My wife and I were discussing our New Year’s Eve plans, and how I’d be going to bed long before midnight. She was obviously let down — once again.
“I just wish you’d stay up with us,” she said. “It feels like something’s missing without you.”
Each year, Mel and our children stay up until after midnight ringing in the new year, while I crawl into bed at 10 p.m. — the same time I always do — usually after taking something to help me sleep through the noise of our children jumping on the sofa and banging on things while screaming “Happy New Year!”
And while this sounds like something an old fart would do, I’m not all that old. I’m 36. And this has been going on for the majority of our marriage. I go to bed at the same time EVERY SINGLE NIGHT because it keeps me from having anxiety attacks in the night.
I’ve suffered with anxiety most of my life, but it got really bad in my late teens, a few years before I met my wife. I started to have nighttime anxiety attacks, which lead to me exercising during the day more and more, thinking that if I was just tired enough I’d sleep. I stuck to a rigid routine which led to panic attacks during the day if things didn’t follow my schedule to the letter. Everything had to be done at the same time and in the same way, or I’d have an anxiety attack. Eventually I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
I’ve since found ways to cope. I’ve found ways to live a normal life, but nights are still a problem, and staying up late when I don’t really have too can push me into a full blown, sweaty palm, disoriented, pit in my stomach, throwing up, panic attack. One that will linger for days, sometimes weeks. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I get up with our children, but when it comes to staying out late for a concert, or a play, or dancing, or a movie, I just don’t anymore. It’s not worth the risk.
If you knew that staying up late could cause you physical pain, would you do it?
I didn’t think so.
But what this has all come down to is me being afraid of staying up too late when we have the opportunity because it causes anxiety, while my wife gets bored.
A couple years ago, Mel and I went on a cruise through the Caribbean. The daytime activities were awesome. But at night, when the whole boat was dancing or hitting the casino, I went to bed. And Mel, well, she wanted to go out. But she didn’t. She went to bed with me because she said it would be awkward to go out alone. But it was clear each night that she wished she could go out and enjoy some time together, late at night, while we didn’t have kids with us. But I just couldn’t without risking anxiety attacks. So we went to bed. And to be honest, that sucks — for her.
I’d love to have stayed out late on that boat and enjoyed some time together. But standing between me and the fun late nights is my anxiety. People often say you have to learn to live with mental illness, but they don’t always tell you what that really looks like. Well, it looks like making adjustments to your life. For some people, it looks like avoiding social interactions because they trigger anxiety, or keeping an orderly house because clutter can make you anxious, or taking regular breaks to be alone and regenerate while at work. In my case, it means a consistent and predictable sleep schedule.
But what is even less talked about is what it looks like for the person married to the anxiety sufferers.
The thing is, Mel, like any spouse living with someone who struggles with mental illness, supports me. She wants to see me happy, but she doesn’t really understand it. To her it seems irrational and unnecessary. When we first got married, I think she saw it as an excuse I’d dreamed up to get out of spending time with her. I think a lot of couples run into this problem.
Mental illness still carries a heavy stigma of being “all in the person’s head” when it should be seen as a real and damaging and any physical illness.
But none of that makes me feel like any less of a downer. I want to be a fun spouse. I want to take my wife out, have fun, and stay out late, but I can’t, and it has become one of the things I hate most about my anxiety.
We were in the kitchen as we talked about New Years. I was loading the dishwasher, Mel was packing a lunch, and all three kids were in bed.
“You know I can’t,” I said. “And it’s not that I don’t want too. I’m just… broken.” I shrugged.
Mel approached me, gave me a hug, and said, “You’re not broken.”
“Fine,” I said. “I’m boring.”
“Just at night,” she said. “But I love you, and you’re a lot of fun during the day, so I’ll get over it.”
“Thanks,” I said. Then we kissed, and I went to bed.