There is a third person in my marriage, and its name is Anxiety. Little did my husband know that when he married me, he was also marrying it. I have tried to feed it, please it, yell at it, ignore it, but despite my efforts, it remains. Sometimes its hands are around my neck, and I'm frozen. My thoughts race a million miles a minute, yet no words are able to come out of my mouth. Sometimes it is whispering terrifying possibilities into my ear. Sometimes it gets angry. Sometimes it cries. Anxiety has been with me since I was a child. In many ways, it is me as a child. And like all children, all it has ever wanted is to be loved and accepted.
Living with anxiety is like riding on a permanent roller coaster that you don't even realize you are on; your stomach drops at any moment, usually for no reason. I would walk around the apartment sighing deeply, and if my husband asked, "What’s wrong?" I'd often say, "Nothing." I hoped that, in my denial, anxiety would go away. But pushing it further down only makes it want to come out more. We needed to talk about it. We needed to learn to sit with it, to be with it.
I had always known I was anxious in love, but I thought it was from being with all the wrong men. The avoidance, the distance, the games. We are programmed to believe that this is a natural part of the process (it is called the dating "game," after all!). I tried to play along. To enjoy the sport of it. But when a text would remain unanswered or a second date wasn't set, my world would come crumbling down, and my anxiety would respond as if we were being abandoned forever. I didn't even need to really like the guy. Anxiety does not discriminate, and I found myself latching on to toxic men for dear life, just for the fear of being left.
And then my husband came along, and he did everything right. He taught me how to communicate, how to be present, how to be straight up. I will never forget the first time he texted me, "I am going into a meeting and will be right back." That simple gesture made such a difference to my nervous system. It was like he waved at me from the side of the playground, saying "I'm right here!" so I could continue playing safely.
I used to think that the faster I moved, the further ahead of it I could get. But anxiety was always there, hot on my trail, nipping at my heels.
We were long-distance at first. The times we spent together, our bodies would wrap around each other from the minute we met up to the moment we parted. The times we were separate, we would connect via technology, texting videos of our daily adventures, talking on the phone and Skype. Yet, even with the constant communication, even knowing he was my person, even being the happiest I was in my entire life, anxiety remained. I didn't understand.
"Did you really think 33 years of anxiety would disappear when you met the right man?" my therapist at the time asked.
Yes! Yes, I did.
It doesn't work that way, though. What I realized about anxiety is that even (and especially) if everything is going right, it scares you into thinking it will all be taken away.
For example, I knew I was anxious about work, but I thought it would go away once I got that "next gig." The problem is, the bar is always moving. I toil away, pushing through the week like a battering ram, hoping that if I just keep going, keep hustling, keep saying yes, I can get to the next job, the next opportunity, the next level. Sure, I'm happy for a moment, but the minute I arrive at the proverbial peak of whatever current mountain I'm scaling, my anxiety starts up about the next climb. I used to think that the faster I moved, the further ahead of it I could get. But anxiety was always there, hot on my trail, nipping at my heels.
For a long while, I also thought my anxiety about my body (aka food, aka life) would disappear once I finally reached what I saw as my "ideal" weight. In the back of my mind, there was a faint voice that would say, If you were prettier/skinnier/taller, we would feel so much better. This is a lie, of course. I listened to that voice to the point that I was nearly hospitalized, and even then, anxiety remained. If anything, it worsened. So, no, losing those last X-number of pounds will not make me less anxious, even if I sometimes (all the time) forget.
People with generalized anxiety disorder are not broken, and anxiety is not something to run away from or overcome.
You see, my anxiety can have an insatiable appetite if I feed it. It is a hungry ghost. It makes me believe that if I just had this, looked like this, did that, I would be happy. But anxiety and happiness are not opposites. As my marriage showed me, you can be both happy and anxious at the same time. In fact, when we are most happy may also be when we're most anxious, because it means we have something important to lose.
How can everything in life be going right, yet I still feel like everything is wrong? This may be a hard concept for the logical human mind to hold, but anxiety has no logic. Where we go wrong is in thinking that someone or something will "fix" us. People with generalized anxiety disorder are not broken, and anxiety is not something to run away from or overcome.
So many people in my life misunderstood that fact—my family, my exes, some friends. "Pull it together," someone would say. "Learn to self-soothe." "Choose your thoughts!" "Be grateful." And I, in turn, absorbed those voices. When anxiety arose, I would do everything in my power to try to not feel what I was feeling. I would blame, I would self-medicate, I would eat, I would not eat, and I would plan. Oh man, did I plan. Anxiety and I loved staying up late together, like a twisted sleepover, telling scary stories of the future and watching old memories projected onto my brain. I would plan my schedule so tightly that the slightest interruption could send me into a meltdown. (One time, when the coffee place was closed, and with just 10 minutes on hand to find an alternative, anxiety cemented my feet to the floor. It jumbled my thoughts and decision-making processes and sent an earthquake of nerves rumbling through my body. I could not figure out what to do next. I was frozen. This was not the plan! my anxiety cried. I know.)
That is what happened when I attempted to "fix" myself. What made my marriage different was that it was the first time I chose to sit in my anxiety instead of avoiding it. To give it a name. Before, I had felt more comfortable sharing about my past drug abuse and eating disorder than saying the words "I have anxiety." But this time, as I began to explain to my partner what it was like, and he sat quietly and lovingly listened, I finally realized what I had to do.
In my experience, relationships are mirrors, and when you have a partner who can reflect you clearly, you learn a lot about yourself. Once I could own my anxiety, I began to see how much it ruled my life. I had no idea how much it affected me until I started living with someone. When I was single, I could control it through work, food, and planning, but once another human being entered the picture, it was the Wild West of unknown variables.
It meant I could no longer plan my life years in advance since my partner couldn't plan past next week. It meant having to expand my dinner menu beyond two meals and communicating why that is hard for me, even when catatonic with nerves. It meant having to sit in the unknown of the future, including our own. But this time I had a hand to hold on to, something to anchor me.
Anxiety is not me, but it is a part of me. As I sat there explaining this to him, this need to accept it, I realized: How can I ask someone to accept all of me, when I was not accepting all of myself? So I looked across the couch at Anxiety curled in a ball, and I reached out my hand.
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