Love in the Time of Anxiety

I didn’t know what anxiety was in high school. People used the word interchangeably for crazy or stressed or sad. And I guess at times anxiety can be all of those things. Can probably be more. But there were things missing from this definition that were crucial to me understanding anxiety in any real way.

At that time grades were important to me. I made a 4.0 GPA in high school and took as many courses as I could. I started prepping for college, something no one in my family had done before me. I had no idea how I was going to pay for it, but I started making a plan. Plans. To-do lists cluttered my desk and my school calendar; there were evenings I forgot to eat because I was too busy updating my planner, too busy crossing things off of my lists- this, I thought, was how I nourished myself: writing down the steps to get me where I thought I wanted. There were times (and still, confessedly, are) in which I’d add things I’d already done to the end of my to-do list just to see another black line. This, intentionally completing things, was how I’d get to the land beyond the to-do lists, that fictional terrain where I’d be able to breathe without writing it down, without writing a check-mark beside the simple act of breathing to know that I’d done it.

And finally at age 25 I’ve come to the truth of anxiety- this destination, the place I thought planning and over-analyzing and check-marking would get me to, does not exist. The to-do lists have only led to more sticky-notes, to color-coded keys for my calendars, to two majors and three minors. Worse than any of that, though, it’s led to an inability to love. Or, maybe closer to truth, an inability to let myself be loved. Anxiety makes you believe that if you try hard enough, if you make enough lists and stretch yourself thin enough, your happiness will exceed any boundaries you thought this world put on you. I never imagined that anxiety was something that could not be defeated, that a world without the constant treadmill of useless, unnecessary, harmful thoughts and emotions was not accessible to me. And I’ve lived for 25 years awaiting the year in which the anxious thoughts would leave; in which I’d succeed and feel complete, in which I’d open my heart and have a relationship free of anything but confidence and contentment. I guess, in a way, this is the year I’ve been waiting for. It just doesn’t look the way I expected it to.

I’ve been in love a handful of times, and each time has felt like a failure. I know now that I have always leaned too heavily on the men I’ve loved, always expected too much out of them and blamed them for the emptiness I felt when they did not (could not) deliver. The false control I thought I’d had over my own life- the sense of control that endless to-do lists and pressure can give- led me to believe I could find this same control in a partner. I mistakenly thought that if I could not find such an organized, controlled atmosphere in a relationship, it wasn’t the right one. It gave me an out anytime a man left. ‘He didn’t try hard enough’ was my defense. And this defense did its job; it protected my heart. It left me to my to-do’s and my endless quest for happiness. I taught myself that love wasn’t for me, that my heart couldn’t be matched. My romantic idea of ‘the one’ fell away and left me with a wall, one larger than I then recognized. The heartbreak of my early twenties left me scarred and broken, and the only thing I knew to do was to nurture myself. Anxiety is funny in that way- at times, it feels like a friend.

When I moved a year and a half ago, I met someone. I wrote about him on the blog, wrote about him after the breakup. My anxiety spiraled after he left; I felt alone, unsure of this new city and my new life. I felt inadequate at my job, uncomfortable in my apartment. I hadn’t done yoga in months, had only read a few books in a number of weeks, hadn’t written a word in verse. I’d lost control because I’d tried so fucking hard to maintain control of a relationship I didn’t even truthfully want to be in. But the illusion of control was enough- the thought that I had someone’s apartment to fall asleep in, someone’s coffee breath to wake up to- that was enough. I clung hard. Ironically, though, I pushed away harder. I questioned a lot. I felt a wave of doubt pass through me nearly every day, heavy and murky and powerful. Oftentimes it’d lead me to crying, to him asking what he did and becoming frustrated at my apparent ‘craziness over nothing.’ There were multiple days in which he wouldn’t answer my messages for 24 hours, and I’d hyperventilate until I got home and could sob and scream into my pillow. Anxiety told me that loving someone was dangerous, that letting someone love me signified a loss of control. But it also told me that losing this love was a failure larger than I could stand. I thought that he was my entryway into the land of no anxiety. I lost him (not too much of a loss, in the grand scheme of things). But what I gained was larger: a need to dissect my anxiety, to stare at its ugliness and say ‘I accept you, but you are no longer going to win.’ I finally learned that living without anxiety was never going to happen for me, and that the land of happiness was not one in which anxiety did not exist but one in which it coexisted with the larger, friendlier parts of me.

I sought therapy for the first time in my life. The therapist wasn’t the best fit, but it felt good to cry once a week to someone who didn’t know me. It felt good to admit the things that lurked deep in my brain, to say things aloud that I hadn’t thought about for years. I was scared by how much I didn’t know about my own thought processes, horrified at the havoc my own brain had caused in the name of self protection. I made progress. I recognized that what I thought was a healthy independence had actually been an unhealthy aversion to romantic love, a distrust in the things I most wanted: long-term monogamy, the concept of ‘the one.’ But I did not think I was ready for love; I wasn’t sure I was as good of a partner as I’d always thought myself to be, and I thought I needed to do more work alone before I could do it with someone. But I met him anyway. The one. Even writing those two words takes a little bit of deep breathing, a willing abandoning of protective cynicism. But I’ll write them again and again because I believe them: the one. I still don’t know if I believe in the concept of ‘the one,’ but I do believe in the partnership he and I have cultivated. I do believe that this is the biggest love I will ever have. And I know that recognizing it as such is important to my ongoing acceptance of it.

I pushed him away for months. I denied and questioned every romantic impulse I had towards him, expressed that we were just friends. I spoke to him constantly, found myself yearning for his witty text response or invitation to go to the movies. Other people began to bore me, and I started wishing he was with me when I did certain things I enjoyed doing (the bookstore, mostly- I really, really wanted him to watch me trapeze through the aisles of Chamblin’s, wanted to feel his eyes and his smile on me as I pretended not to notice). I knew from the beginning that he was leaving. He’d told me via text message that he was moving to LA and I cried silently throughout my night class. We’d agreed from the beginning to not do distance, recognizing the pressure and the absurdity that would be commitment at so early a stage in a relationship. We had six months before he left- we could make the most of that time together and part as friends- that felt like control. That, in the beginning, was something my anxiety smiled upon.

Eventually and inevitably, I realize now, we came together, falling in a quiet, ground-breaking kind of love over inhales of cigarette smoke and the sounds of Frank Ocean, Blind Pilot, and Father John Misty. We went to museums and movies, leaning into one another shyly at first, learning the curves of one another’s body, eventually melting into one another effortlessly. We drove in his car and listened to podcasts, ate terrible food on the floor of his studio apartment and woke up hazily wrapped in naked limbs. My best friend turned everything.

The first time I mentioned wanting to do distance was in his bed late at night. I’d been wanting to say it for weeks, and spent time trying to figure out whether or not my anxiety was controlling the decision- was I, like I had previously, clinging too hard out of fear to lose what felt like control? Did I want him simply because being in a relationship felt like success? The answer to both of these questions was a loud and defiant no. I wanted to be with him because I believed him when he laughed.

I sobbed until my eyes couldn’t open when he told me no. Weeks later I tried again, and then traveled to China for work. He took care of my apartment and my cat while I was gone, 12 hours of time difference between us and barely functioning wifi. I felt, especially when we were apart, the crushing wave of anxiety welcome me back. I felt its blackness, the way it entered into my bloodstream like an anesthetic, its sharp and unavoidable insistence that you have no control, that you are destined to fail, seep into my heart. I thought of him and thought only of what I was to lose. Every conversation I began to look for the holes, the defining lines which proved that I was not enough for him. Anxiety convinces you that it is right, assures you beyond a doubt that the thought it has produced reigns supreme. And once I believed that he was not willing to do distance with me because he did not love me enough, nothing he said could convince me otherwise. I was back to the mantra ‘he isn’t trying hard enough.’ I came home to a man who greeted me at the airport with taco bell, who stayed awake when I couldn’t beat my jet lag and who rubbed my back until I fell asleep. He’d washed my car and fed my cat, took out the trash and made sure I had a cold coke can waiting for me in the fridge. All logical signs pointed to the truth: this incredible man loved me so much. But my anxiety insisted that he did not. Even when, a few days later, I accidentally let slip ‘I love you’ and he returned it with a serious ‘I love you too,’ even when he pulled me into my kitchen and revealed a note he wrote with my fridge magnets that said ‘I love you,’ revealing that he indeed loved me, had known it before I’d said it, had written it while I was in China listing in my mind all of the reasons he did not love me- even then I doubted it. I doubted him. And most of all, I doubted that I was worth loving.

We went on like this for a few long months. I started agonizingly long conversations that had no ending, just an endless loop of buts and what ifs. I went to LA for a work conference and got to see his new apartment; while I felt an other-worldly sense of happiness for him and the life he was about to begin (I knew how big he’d make his life), I felt a panic so severe that I couldn’t sleep. Each day I woke at 5AM wanting to call him like some kind of addict looking for the hit of ‘I love you.’ At that point I needed him to tell me he loved me every hour else I’d begin to doubt it, to spiral into the abyss of convincing myself I was unworthy of a lasting love. The patience this man displayed during those months was close to heroic, and if there is ever any need for me to seek validation in his love for me (which, unfortunately, there still sometimes is), I only have to look at what he was willing to do for me then: comfort me every hour while he prepared to move his entire life across the country. I was unbelievably selfish but I didn’t realize it. The anxiety made me feel justified. It smiled deep in the darkness of my brain and awaited the completion of the self-fulfilling prophecy (tell yourself you are unlovable and that is indeed what you become).

I wish I could say that all of this changed. That I defeated all of this on that work trip and I handled the rest of our relationship (which is, I’m so happy to say, still happily going!) with grace. But the truth is those feelings only became more rampant and uncontrollable. In the face of losing him I became irrational, I became pathetic. And the worst part was I knew it. I could feel the anxiety take over, but I felt helpless at its feet. I whispered no and it happened anyway. I felt helpless, which only fed in to my suspicions that I was unlovable. I lost 15 pounds. I checked his social media endlessly and began telling myself that it meant something if I was not on his story or his feed. I sought out signs that would prove my anxiety was right because it was safe. Settling into the familiarity of these anxious thoughts was safer than letting myself be loved with the possibility of being hurt. I could control this hurt, and wasn’t that better than the unexpected heartbreak that might come from love?

The answer, of course, was no. It was sadder. Lonelier. More of a heartbreak than anything else ever could be. I used to want to yell at myself for ever pushing away what I have most wanted but now I only ever want to cradle that part of me, the one who fears loss and heartbreak and abandonment so much that she abandons her confidence and herself before someone else can. I’m on the road to loving that part of myself, and understanding that she is just one of the myriad of parts that make up my whole. She has tended to amplify herself in my romantic relationships, has engorged herself and become too big to be healthy.  But whereas I used to see this part of myself as far away, as if on an insurmountable mountaintop, I now can beckon her down to the summit, look her in the eye, and say ‘no.’

Sometimes she doesn’t listen. Sometimes still I have these conversations with my partner who has been long distance from me for more than two months now. I still, of course, dread them when they happen. But I feel that chill, that diabolic urge to question my worthiness, my relationship, less and less. It wields so much less power. I’m going to therapy with a new therapist and I’m taking medication for the first time ever. This combination enables me to pause the rapid assembly line of thoughts in my mind, lets me sit in child’s pose for 15 minutes at a time with a mostly empty space. At other times it lets me laugh at all the extra work my brain is doing and has done- sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and remind myself: ‘you are fighting battles that do not even exist.’ I have a partner states away who decided, after all, to stay in this. We have a plan for me to move in with him soon and we talk all the time. For awhile I struggled with accepting that he actually wanted to be with me until I realized- why else would he be doing this? The ability to rationalize my thoughts against my anxiety felt revolutionary. Together now he and I are able to laugh at my need for him to respond to my snapchats or tell me he loves me multiple times before I fall asleep. There are times when I do indeed still need these things, weak moments when the loneliness and missing him gets to be too much and I start delving into the thoughts of ‘what if I’m not enough for this to last?’ The anxiety can still turn me selfish. It can still make me feel as if I’m a bad partner. But now I only have to look at his short (I love his easy, quiet love) response of I’m not going anywhere to feel re-energized; and when it feels like it’s too much, when it begins to feel insurmountable again, I’m able to at least have faith that the feeling will pass. I can call her down from the mountaintop and tell her no until she dissolves into the background, never gone, but less present.

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One thought on “Love in the Time of Anxiety

  1. Jude

    This is beautiful. You’ve put into words the ugly part of so many of our souls. We all have those feelings of self-doubt and a fear of not being enough, no matter what life looks like on social media. You’re not alone. ❤️

    Like

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