Dating someone is all good until you tell them you have an anxiety disorder. There’s the whole honey-dipped phase of sweetness where it’s all, “What’s your favorite color?” and “What do you like to do for fun?” and “I can’t wait to see you (insert cutesy emoji).” And then, as the weeks go by and the novelty begins to fade, your anxiety will creep in and remind you that it’s there and has been there and it ain’t going nowhere.
Let me paint a little picture for you: You’re on a date with a person and everything is going well. They’re awesome to look at, conversation is flowing, it’s all good. But then you feel the tips of your toes warm and then the heat is up to your ankles, then your knees, until you know what’s happening. You try to control your breathing but have to excuse yourself and run to the bathroom to avoid them having to see you squirm or burst into tears. In the bathroom, you feel safe at first, calming slowly. You create more anxiety though because you’re in the bathroom for longer than an actual piss requires, so you start to freak out. You dab paper towel under your sweaty arm pits, splash cool water on your face, reapply lip gloss or what have you in a feeble attempt to hide what happened, even cry a little if you can’t hold it back.
You come back out and they can see something is clearly wrong.
My mother tells me I give up too much information about myself. She doesn’t understand the need for Facebook and says that even if you’re posting good news, mal do ojo is real and some people have these shit-eating grins when it comes to the good in your life. My mother has never been one to share her business with anyone unless she considered them a real friend and even then, I’m sure she picked and chose who that was. She doesn’t understand why I am okay with sharing things about myself so freely.
When I tell her that I let the person I am dating know I have an anxiety disorder, she scoffs.
“You don’t have to tell him all of that, Imani. He doesn’t need to know that. Not yet.”
I can’t say that I completely disagree with her. Most men that I have told this to have never understood or cared to learn more about it. They just take my word for it and then when I voice an opinion, thought or discomfort to them, they ask me if I’m “having anxiety.” If they don’t condescend to me in that manner, they are hesitant to voice their own opinions, thoughts, or discomforts because they don’t want to give me anxiety.
Both responses lead to miscommunication.
Both responses ultimately lead to the end of our chapter.
Again, this all boils down to lack of knowledge. I get that.
I have been reading a lot of articles being posted on my Facebook timeline about how to date someone with anxiety and it started to piss me off. Being with me (or someone like me) shouldn’t be thought of as a chore, shouldn’t be thought as too difficult. Too much of the language used in these articles refer to someone with anxiety as being overthinkers and overly sensitive. Too much of the language implies that this a long and arduous road to date someone with anxiety.
Since there is an apparent need for a how-to on how to date people with anxiety, I’m going to break down how to date ME.
- Do your homework. Don’t just take my word for it and say, “Oh, she has an anxiety disorder.” Talk to me about it. Don’t be afraid to ask me questions. Don’t be afraid to do your own research and tell me about what you have found. The point of me telling you is that I hope to be completely transparent in all of my relationships, both established and burgeoning. It won’t work if you’re not willing to be open for discussion or open to learn.
- Understand that not all people with an anxiety disorder manifest anxiety in the same way. It’s not just over-worrying or being too sensitive. Some have anxiety attacks to the point where they seize up and can’t move. Some have anxiety that feels like a heart attack. Others break out into tears, sweats, shakes. That’s me for the most part: the tears, the sweating, the shaking. At it’s very worst, I feel like someone is stepping on my throat and I can’t breathe and my body overheats like I am sizzling in a pan. Most recently, my anxiety has begun to manifest itself in dizzy spells that wake me up from sleep, nausea and stomach problems, involuntary eye twitches, insomnia, lack of appetite. My advice is to ask your partner how their anxiety has been manifesting. Ask them if they have been struggling with these manifestations. Talk, talk, and talk some more.
- Remember that an anxiety attack is not about you and it is not your fault. Sometimes, the shit just happens and I can’t control it. This is not a reflection of time spent with you or something you did or are doing. However, if something you are doing is in fact, triggering anxiety, I WILL let you know. Be adult enough to just stop doing whatever it is that I point out and be willing to talk about it when I am able to bring myself down. Again, communication.
- Whatever you do, DO NOT tell me to “Relax,” or “Calm down,” or “Stop overreacting,” or “Just breathe.” One day, I was working out in the park with my roommate. Everything was fine, until I felt my stomach flip and nausea sweep over me like a tidal wave. I turned green and dizzy and couldn’t breathe. This was the first time she saw me have an anxiety attack and her initial response was to say, “Just relax, Angie.” That doesn’t help. All it does is make the person worry that this is some sort of nuisance, some sort of burden which can only exacerbate the attack. I remember turning to her and between shallow breaths and drops of sweat replied, “If I could control what is happening, it wouldn’t be happening.”
- Please do not project your frustration on to me. I understand the frustration of helplessness, the frustration of not knowing how to fix it, change it. Again, if I could stop an attack I would. Getting upset with me for having anxiety only makes it worse. And only makes you look like a world class asshole. Stop that shit.
- If I am having anxiety in front of you, ask me what I need. “What do you need?” is probably the best question to ask me. Personally, and again, this may differ for others dealing with an anxiety disorder, I am not a hugger when I am having anxiety. I will usually ask for water or an open window. Just be patient and remind me that I am okay, that we are okay, that everything is okay. That helps me a lot, too.
- Know that I am putting in work as well and hold me accountable for it. I do my best to manage my anxiety. I have breathing exercises, grounding exercises, etc. There is work to be done on my end, I am well aware of it. I can’t promise that I will be cured, but I can promise that I will work to manage it as best I can, whether it means I use my exercises, or see a therapist, or begin to take meds. Please feel free to communicate with me when you feel like I am not taking care of myself, when I am not keeping my word, when I am not communicating.
- Again, educate yourself. Learn the grounding exercises and breathing exercises I utilize and remind me of them if I have anxiety in front of you. Shit, use them for yourself. I remember sharing with my older brother a sensory grounding exercise, where as you’re feeling anxious, you name five things around you at that moment: something you can smell, you can taste, you can see, you can hear, you can touch. This is why I try to have gum or candy in my purse or a body spray to use. Finding tangible things to focus on allows you to bring yourself back to the present moment and out of your head. One day, my brother calls me and says he was feeling a little overwhelmed on his commute home and used a variation of this grounding exercise and lo and behold, it worked and he was able to bring himself back down. No, this doesn’t mean you have an anxiety disorder if you use these exercises, it means you are utilizing self-care. Ask me about them. For me. For you. For us.
- Make me laugh. Sometimes, it can be that simple. No, I can’t promise that this will always work, but sometimes laughter is indeed the best medicine.
- Lastly, know that this is just as much of a learning process for me as it is for you. I am still learning how my anxiety manifests, how it evolves, what it is triggered by. I sometimes do not have the answers, I sometimes drop the ball, I sometimes don’t communicate as well as I should. I am still learning ways to manage it and coping with the fact that I might eventually have to turn to medication if I can no longer manage it. If this is ever the case in the future, all I ask is for your support and your communication, your efforts to learn and talk about it. Just remind me that I am okay, that we are okay, that everything is okay.
I suppose ten items on that to-do list is sufficient if not excessive.
I told someone I was considering writing this, creating my own how-to-love-me-and-my-anxiety list and they had two responses. Their first response was that explaining my anxiety too much could make a potential partner feel like I am a burden, as if dealing with me and my anxiety is a chore. I responded that if they choose to take that perspective that they are coming from a place of ego and not spirit. If they choose to think of me as a burden or a chore, then it begs the question: Are you really here for me or the idea of me? Because, this is me, this is part of my life and has been for some time. I have had to cope and deal with the challenges of it. If you choose not to, it was nice knowing you but I suppose I am better off.
My friend’s second response was that I shouldn’t have to explain how to love or care for me. I agree, I shouldn’t. I am aware though, of someone not being familiar with how to process and navigate these challenges and if me talking about it can help them understand better and they are making efforts to learn, then how can I not share? The person that I end up with, whoever that will be, will make efforts, will educate themselves, and talk to me about it. They will know that without communicating and working together, we could and would never work. Period.
I am human and complex and flawed and working on it. I didn’t ask for this. I certainly am not pleased to have to navigate these waters, trust me. But I’m working on it.
I know I am worthy of the grandest love, the most amazing love, the sweetest honey-dipped love because I know the kind of love I have to offer.
Anxiety is just a blip on the radar in comparison to that.