far as it goes physically, for me. I think to me anxiety is the difference between – especially when I was younger – getting over the hump and doing things that ultimately I would enjoy versus not participating because of the stress and worry that I faced at the prospect of it. For a long time it would be like I don’t want to do this thing because I don’t know what it’s going to be like and I don’t think I’m going to like it and I’m worried that I’m going to be awkward and uncomfortable, so I’m just not going to do it. That’s the most obvious symptom: not doing things that I probably would have liked.
And you have a partner [nudges WL] with fairly acute anxiety, is that correct?
WL: That is correct.
[laughs] Has that been challenging for you personally? How?
WL: It’s certainly challenging… I hesitate to say that yes, it was especially challenging, because I feel like whatever I had to deal with is far less than whatever we had to deal with. And on the other hand I don’t want to say no, because we had to deal with a lot. For me, a couple of things come to mind. The first thing goes back to what I was saying earlier which is that at some point it goes from being anxiety to Anxiety. Like, at some point, you realize that it is a thing. It is not anxiety in the sense of like something that makes me feel a certain way but that I deal with, it is something that makes me feel a certain way that I need help dealing with. It rises to the status of being something that you have to work through. I feel like that’s the first thing, it’s like oh crap, this is a thing.
I would say I have experience with anxiety but not Anxiety. I feel like with any kind of partner that has a problem that you’re not familiar with – like a health issue they’re dealing with – there’s a process of learning and trying to understand, and trying to put yourself in a place where you can find empathy. And sometimes that’s easier and sometimes that’s harder; Anxiety is one of those things that can be harder. I think almost everyone is familiar with anxiety. If that’s your frame of reference for what someone is going through when they have Anxiety, then if you treat them as if what they feel is the same as what you feel, then you’re doing both of yourselves a disservice. You don’t know what it’s like to be in their shoes just because you’ve felt a fraction of it or you think you’ve kind of felt what they’re going through. To be in that situation is to try to remind yourself that just because you’re an expert in what anxiety means to you doesn’t mean you’re an expert on Anxiety. It would almost be easier if it were something that you yourself had never experienced. Like pregnancy: if I’m a guy, I know that I’m not going to relate to what it feels like to go through that.
Like, you know you don’t know anything.
WL: Yeah. It’s easier to listen and empathize because you’re not coming from a place that’s deceptively familiar, that makes you think you know what that person is going through. I think stepping back and trying to reset your expectations about what it means to be Anxious can be surprisingly hard and is so important. I think for the actual part of being there for someone, I don’t know that Anxiety is any different for me than being a good partner, period. I think it’s a lot of the same things that you would try to do if someone was going through a tough time at work or going through a health scare. You would bring the same sort of tools to bear: trying to be empathetic, trying to listen, trying to be supportive. It doesn’t necessarily always mean just doing what the other person wants. Sometimes it means trying to do what the other person needs. I feel like it’s so hard to describe that in the general sense. Just trying to listen and respond and be a good partner in the moment, whatever you think that means, and communicate.
That made me cry a little bit.
Are there any things about the panic attacks or those moments of high Anxiety that are difficult or frustrating for you?
WL: Certainly the helplessness, but I think that’s very familiar to someone who’s actually going through the Anxiety. I would imagine that helplessness is kind of the thing, or a major thing. But also just being the person who’s standing there and trying to watch or help somebody through it, recognizing that there’s only so much you can do, and in fact trying to do too much is just as bad as not doing anything at all. I certainly like to think that my funny funny jokes can penetrate any sort of circumstance or situation, but I think trying to be wise enough to recognize that that’s maybe not appropriate some of the time and probably most or all of the time. It’s not like I’ve been in a lot of different relationships where Anxiety was a big problem, so I suspect it’s different in every relationship: what brings someone comfort and what pisses them off, and anything in between. Trying to understand what actually helps your partner. I want to be able to do something. I want to be able to tell a joke or distract someone or take someone’s mind off the anxiety by doing something, but it may not work that way. And you have to accept that the best thing to do might be to just shut up and go away for a little while and let the other person know that you love them deeply and you care about them and that you’re there for them, but in this case being there for them is not being there for them.
Has being the partner of someone with acute anxiety been a positive for you personally? How?
WL: I don’t want to pretend that it’s not hard at times. I mean, it would be nice to snap my fingers and make it all go away for my partner and for everyone and for me, and I don’t think that’s wrong, to feel that way. Of course it would be nice if problems weren’t problems. But having said that, and accepting that it’s something you have to deal with, there are positive takeaways. One for me is just that transition to understanding Anxiety as a problem and not as a word. And, as part of that, looking more closely at how anxiety has occurred in my life or how I’ve struggled with anxiety, and thinking about it in the context of a medical problem. As a thing that happens, not just a feeling, but something that requires attention. To think about it more critically. I don’t think I really grasped that anxiety was something I had a problem with until I had a partner who had the same. It also really forces you to be a good partner. If someone is a little unhappy and you tell a joke that doesn’t land, they’re probably in a place where they can shrug that off. If someone’s in a panic attack and you’re doing something that’s not welcome, that becomes really obvious. Because the circumstances are heightened, are more difficult, it really forces you to understand your relationship better, and understand what you can do to help and what you can’t do to help.
One of the things that I’ve noticed is that, as we’ve been going through this, you were already really attuned to me and how I function because that comes naturally to you, but you became even more so as we went through all of this.
WL: For sure. I think it definitely forces you to be more aware. And that can be hard, too, because then the temptation is to try to be hyper aware or overly sensitive and there’s a balance between – I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I think for many people – even if you’re someone who’s struggling with Anxiety and you’re trying to be open with your partner, I’m gonna guess that for most people that doesn’t happen 100% of the time. There are some times when you want to keep it to yourself still, even if you know that you shouldn’t. Or there are times when you don’t feel like dealing with it at the moment. As the partner of that person, you’re trying to understand where they are, and even if they tell you that things are good, there’s some kind of balance between accepting that 95% of the time and 5% of the time recognizing that that’s not the best thing for them. And I use those percentages carefully because I think the vast majority of the time you have to trust them, but I also think that probably not every single time are they going to be right about what’s best for them. That’s a really tough thing because you don’t want to be in a position where you’re trying to make judgments about what’s better, but sometimes you’ll be right. I don’t know what the right break down is, and I don’t think I’ve been right every time about that. I think you just have to be conscious that it comes down to what actions you can take, and trying to have an open dialogue where you feel like you can check in with someone at the right interval. And most of the time you can accept that, but you’re also free to question it if you really think that you need to have a conversation.
How has your partner’s anxiety affected your relationship?
WL: If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. In order to make it work, communication has to be pretty open. You have to be able to talk about it and come up with a plan together and figure out something that works for both of you. I won’t pretend that it’s not hard at times, but I think that if you can get through it, it’s a positive thing. I hope that almost everyone can get to a place where there are habits that form. Where it doesn’t feel like a new battle every day, it feels more like a set of tools and an approach that you have when you need them. Because I think if you can get to that point, then it’s not like here we go again. You know what to do. It becomes a manageable problem: this is what we do when we get to this point, whether it’s your partner having a panic attack or even just the things that you do to help prevent that. In general, you have a toolbox and it’s not a new crisis every time.
In the same way that my partner has talked about acceptance being an important part of dealing with anxiety, you’re trying to accept that it’s going to be a thing so that you have the resolve to deal with it. It’s just as true for the partner in that situation. You have to commit to being in a relationship where you accept that that’s part of it, the same way that someone accepts that that’s part of their person. And if you can’t do that, I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you can fake. I think that you have to be honest with yourself, because you’re not really doing anyone any favors faking something that you can’t do. But if you can accept it, and that person is worth it to you, I think that’s a really important step. Because once you get there, for me, it hasn’t been that bad. I think a lot of that is my partner being really diligent about what she needs to do to get through it.
Do you think there are any things about your relationship what would be different if your partner wasn’t dealing with Anxiety, or if they hadn’t chosen to be open with you about it?
WL: I think that things would have been different in the past, especially if she hadn’t chosen to be open about it. First of all, I think that we wouldn’t be in a relationship, probably, if she hadn’t chosen to be open about it. Not just because I would feel sort of betrayed, but more than that I would just feel confused and I don’t think I would have understood the problem. Because, again, if you don’t understand, if you don’t have any kind of reference point about what someone’s really going through and you’re just trying to base it on what you think, then I don’t think you can really grasp what a panic attack is like. I think I would have been looking at your actions as being very erratic and strange without understanding the emotions and the physical things that were driving them. If you can’t communicate about them, then I can’t understand them, and I just don’t want to be in a relationship where you’re miserable because you’re making me miserable. At some point, it just doesn’t work, even if you want it to.
I don’t know that I would be in a substantially different place now than I would be if the anxiety hadn’t been there at all, and that’s really just a testament to my partner. I think it’s evidence that if you are open about it and you attack it: you acknowledge it, you accept it, you deal with it, you talk about it, you fight through it. I think that we’ve gotten to the place where we would be if it weren’t a thing in the first place. That’s pretty cool, right? Feeling like you can act on it in such a way that it doesn’t have to change the course of your life.
[crying, again] It’s really interesting to hear you say that, because I feel like things would be completely different.
WL: How so?
Because, for me, Anxiety was the thing that made me stop trying to be tough all the time. It’s so much bigger than me. If I hadn’t have had to deal with it and to be in a position where I literally had no idea how to help myself, and being forced to ask for help, I would be a lot more reserved about how I feel about you and our relationship and my family. I think that there are a lot of things that we’ve talked about that I would not have brought up or I wouldn’t have responded in the same way because I would have been afraid of how you would react or what you would have to say or what you would think because I was bringing it up.
WL: Maybe it was a catalyst for change for you, but you’ve always had the capacity for that change. There was nothing about what you had to go through with Anxiety that required you to be more than who you are or do more than you are capable of doing. You got to a place where you said I have to deal with this and you dealt with it. And it took time, and effort, but that capacity was always there, and I think is there for everyone. It’s not easy, but it’s doable. While the specific circumstances or the chain of events may have changed, I think ultimately the place that you got to is always a place that you could get to, regardless of Anxiety or not. Maybe the obstacles would have been different and so maybe that capacity never gets realized, maybe you don’t make the changes, but I see no reason why we couldn’t be in the same kind of place. Why you couldn’t be in the same kind of place.
[sniffs] How do you and your partner work together to manage their anxiety?
WL: You do all the work and I do all the driving[we were in the car]. You do all the work and I eat all the donuts. I eat all the chicken?
Seriously, though. Because you do do stuff, and you acknowledged it earlier by saying that you need to have a plan. You do help.
WL: I feel like I’m not the captain of the ship. My role is as the First Officer. I’m there to support the captain, make sure she gets to where she needs to be, and try to be helpful and thoughtful along the way, and take care of what I can take care of. Some of the themes I’ve touched on before are really important: communication and empathy and honesty. All of those are important parts of working together.
I feel like you’re the Leo to my Bartlett. For the most part, you kind of just let me do my thing and trust that I’m not going to fuck anything up, but you also just kind of like tweak me here and there. Sometimes I’m not sure you even know that you’re doing it, or that I see it that way. Like, when you’re like oh, you look good and I’m in my workout clothes.
WL: You do!
I know, but that for me is like oh, I look good in this, therefore I should wear these more, therefore I should work out in them more, because I paid for them. There’s like a whole chain of things that happen. Or like when we’re traveling and you’re just like how’re you doing? Which is something you ask me all the time, but it feels a little bit different when we’re traveling, it feels a little more focused on the anxiety. You also encourage me a lot, you know? You tell me you’re proud of me a lot. And we talk about it a lot. You’ve made it easy to be open about it because you’ve never been dismissive and you ask questions and you try to actually really understand what the experience is like versus assuming that you know because you’ve experienced a smaller version of it.
WL: Yes. Those things.
WL: Those are the things that I said.
Are there any essential understandings or tips about being the partner of someone who experiences strong anxiety that you would like to share with others?
WL: The first thing that comes to mind is that this isn’t something that you’re gonna fix for them. Whether it’s your funny funny jokes in moments of crisis or whether it’s thinking about how someone should be reacting to something or feeling about something. That’s all irrelevant. That doesn’t matter. It doesn’t help. It gets better because your partner gains the ability to cope with it better, to cope with how their body makes them feel. So if you’re trying to help someone, it’s not about what you do in any one particular moment. Fixing it is not saying the right thing ten times in a row in ten moments of crisis; it’s helping them add the tools to their toolbox so they can get themselves through moments like that and help themselves before they get anywhere near those moments. When you’re thinking about supporting someone to that goal, the steps you take are pretty different. It’s not the moments of crisis; it’s the times in between and encouraging them. So, for you, encouraging physical activity seemed to really help a lot, and helping you be comfortable and diligent and enjoying that. And if it wasn’t gonna be weightlifting, maybe it was yoga, and trying to be supportive of that. And therapy; help make that work. So maybe that means picking up dinner for someone –
Or like you take care of the dog [while I’m at my session].
WL: Right. Making those things work. It’s the little things to help them along that path that are ultimately going to make more of a difference. I think that’s a really important step.