health

That's when the first panic attack hit.... and set off a 4-year struggle with anxiety.

Nic and Rhoda.

You meet, fall in love and this develops into a long-term relationship … and the last thing you’re expecting is for your partner to develop anxiety. You just don’t see it coming, and yet when anxiety comes, it really comes, and everything changes.

I’ve been on both sides of this: first as the person in the relationship who developed anxiety, and then as the person who was there for my partner, Rhoda, when she developed anxiety. 

Both times were tough. Both times we survived.

When I had anxiety

Rhoda and I had been together for about 10 years and I was just a normal, outgoing, enthusiastic bloke. We had both tossed in our ‘careers’ to go back to uni and were living that optimistic, student life.

We lived in a small unit in Melbourne. Textbooks all over the place. Late nights studying. And plenty of fun mucking around, being silly, and generally goofing off.

Problem was, I was also having a crisis of faith. I’d been brought up the ‘son of a preacher man’ with church twice on Sundays, once on Saturdays, and once during the week. Yet, at 29 I finally came to admit that over the last 10 years or so I’d increasingly lost my faith. I just didn’t believe and I couldn’t force myself into it.

It was a Sunday night in 1997 and I was speaking with Rhoda about this topic, and that’s when the first panic attack hit, and set off a four-year struggle anxiety.

I often think about this from Rhoda’s perspective. Here she is, 10 years into a relationship and her husband loses it – seriously loses it. I was housebound for the first few weeks. Couldn’t talk with people. Was in a panic almost the entire day. Couldn’t hold a normal conversation with her because the panic was so intense.

So all of a sudden there was no ‘Nic’. No mucking around, laughing, or generally goofing off. Just panic and anxiety that wouldn’t go away.

I just wonder how she kept it together. At the time, she didn’t even flinch. She showed no signs of fear and instead was compassionate and concerned. Yet there I was, freaking out about the future. Would I be able to finish my studies? Would I ever be normal again? Would she want to stay with me if I got stuck in this state of being?

Yet, I didn’t feel any sense of judgement or distance from her at all. This was huge for me because I really needed someone I could trust and reach out to as I was having a really hard time.

Here’s some examples of how Rhoda responded.

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She listened without judgement. So, when my anxiety became too unbearable to keep to myself, she was there for me to confide in. And she’d just listen without trying to ‘fix me’ or ‘downplay’ how I was feeling. I became so tired of having to talk about it, and yet she seemed to have more patience for those conversations than me.

On the flip side, if we were somewhere in public and I began to feel too overwhelmed with anxiety, I could just reach out, grab her hand, give it a gentle squeeze and just whisper, “I’m feeling anxious”, and she’d just squeeze my hand back. Just knowing she was there and that she knew how I was feeling made such a difference to my mindset.

I could just reach out, grab her hand, give it a gentle squeeze and just whisper, “I’m feeling anxious”, and she’d just squeeze my hand back.

She also continued to be herself and didn’t show any signs of worry.  She didn’t censor her happiness just because I was anxious. She remained as her positive, uplifting self.

As an example of this, Rhoda was out of town on a clinical placement — about two hours drive away. I was hiding at home and hadn’t attended my Uni classes.  It was about 7PM and I’d been feeling nauseous with anxiety all day, and I couldn’t wait until I was tired enough to be able to go to sleep.

A Seinfeld replay was about to start on TV and I heard the keys in the door. Rhoda had finished work and driven two hours to come home to see me, knowing that she’d have to get up before dark for the two hour drive back in the morning.

She came in, smiled, and we watched Seinfeld together — had a bit of a laugh and then made dinner. This one action had such an impact on me — so much that all these years later I can recall that moment – the sound of the keys in the door – as if it were yesterday. It’s a beautiful memory from a hard time.

So, in summing up what I experienced from Rhoda as my partner during this period, I can say that she didn’t judge me and didn’t try to ‘fix’ me. She didn’t expect me to ‘just get over it’ or demand I be instantly ‘better’. She just kept positive and happy, was understanding and didn’t cave into the idea of a negative outcome. Her approach was pretty much perfect, and I’m forever grateful.

It took four years, but I completely recovered.  In fact, I’d say I became expert at dealing with feelings of panic and anxiety and my tolerance, or ability to cope with stressful situations is much higher than it ever was before.

What do they say, “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”?

This is the first post in two-part series from Dr Nic Lucas on living with anxiety in a relationship. Stayed tuned for part two, which will tell the story of Rhoda’s own battle with anxiety.

Dr Nicholas Lucas
BSc, GradDipClinEpid, MHSc, MPainMed, PhD

Nic has been involved in healthcare, education, and medical research since 1994. He has a BSc in Clinical Science and Master of Health Science from Victoria University, a Graduate Diploma of Clinical Epidemiology and Master of Pain Medicine from the University of Newcastle, and a Doctorate from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Sydney.

Through his consulting and coaching practice, Nic helps people apply insights about the brain and behaviour to their life and business, with a particular focus on digital publishing and online education.

He lives in Sydney, Australia, with his wife, Rhoda, and their two children, Harley and Lara.

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