“I want to be a better writer. I want to write a book for you, about what it’s like living with someone who lives with anxiety. Because I’ve tried to find ones bout that, but none of them seem to have God in them,” he said, driving down 85. I looked at him, one of the highway lights hitting my face in the passenger seat. “I just want to be the best that I can at being there for you.”
For weeks, he had been searching for something that could tell him how to succeed at loving someone who lives with anxiety. The closest thing he could find to what he was looking for was a Desiring God blog about being married to someone who is depressed (which he said ended up not being helpful at all).
Reaching for his hand, I brushed my thumb across his fingers on the center consul. “Greg, I’m just learning about this stuff, too. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself. I’m not a pro, it wasn’t always like this for me. It’s just been the past four years. We can learn how to deal with it together.”
“What do you mean it’s only been the past four years?” he asked.
“I was different before,” I told him.
That’s when he asked when things had all changed for me. Because there had no doubt been a time in my life before anxiety, a time when I read about panic attacks but didn’t understand, a time when worrying was the thing I struggled with least of all. It was a mindless time. A careless time.
It started one late night when I was driving across town the summer before my junior year of high school, headed towards a Wendy’s. Gripping the wheel so tight my knuckles turned white, I was nervous and called my mom. I was a different girl, then; I sat a little higher in my seat. Back then, I was very much happy with who I was, confident; I gave people the benefit of the doubt, dealt out second-chances like confetti, never second-guessing the goodness of people. I actually liked all the little things about myself that made up who I was as a person. That’s when I was kind and joyful and every other word out of my mouth was an encouragement. Sure, there were bits and pieces of my heart that had gone missing here and there. I knew how to cry and hurt and heal, but there were no calluses.
Still, I pushed on through the red lights in my one-horse town, headed towards a Wendy’s.
A boy I had never met was waiting there for me. His name wasn’t unfamiliar to me, though. There were rumors about the sort of trouble he got into, rumors about what he believed about God.
Yet, something about me impressed him. By happenstance, he had come across my Facebook page, clicked “Add as Friend,” and after a witty conversation over a computer screen (it’s amazing how clever I could be when I was confident in myself), he had asked to meet me.
So there I was, turning on my blinker so I could pull into the Wendy’s parking lot.
That was when it started – the anxiety, the misery, the self-doubt and self-hate, the long nights and hard days. When breathing felt like drowning.
No, I don’t mean that I had my first wave of a panic attack right there in a Wendy’s parking lot. They actually didn’t come for a few more months. It’s just that, sometimes, we make decisions that feel like they will change our lives forever – those moments usually feel epic. Those moments are usually probably lies.
If I could go back to the girl in that car headed to Wendy’s that night, I would tell her that she was fine just the way she was; I would tell her to stay just like that, to keep loving herself, to stay lighthearted, to hold on to herself just a little longer. I would tell her to stay home, to lie in bed longer talking to her mom, to turn around instead of getting out of her car in that Wendy’s parking lot.
Except, I did leave my house that night. Nothing in me made me feel the urgency to turn around.
We dated for two years. He was charming and endearing and clever and thoughtful. It was that breathless sort of love, the kind where we never just went to dinner and a movie but always had to climb higher heights, jump more fences, drive a little faster.
He made me feel small. Not the kind of small like I belonged in a box, but the kind of small that made me feel like I was a part of something bigger.
This is usually the part where people start saying, “So you had a savior complex. You found the boy who didn’t believe in God and you wanted to change him.” And I wish it was that. I would much easier admit to that than the truth.
The truth? The truth was that I stayed in a damaging, emotionally and mentally abusive relationship for two years first because of the way he made me feel when he talked about me, and then later because I had gotten stuck in the comfortability of knowing him and being his.
Let me explain: We were standing under the stars one night, about 8 months in. His sister and the boy with blue eyes were there, along with a tag along from his dark past. We were looking up at the sky when his friend said, “Man, I thought you didn’t believe in this whole God thing?” He answered back by point at me, saying, “This girl – this girl right here. She changed everything for me.”
There it was. I stayed because he made me feel like I had filled a hole that never should’ve been meant for me. I stayed because he spoke like he thought I was magic, and I liked the way my reflection in his eyes looked like dancing gold.
I stayed because he made me feel good about myself, and that’s never a good enough reason to stay. It’s always dangerous.
When you give someone the power to make you feel good about yourself, they’ll also be the ones who can take that feeling away. Someone should have told me that.
For a long time, I’ve avoided writing point blank about him, only mentioning the part he played in destroying a 10 year friendship. You see, I never wanted to give him credit for being a part of who I am now. I didn’t think he deserved that, thought that maybe he would broadcast it and humiliate me and twist the truth about anything I could ever say. But it’s been five years since the night at Wendy’s, and his role in my story is important when it comes to uncovering truths about living with anxiety.
We ended things the first time about five months in. It was the weekend of Cinco De Mayo, and since he was in the restaurant business, he was practically going to be pulling an all-nighter. As luck would have it, I had left school books at his house the night before. When I went to pick everything up, his mother accidentally spilled the beans about something he would have preferred to keep hidden – he was spending the night in a hotel room with a bunch of other women. Now, hearing that hurt. But it’s not why I ended things. I ended things because his response was the first time someone had ever verbally degraded me. What should have been a calm and educational conversation about the information his mother had given me turned into a blowout about how I needed to know my place as a woman and that he deserved to be treated a certain way. It turned into two days of radio silence from him without any explanation. And then I ended things as soon as the first text finally came through.
The first lesson: when love breaks, let it break. Two people with cut open hands surely wont be able to grip the little glass pieces of love, and they’ll only end up making a mess of things.
We were back together a week later.
The next year and a half left soft indentions of my body in the carpet of my bedroom floor; you wouldn’t believe the amount of times my parents came in to find me curled up and crying, having to take the phone away from me while I was screaming apologies for things he did wrong. If I think hard enough, I can see myself getting into my car in the middle of a thunderstorm, leaving a house in the middle of a double date because he made me leave when I started crying about the texts I had found of him and his mother calling me pathetic; I broke up with him outside of Copper Coin Coffehouse the next day when he told me that his friends and family would always come before me. I will never forget the way it felt the day the doctors found a tumor in my arm, and how he told me he was going to go hike in the North Georgia mountains instead of sit with me during an MRI that would determine whether or not I had cancer.
He dictated when I spoke, what I said, who I spent my time with, where I could and couldn’t go.
And that was all before he decided that he found me lacking. The last leg of our relationship was spent with me walking a tight rope, trying to impress him, trying to get and keep his attention. We would stand in the same room for hours, and he would never speak my name. He was always penciling everyone else in to his schedule, but I wasn’t good enough to be someone he wanted to spend his time with.
You’re probably wondering where my line was. I was a shell of a girl, crippled and brittle and shattereable, yet we carried on like this for two years. Maybe that changes the way you think of me. Maybe you thought I was tough and brave and unafraid, but there was a time that I was very much afraid indeed. So much so, that even now, those two years are two years of memories that my subconcious has erased.
It was like I was sitting in the left-hand turning lane at a green light, and everyone else had the right of way while I just sat there waiting for my turn to go.
Everyone thought I had lost my mind. My parents stopped coming around whenever he was over, waiting for me to end things while he was talking about proposals.
My line? He crossed my line the night he stood out in my driveway with my dog on a leash, choking her because she wanted to run towards my dad. We’d gotten in a fight after hiking with her, and I guess it was his way of taking control back when he couldn’t control me. When I called him the next day about it, he acted like it had never happened.
He was sitting in a Zaxby’s when I ended things for good. While my grandmother was 30 minutes away having her head shaved because she’d been fighting cancer that whole summer, he told me that I needed to get my life together, because the way things were looking to him, I was going to fail miserably at being a mother.
But our story didn’t end there.
Anxiety had already started to creep into my life. A few months before we were over for good, I tried telling him that I thought I was depressed, and he told me that it wasn’t real and I needed to get over that feeling. But the panic attacks had started coming. Nights came and went, and I was running on restless sleep.
For weeks following our dramatic ending, I would find daisies in different places outside by my car. Things were being dropped off and left in the middle of the night; things I had given him and letters I had written were laid out strategically to remind me that I had something to miss – the way he looked at me when he thought I was magic.
You would think starting college would have given me a fresh start, but sure enough he followed me there, too. People I had never met on campus started looking at me strangely, and it wasn’t until I found out that he had been coming all the way up to that small university in North Georgia to party in the dorms that I understood he was telling people things about me.
Every weekend, people would be talking about these extravagant parties at his house. My best friend started going to those parties; he brought back the news that apparently, everyone was calling me “Daisy”, and they were all just waiting for me to show up to “Gatsby’s” parties (I could not make these things up even in my wildest dreams).
He was there, everywhere I went. Coasting in his car around my new school, showing up and camping out at a table at my favorite coffee shop, sitting outside my house at night. And his new best friend? The boy I’d grown up with. I stopped going out, went straight to class and then back home. Even though his presence was gone, he had managed to isolate me from every familiar and good thing in my life.
That’s when I started venturing out of my small town and into the city. My friends from high school would joke, asking me to take them with me on one of my Atlanta adventures. I’d laugh and say, “Whenever you’re free!” No one knew that the reason I spent most of my days driving an hour and fifteen minutes just for coffee or lunch was because the city was the only place he couldn’t find me.
And isn’t that how most wounds work? We make them look beautiful so that nobody asks.
Would you believe me if I told you that he continued to follow me—stalk me—for two more years after I had stopped all contact with him?
So, that’s when it started. That’s my crystal clear, plain as day division between who I was before my life was introduced to anxiety and how I live with it now.
Maybe you’re wondering why I waited five years to tell this story.
I’ll tell you:
We need to go back to the birthplace of our demons. We need to face them and unmask them, because that’s the only way we’ll be able to beat them. We have got to stop saying, “I’m anxious, and I don’t know why,” because we do know why. If we could just sit down and focus on our breathing, retrace our steps, find the source of what’s making us anxious, and then tackle that.
Anxieties favorite lie is that we’re anxious for no reason; that’s how it keeps its cold hand on us, keeping us believing that we are a mess that can’t be helped.
Anxiety would much rather keep your heart racing so that we can’t hear anything else over the beating in your head; it would much rather make you think it’s easier to fix your short and raspy breaths than let you believe there’s a way to breath deeper. Pretty soon, you’re too busy focusing on the feeling when the tumbling down starts.
What anxiety doesn’t want you to know is that there’s a way to keep your feet planted.
What anxiety doesn’t want you to notice is that, it takes going back to the dark places the coping mechanism made you forget. You’ve got to learn to sit with all the things that hurt you, to become old friends with the dark that anxiety would rather keep you scared of. That way, when the panic attacks come, you can slow down and say, “No, I know these lies. I’ve learned to welcome them in as a part of what got me here, today. So I won’t let these cripple me. We’ll wave at each other and remember how far I’ve come instead.”
Anxiety is a liar we have to learn to call out.
Finding where it started doesn’t make it any less real, no, never; finding where it started is how we make sense of things in the middle of all of our senses being overwhelmed.
If I could go back to that girl who drove to Wendy’s that summer night, I would tell her she still had time to forgive herself. I would tell her that she needed to remember every moment, even the ones she would want to forget. I would tell her that she deserved more and she could like herself even if no one else did. I would tell her to draw harder lines and to be weary of comfortability. I would tell her that one day the things that hurt would matter in the best kind of way – that one day she’d get to scoop up all the pain, find a way to turn it into hope, and throw it down from the rooftops by the armfuls.