real life

'I didn't realise my girlfriend had anxiety until I broke up with her.'

Recently, a relationship I had with a girl (let’s call her Lauren) ended. Lauren is incredibly attractive in every possible way, a truly amazing person, one in seven billion. I loved her deeply, and I was completely devoted to her. Any time I made her laugh or smile I felt a high; in these moments, I felt like I’d helped to create a beautiful moment in the history of the world.

She also suffers from anxiety, and, as big as my love for her was, it was no match for anxiety. The saddest part for me is that I didn’t recognise the anxiety for what it was, instead I was the frog in the pot of boiling water. The anxiety revealed itself gradually, at first it was barely visible, however as the relationship progressed, Lauren felt more comfortable to just be herself which then gave the anxiety more chance to reveal itself.

So, what is it like being in a relationship with someone who has anxiety? It can be both beautiful and hard all at the same time. Anxiety does not define someone, but it does affect their mood and behaviour on a regular basis. To start with it wasn’t very noticeable, just small things like a worry here or there. The early parts of a relationship can be both thrilling and scary in equal parts, and Lauren was going hot and cold on me, which I attributed to the uncertainties that come at the start of a relationship. When I questioned her about this however, her answers related to worst-case scenarios way off in the future. She was thinking ten years down the track during week three of our relationship.

From there, her worries started to grow or she just felt more comfortable letting them out to me – most days there would be something that was in the back of her mind, bothering her to the extent that she couldn’t relax. What to me seemed like small things with flatmates, colleagues etc played on her mind heavily. But still, I had no idea she had anxiety. I was so in love with her, I thought that all I had to do was love her a bit harder or find a way to surprise her or cheer her up and she’d snap out of it. Sometimes that worked, sometimes it didn’t. When it didn’t, I felt like a failure.

She soon felt completely comfortable around me, and this meant most days her anxiety was in full force. She’d tell me she’d love to hang out with me on a Monday night, only to spend dinner with her in silence, a dark storm going on behind those eyes. I’d try to distract her by talking of trivial topics, too scared to know the thoughts happening behind the scenes. If only I knew that I was helping her by just being there for her. We’d then watch some Netflix together but I’d still sense the restlessness inside her; there’d always be so many small tasks to attend to or things to check before she could relax. In the first few months, we broke up and got back together several times, one time it was because I didn’t return her messages fast enough. Now I know this was her anxiety at play, those breakups were just her trying to reassert control of the situation.

Watch: How to Talk To People With Anxiety. Post continues after video. 

Video by MWN
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I could see she was getting herself into a spiral – different friendships were not going well and it was because she was letting her worries out in conversation with them. These friends didn’t know how to handle those thoughts or moods, so they’d start to avoid her or exclude her from social events. This, in turn, only added more stress and anxiety to her life, which exacerbated the problem. This was how her anxiety turned itself into depression. Again, I wasn’t able to recognise the anxiety for what it was. I blamed myself, she was more than enough for me, so I couldn’t work out why I wasn’t enough for her.

The beautiful side of being with someone who has anxiety must be mentioned, too. This girl has a rawness, humanity and vulnerability that is so rare. Her authenticity, facial expressions, think of Julia Roberts or Jennifer Lawrence and the way they portray these qualities. When her anxiety could be pushed aside and she was living in the moment, she had this incredible warmth and zest for life that made the more stressful times well and truly worth it. Music, dancing and singing were all things that helped her to live in the moment and leave those worries behind.

Eventually though, I broke up with her because I’d lost my confidence. I felt like a failure. I couldn’t cheer her up and I interpreted this as me not being enough for her. My ego got in the way, and even though I studied psychology at uni, I couldn’t see her anxiety. Breaking up with someone that I loved dearly was not an easy decision, but I’d stopped liking myself.

My one great wish, in hindsight, is that she’d told me she had anxiety. I would have researched it extensively (which I’ve since done), done my best to understand it, know what triggers it, and what I could have done to help any time her worrying thoughts began to dominate. I’m certain her friends that turned away from her would have acted very differently towards her if they’d known what anxiety is and how it affects those who have it.

I’m not saying it’s Lauren’s fault at all. We are all responsible for mental health awareness, the more we all speak about it, the less of a stigma there’ll be and the easier it will be for sufferers of any mental health problem to talk openly and without fear of judgement. Ask yourself – if a friend or colleague shows the courage to open up about something that is weighing on their mind, how would you respond? Do you feel awkward inside and try to change the topic, or, do you let them talk and show empathy and compassion?

This is my experience of being in a relationship with an anxiety sufferer – it’s a sad story and I really wish I could rewrite the ending, but I can’t so the next best thing is to talk about anxiety. Awareness will hopefully lead to greater understanding and acceptance of what is a very common thing.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

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