I’m just going to lay this out there: I have an anxiety and panic disorder. I’ve been plagued with severe anxiety and panic attacks for 12 years now due to multiple childhood traumas, and anyone reading this who has a similar struggle knows that this doesn’t mean I’m just kind of a nervous person. It literally means that the ‘fight or flight’ hormones in my body are releasing frequently, day in and day out. To put it lightly, the part of my brain that tells me I am about to be chased by an axe murderer is slightly confused.
As a teenager I just hid it from everyone. After I graduated high school, started dating seriously and thinking about marriage, my anxiety disorder was always the first thing to be brought up. Even though I was still too ashamed to reveal the truth to almost everyone else except family, I knew someone who would be spending most of their time with me would find out quickly (and possibly be scared off, of course). I figured I would save the trouble of my own heartbreak by just telling guys about it right off the bat so they could decide if they were willing to marry a nutcase or not, before I allowed my nutcase self to fall in love with them.
In college I started crushing on a guy. I thought he was really attractive and as we initially talked, I took notice to how much we had in common. First it was our interest in the same kind of music and then the similarities got deeper. Like me, he came from a broken family. Like me, his parents had divorced. Like me, he had a rocky relationship with his mother. Like me, he was looking for a fresh start at college.
And then he told me something that sent me crashing into love for the first time. He told me he had an anxiety disorder! I was stunned. This was 7 years ago before mental illness was really talked about like it is today; I had literally never met a person who had experienced clinical anxiety and panic attacks like me. I had never been able to have a conversation with someone about what it felt like. I had never been able to feel understood in the area I was most ashamed to admit was a part of my life. And here was this man, who I already thought was incredible, telling me he truly understood all of my struggles because he had the same struggles too. I thought for sure that I was meant to be with him, to struggle alongside him. It made me more attracted to him and it convinced me that if we had such a major thing in common, it must be a sign that we were a perfect match. So I let myself fall hard for him, be romanced by him, go ring shopping with him, talk about future kid’s names with him, and ignore every red flag surrounding him… Including the very one I mistook for a green flag.
Are we a perfect match with someone who struggles the same as we do? Is it healthy for two people with the same illness to be together? Should we marry someone who understands our struggle in the most literal way, or should we marry someone who may not relate to our struggle but walks through it with us?
I met my husband 2 years after my college love and I broke up. This new guy, Jamey, was so stable. He was seven years older than me. His father was a pastor. His parents were the picture perfect example of committed love. He had lived on his own for many years, held two jobs, and was very independent. He was fearless and the most calm, gentle, patient man I had ever met. I couldn’t find a single flaw or struggle in him. I crashed into love again, but this time it was different. I could sense the difference right away but it took me awhile to understand why it felt that way.
As I got to know Jamey I saw that he did have flaws and struggles, but his did not mirror mine. I started to realize that was why it felt so different than the type of love I had experienced before, and even the kind of love I thought I was looking for again. I had subconsciously been searching for someone who was flawed in the same way I am flawed, because I desperately wanted to feel understood and not crazy— I figured that was the only way it could happen. But after 5 1/2 years with Jamey, one of the greatest lessons he has taught me is that we all have issues and we don’t need to experience what someone else experiences in order to love them through their hard moments. We don’t need to literally understand everything about our partner in order to give them love and grace. My husband has proved to me time and time again that when I met him I was looking for the wrong thing. Thank God I recognized the right thing when I saw it, but before that I really didn’t know what the right thing for me was. I was ashamed of the ways in which my anxiety impacted my life, and I didn’t want my issues to impact my marriage. But doesn’t everyone’s issues impact their marriage? Jamey’s issues have impacted our marriage just as much as mine have, but his issues and my issues are just different.
Jamey knows when I’m anxious. He knows why I feel anxious. He knows what sometimes helps me not feel anxious. He knows everything, which is a heck of a lot more than I ever thought someone could know about me without running far, far away! And then what does he do? He participates in relieving my burden. He gives me footrubs, or takes me places when I can’t drive, or adjusts plans without guilting me. He does all of these things for me without having a clue what I’m actually feeling. And that surprises me! It challenges my thinking still to this day, because I am shocked by the fact that he can love a woman with severe anxiety so well without any understanding of what severe anxiety feels like.
There have been a few times when he asks questions and seems so confused about why I’m acting a certain way or struggling with a certain situation, and I admittedly become disheartened for awhile, wishing he could relate to me for just a moment. But then I remember how perfect his calm is for my crazy. He has qualities that bring the perfect amount of light to my darkness. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
If you struggle with mental illness, don’t feel like you’re only going to be lovable to someone else with mental illness who “gets you.” You don’t need to be “got.” You need to be taken care of. And don’t think for a second that you’ll have nothing to offer your partner in return. They may not need you in the same way you need them, but they need you. Everyone will journey through their own valleys, and marriage is just a combining of two valleys into a single journey.
Only one thing can get us to the mountaintop together— Grace.
Bridget is an artist and professional photo editor living in South Bend with her husband, Jamey and her cat, Theo. So if you like looking at pictures of rainbow hair and fluffy felines, you should follow her on Instagram.