A couple of months ago, I reached out to a few friends asking them to tell their stories and/or experiences dealing with mental health issues.
It is a big step for anyone to share and I am grateful they said yes. A few decided to stay anonymous (and that is okay). They are brave, loved, and appreciated.
In honour of Mental Health Week (May 2-8, 2016) - I would like to share Jen's story.
Dating with Anxiety
'Long, possibly a little ranty. If you take the time to read, please read until the end.
Some of you who know me well know that I have issues with anxiety. You know that it's not just 'nerves before a big presentation' type anxiety, but a soul gripping, crushing anxiety. You know that I struggle with the weight of this reality (not my first choice of quirk) and if you don't, please know that it's not a judgement that I haven't shared this part of me with you yet. Maybe I felt you wouldn't understand, that I didn't want to jeopardize our friendship.
If you don't know me that well, you may equate this to your 'normal' levels of anxiety. I am not overreacting, but my brain does overreact to nearly everything you might get 'normal' anxiety over. It tries to convince me you're laughing at me behind my back. That you're avoiding me, that you think I'm boring.
Your presentation goes well, your anxiety vanishes. Mine is always there, in one form or another. You can distract it, and some things work better than others as a distraction. But it's never far away.
A conversation was started today in my office regarding students and mental health. We discussed creating a dialogue to help our students feel like they're not alone. In a classroom of 20 people, it's likely at least 5 experience at least a constant low level of depression or anxiety, probably many more than that. We can't keep pretending we are all ok. There is power in numbers. We are hiding in plain sight, every day. One of the easiest ways for students to distract themselves is by using drugs or alcohol, which taxes an already over-stressed system.
I'm not asking you to turn to a stranger on the bus and tell them your life story, but if you have anxiety, confide in someone you care about. The worst that could happen is that they could misunderstand or judge you (anxiety talking again) but if that is the case, if they don't at least make the effort to understand, they're not worthy recipients of the information you just shared with them.'
After reading my post on Facebook, my dear friend Mavis asked me to write a piece for Mental Health week to post on her blog. I’m not currently in the grips of daily anxiety – it seems that the Facebook post actually helped me to move past that chapter of pain in my life, so this was more than a little difficult to come up with.
I thankfully haven’t dealt with anxiety all of my life, just on and off for the majority of my adult life. I can still remember my first panic attack, if only because of the support I received at the time. A group of girlfriends and I were having dessert at Prairie Ink. The best way to describe it was that I suddenly felt everything at once. The chatter in the restaurant got louder. I felt a crushing heaviness in my chest, and my limbs felt numb. I needed to get away. Immediately. I remember going outside, it wasn’t the nicest night out, but I sat shivering on the sidewalk, relieved to have removed myself at least from the deafening roar of socializing strangers. I think it was actually Mavis who recognized the signs, and came out to be with me while I tried to calm down. Back then, panic attacks were something that happened very rarely, and did not occupy my daily thoughts.
These days, things are very different. Chalk it up to experience(s)? As we age, we accumulate baggage that we all deal with differently, I try to keep mine well organized, but it has a way of cluttering up my life, in the face of, say, a breakup. This is when I find myself dealing with the daily wake-up call of panic attacks, followed by the constant buzz of ever present anxiety. Maybe it’s because of the way I tend to blame myself when another relationship bites the dust.
Dating with anxiety is like traversing a minefield. No one wants to show all their cards at once, but only by being vulnerable do we allow others to see the real us, and only then can they decide if we are worth it. Doing this is difficult when you’re dealing with a relative stranger, but especially hard when one (or both, what fun!) of you has anxiety.
My mental health is not something I’ve always been forthcoming about. There is a stigma attached to it, which is part of why I agreed to do this. I’m tired of being quiet. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. Imagine if we (society) tiptoed around someone having an asthma attack the way we marginalize someone having a panic attack? Every romantic relationship we venture into will either end in a breakup, or death do we part. Why hide a major part of who I am just to make someone who I barely know a little less uncomfortable?
As a person with a mental illness, the beginning of a new relationship is one of those times where the background hum of anxiety can rise into the deafening crescendo of panic. Being up front about it can help, but if the person you’re getting to know has no previous panic attack or episodes of actual anxiety under their belt, you can be met with a weird look, and a “Yeah, I totally understand, I’m really nervous too!”. This is a big clue – they do not have any idea what is going on inside of you at that present moment.
Imagine the scenario: You, someone with no previous mental health issues goes out on a date with Me, someone who is so nervous they could literally barf at any moment. You, upon giving me the welcome hug/handshake/whatever it is you do at the start of a date, feel immediately at ease. Me? I start my internal play-by-play dissection of the date. And hope that I don’t have to ask the kitchen for a paper bag at any point during the outing. Am I going to be ok? Can you see me sweating? Can you SMELL me sweating?!?! Am I being interesting enough? Witty enough? Did you catch that Simpsons reference? Do you even like the Simpsons? If we are at a pub, I’m trying not to drink like a fish. If we are at a restaurant, I’m trying to eat something, anything at all.
You are probably sitting across from me, wondering why I’m fidgeting, why I keep looking at my lap, why my cheeks are still pink. Why I seemed so awesome while we were texting, or even chatting on the phone, now am suddenly quiet. How I managed to flirt with you at all over the course of the week we’ve been communicating. I am one of those people who is better on text, on chat, even marginally on the phone. A lot of us are, we are bolder when we don’t have to see someone cringe from across a tiny table.
If we make it to a second date, it means you’re curious. OR maybe you really like awkward girls who swear like sailors. There is the rare time I’m not into a second date, and because I’m into being up-front, I’ll be nice enough to tell you so. I’m pretty good at vetting guys over our few days of pre-date texting, so if we meet in person, I already like you. The second date will be easier, if we go out to eat, I’ll actually be able to finish at least half my dinner. If we hang out at one of our houses, I might allow you to try to cuddle with me. But I won’t make the first move.
If I like you, and am feeling open, this is where I’ll share a little about my experiences. It’s probably too early, I should maybe think about keeping quiet for a month or two, waiting until something is actually going on (anxiety wise) before telling you these things about myself. I see it kind of like a vetting tool, as much for me as it is for you. If you aren’t comfortable dating someone who struggles with mental health issues, continuing to fight, and win the battle with anxiety, we shouldn’t see each other anymore. Want to be friends? Sorry, I don’t need friends who can’t be accepting of something that is a part of me. I am not my illness, but I will have days where it looms heavy and foreboding above me, threatening to drag you down with it, which is why I tend to avoid people when I’m having an attack, even if I know they are supportive and have my back.
If you are ok with it, you just scored a million brownie points, not only in my eyes, but the eyes of my family and friends. This is likely why I have a hard time letting go, even if you turn out to be a giant asshole. You took a chance on me, and now I have to find someone else who tries to empathize with my situation, that I’m also attracted to, and share similar interests with. Every time I have to go back to the dating scene (which, at 35, is a dead zone full of emotionally unavailable men with baggage that could sink the Titanic) I’m filled with dread at having to be vulnerable again.
But I do it, because I want to find someone to love, and to love me unconditionally. And I know you’re out there, I just have to find you. Stop hiding, will you?
I am a daughter, sister, auntie, wife and friend.