Mel and I were on our way to get ice cream, our five-year-old in the backseat, our older two children in Grandma and Grandpa’s car, when I said, “I’m sorry I’m like this.”
We were discussing my anxiety. I’d been in a pretty nasty funk for weeks. I work for a Division I athletics department, and during the summer I run bridge programs for the incoming freshmen. They take up a lot of hours, and it often means arguing with a fair amount of entitled student athletes. Every year the program takes a toll on my anxiety. I’d been up late with panic attacks. This year had been particularly bad.
Not that I don’t get anxiety outside of the summer; I do. But in this moment, as we drove, we’d had several weeks of me being anxious and quiet, or jittery and moody, and although I knew I’d been difficult to live with, I was having an even harder time managing it than usual. I couldn’t snap out of it, even though I desperately wanted to.
“I just wish I was normal,” I said while rubbing my face, my voice heavy with decades of medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes, only for my anxiety to ebb and flow, sometimes almost nonexistent, while other times full blown obsessive compulsive disorder. Every time I think I’ve got a handle on it, something shifts inside me, and I have to figure it out again.
But that, I suppose, is what it’s like living with an anxiety disorder. It’s almost like I’m holding a tub of water filled to the brim over my head. Sometimes it’s in balance, but other times, it leaks from one side, and I have to compensate, and the moment I get it in balance again, it pours out the back, or the side, causing me to always be in a state of flux.
As we drove, I rambled for a moment. I apologized for the way I was again.
Mel held up her hand, cutting me off, and said, “No one is normal.”
It was quiet for a moment. I wasn’t sure how to process exactly what she said. I mean, surly there were normal people who didn’t have to live their life in a constant adjustment, trying to manage their own anxiety.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“There’s no such thing as normal,” she said.
Then she took my hand and said, “This is your normal.” She told me that everyone has their own normal, and that this was mine, and that she loved my normal.
We’ve been together for just shy of 15 years, and we’ve had a number of discussions about my anxiety. Mel is probably one of the most positive and optimistic people I’ve ever known. I think that’s why I was so drawn to her. But getting her to understand what it’s like to live with depression and anxiety hasn’t been an easy road.
I don’t think it is for any couple.
Anxiety isn’t rational or logical, and unless you have lived with mental illness, it’s almost impossible to understand how difficult it is to explain a panic attack in the night, or why you sometimes can’t get out of bed in the morning.
In the past, we’ve fought about my anxiety. We’ve read and researched and discussed my anxiety. And with each moment like this, I have spent that time feeling like I was trying to explain my mind to a perfectly sane and wonderful person who I wanted to keep in my life so badly, but was afraid that she’d eventually get tired of putting up with my emotions and leave.
But what she said about this being “my normal”… well, it was the most loving thing anyone has ever said to me and I’ll tell you why.
I have described myself as broken. People have tried to fix me, and I’ve tried to fix myself, and there’s something about always being in a state of disrepair that can make someone feel abnormal. And it can make you wonder when your abnormality will push someone you love out, like it has in the past.
This is why it can be so difficult for someone with mental illness to love themselves. It’s also why we don’t believe someone could love us for the way we are.
But what Mel said made me believe that she accepted me as is, and I don’t know if I’d ever felt that much love from another person.
She held my hand tighter, and I squeezed back.
“Thank you,” I said.
And by the time we made it to the ice cream shop, my anxiety wasn’t cured because it doesn’t work that way. But I felt more secure in my marriage and my relationship, and let me just say, when you have anxiety, feeling secure is a really big deal.