I knew what it meant when I fervently pledged “in sickness and health” to my husband on our wedding day. It meant that I would be at his bedside when he had a fever or a man cold. I’d bring him cold lemonade that I’d elegantly squeezed from fresh lemons, attired in my satin house gown. There would be sprigs of mint and compresses from herbs gathered in woven baskets. I would be steadfast, even if he developed a terminal illness, like cancer. In this case, I would heroically shave my head and attend all his doctor’s visits. I would smoke medicinal cannabis with him in solidarity. I’d learn to blow seductive smoke rings that spelled out, “hang in there.” I would make it all about him, of course.
Turns out, I wasn’t quite prepared for the support he actually needed.
Jack and I had been married for four years and had one child when he called me. I was on a short getaway with our son, and Jack was having a panic attack, probably triggered by our absence, that wouldn’t go away. It had been going on for hours. His breath was short and he was stuttering. It was terrifying.
I drove as quickly as I could to get to him. Now was the time to call in those vows. I would show him that I was a wife built for a crisis—a Florence-Nightingale-in-the-shape-of-Olivia-Newton-John that was also an expert in mental health.
There was only one problem: When I’m nervous, I get chatty. Throw me in a tiger cage, and you’ll probably learn I ate an egg on spaghetti for breakfast. You’ll discover that’s called “Italian Breakfast” and get an unsolicited bonus history of the haircuts I’ve gotten.
Needless to say, Jack got on medication a week later, and I got a positive pregnancy test. We were living in a one-bedroom apartment and about to have a second child. It was only then that he let me know that my helpmate skills were not exactly the calming balm that I had imagined they’d be on our wedding day. I was not an expert in mental health, and I didn’t even own a satin house gown. My energy was the exact opposite of what a person with anxiety actually needed.
Flash forward to 2022. Our one-bedroom apartment now belongs to our dog and two kids. Between bunk beds, bicycles, and two “offices,” there’s no longer living areas, so much as spaces that fluctuate between “adult bacon meadow” and “sexy toybox.” Now add a pandemic, and you have the makings of a mental health nightmare.
I began to worry that my boys would suffer the same anxiety as my husband. Would I be able to take care of them? Sure, I was good at playing pirate ship, but it terrified me to think that my boys might develop a disorder that was out of my depth. Would these tiny beings look to me for guidance, and all I had to offer was “follow your bliss” or “eat this burrito”? Society places such pressure on mothers to be a child’s everything: their tumbling instructor, their flossing advisor, and the person that teaches them about photosynthesis. Now, I worried that “mental health advisor” was about to be added to the list, and I wasn’t prepared.
I realized I needed to educate myself on how best to support all the people in my life with anxiety. I decided to consult with a psychologist friend about tips to help support children with anxiety. Out of that came a children’s book drawing on my marriage dynamic, offering professional advice.
The book follows a hedgehog with anxiety that bears a striking resemblance to Jack, and his chatty squirrel counterpart, well… ahem. Through all of this “sickness and health,” we have grown closer. Well, that and a good marriage counselor. And I have picked up some tips to support those living with an anxious partner.
1. Don’t stand outside the bathroom door debating bread varieties for your shopping trip
Your partner needs privacy, not random musings on whether Rye bread is best for the Reuben sandwiches that you will eat on Thursday. Or maybe Friday? What do you think? Perhaps sandwiches are too carb-forward. I probably should switch to the soup.
2. For sleeping time, don’t hold your partner in a human bear trap.
Your partner needs to sleep. They have a falling asleep routine involving meditation or some other ritual. They don’t need you to restrain them in a human body wrap. Leave the reverse trust falls to someone who wants them. Like the postman or a random person at the park.
3. Retain a physical space of more than three inches during daytime hours.
Even though you like to dispense kisses and chit-chat randomly, your partner may be watching Dateline on their computer. Maybe watching Dateline is part of their daily routine that is essential for their well-being. If that isn’t a relationship red flag, then these tips probably won’t help you.
4. Don’t plan a spontaneous rom-rom picnic at any point.
Your spontaneous rom-com picnic is not okay. Even if you made a cake with “You Had Me at Hello” on it. You will have them in the ER with a panic attack at “floor cake.”
5. Don’t write a children’s book about them where they are a hedgehog.
Chances are your partner will figure out that you have turned them into a cuddly children’s character and get a little mad. And you will have to make that fresh lemonade after all.
Susie Mendoza is a writer/screenwriter, published on sites such as: McSweeney’s, Ravishly, Mom.Me, UpWorthy, The Pregnant Chicken, and more. Her children’s book about anxiety, Natty and Mo, marks her debut as an author/illustrator. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys chatting to her anxious husband while he tries to read in silence.
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