The Anxiety of Living with Someone with Anxiety

usOnce upon a time I met a girl named Christine…

She was funny yet direct, demanding yet loving, and had a sparkling spirit that manifested in a very busy life. She worked full time at a retail store in Nashua, New Hampshire yet attended Salem State College full time. She was working on her second Bachelor’s degree. Christine spent much of her off-time commuting between the two locations, working on her degree program, visiting family in Lowell, and supporting a very needy boyfriend: me.

We were two peas in a pod: highly motivated but dangerously passionate. I was working full time with the Coast Guard in Boston and looked forward to attending Brandeis University in the fall. My employers were going to fund my Master’s degree as a fulltime student. I was looking forward to the change.

We fell in love. For a short time, everything was perfect. We ate pizzas at my apartment while watching American Idol. We’d throw in an occasional horror movie and cuddle on the couch. We even spent a weekend looking for covered bridges up north. Romance was in the air and we loved it.

Christine started to show signs of strain when she called me one day in tears from the highway. She said her heart was racing and felt as if she were dying. Not fully understanding the problem, I stayed on the phone with her until she arrived at my apartment. Later on that evening, when the symptoms didn’t subside, we went to the emergency room. After the usual long wait, she finally saw the nurse. “You just had a panic attack,” she said as if it were no big deal.

I felt the same way: it was no big deal. Christine was just tired and needed to rest. She’d be fine the next day. We’d get back to eating pizzas and watching scary movies in no time.

But we never did. Instead of getting better, she only got worse. Looking back on it, I was no help whatsoever. Instead of patience, I pushed. Instead of support, I demanded. Her expressions of fear led to resentment. “We had plans,” I’d say. “Why do you keep screwing up my plans?”

It was her fault that our life wasn’t going my way.

Despite my nasty disposition, she still agreed to marry me. However, instead of starting our new life in wedded bliss, it was horrible. The Coast Guard relocated us to Martinsburg, West Virginia, away from her family and away from her support system. All three of us were thrust together in an alien landscape: she, her “issue”, and I.

Someone had to go.

Within the first six months, I thought for sure it would be me. I even threatened to leave if she didn’t get her act together. But I didn’t. Neither did she or it.

It’s been part of our life ever since.

There is nothing wrong with feeling anxious. We feel it all the time. Sometimes we are afraid or nervous or concerned. It’s our mind’s way of protecting ourselves from harm. Problems happen when normal anxiety turns into something more: a disorder. Disorders are mental or behavioral patterns that impair a person’s ability to function from day-to-day. Christine most likely suffers from what’s called Panic Disorder. Panic Disorder is defined as “…spontaneous seemingly out-of-the-blue panic attacks and are preoccupied with the fear of a recurring attack. Panic attacks occur unexpectedly, sometimes even during sleep.”

Science is vague about what prompts anxiety disorders in some people but not in others. It could be chemical, it could be environmental, it could be lifestyle, or it could be genetics. Sometimes it accompanies other disorders like depression or substance abuse and sometimes it doesn’t. It could be all of these or none of these. Nevertheless, it is real.

The most important thing to understand about Panic Disorder, or any other anxiety-related disorder for that matter, is that it’s completely outside a person’s control. Worse yet, it can’t be avoided. In other words, you either get it or you don’t. It can happen unexpectedly, too. It’s not age or stress dependent. If it happens, it happens.

There are methods for managing the disorder but none can cure it. Pharmaceuticals, the easy out, are not necessarily the right answer. Many come with side effects that are significantly worse than the disorder itself. Just ask my wife.

Living with someone with Panic Disorder is not easy because you need to readjust your life to accommodate his or hers. For someone like me with a long history in the military, it’s even harder. All that structure, planning, and control is tossed out the window in favor of pure chaos.

And I hate it.

Do you have any idea what it’s like to leave for work at 5 a.m. in the morning as your wife is weeping in your arms because she had a panic attack while she slept? Or when you get a phone call from school because she is so panic-stricken that she can’t drive?

Do you have any idea how hard it is to convince someone they are not going to die?

This is what it’s like to be married to a girl with anxiety. It’s a day-to-day battle where everything and anything goes. The worst part is its unpredictability. Christine could be doing exactly the same thing today as she was yesterday but react completely different. She could be laughing one minute and crying the next. It’s frustrating and painful. It leaves me feeling highly stressed and completely helpless.

I don’t like that, either.

The big question is why I didn’t leave her in West Virginia and avoid the whole mess completely. It’s a difficult question to answer but its roots lie in one simple fact: I had been married twice before and was not going to have my third fail. I was determined to make it work regardless of the consequences to either of us.

And I’m glad I did.

Although the last 8 years have been a roller coaster of highs and lows, I learned a lot about my wife’s anxiety disorder and myself. I learned that these disorders are very common and affect other people I know. More importantly, I learned that the girl and the panic are two separate things. Christine is a loving and charming person who happens to suffer from panic attacks. It’s not her fault. She didn’t ask for it and I shouldn’t blame her for it.

Yes, life has changed. I’ve had to reconsider my long-term plans in favor of singular events. But even those need a contingency plan so I’m always prepared to walk away. I’ve become more patient and supportive. Instead of resisting massage, acupuncture, and holistic healing, I look at them through her eyes: methods for bringing relief and better understanding. I’ve learned that it’s okay to do things on my own and not feel guilty about it. I’ve also learned to always carry a cell phone.

The moral of this story is quite simple: Love is not easy. If you truly care about someone, you have a duty to remain steadfast and determined yet remain open to change – regardless of how big or how broad. There is absolutely no way of knowing what the future will be like and you can’t run from it. A strong person will persevere, a weak person will not.

I am very proud of Christine. Despite her struggle with anxiety, she, too, has remained steadfast and determined. Her willingness to share her story with the world – a very tough choice to make, by the way – is admirable. Like her, I hope her story can help others suffering with similar issues.

In the end, I can think of no better person I’d like to spend the rest of my life with than Christine.

Thanks, Snuggle Bunny, I love you!