It doesn’t make sense.
There are lots of words going through your head right now, but you keep coming back to them, over and over again.
It makes absolutely no sense.
What is ‘it’? A call in the middle of the night, a trip to the hospital, a panic attack during what was supposed to be a ‘good day,’ staying up way past each other’s bedtime to hash over the same thing you did ages ago, an irrational fear of clouds, a passing remark of a colleague…
‘It’ could be anything. And ‘it’ ultimately doesn’t matter.
Except it does, to you. This is the person you love crying because they’re afraid, because they feel slighted, because their anxiety has flared up again or their depression is whispering in their ear that they’re worthless. This is the person you love, and you would do anything to help them, but the unvarnished reality of loving someone with a mental illness – and those of us with anxiety in particular – is that often, the ‘it’ is irrelevant.
‘It’ could be a trigger but often ‘it’ is something so completely mundane most people roll their eyes and tell us to get over ourselves. You wouldn’t do that to them, but even you can’t fully understand what’s going on and that sometimes that makes you as anxious as the person you’re trying to comfort.
Yes, anxious. Even when you get angry, or depressed, or violently dismissive all of a sudden, deep down, you’re afraid, too.
No one prepared you for this. If you grew up without contact with someone with a mental illness, you may still think in terms of sitcom caricatures – Sheldon spraying Lysol every time someone coughs or demanding that his girlfriend sign a relationship agreement (a little something called ‘boundary settings’ which most relationships can do with, btw). You think of mental illness as big and exaggerated in real life as it is on the television, and you may assume that the solution is simply finding someone to love. Or, at the very least, keeping a white-knuckle grip on the person you love lest they follow in the footsteps of every Manic Pixie Dream Girl in print or in the movies.
That’s not your fault. No one prepared your loved one for this, either. Anxiety and every other mental illness is not a choice, yet the world treats it as such and then blames the people suffering for not reacting properly to anything. Still, here you are, in the middle of the night, struggling to cope, wanting to support them and failing.
You have to be the strong one, and you don’t know how.
Start by letting go of the ‘it.’ Your loved one’s anxiety isn’t a math problem to solve. You won’t be able to make their lives better by removing every stressor that they can encounter. That’s a terrible, thankless task, one that never ends and can never be truly accomplished. You’ll run yourself into the ground trying.
Your loved ones don’t want you to do it, either.
Part of the deal with anxiety is that we have to face our fears every day, and we have to keep on going regardless of how scared we are. We accept, through many tears and sleepless nights and expensive therapy, that no matter how bad we feel, we have to take on the day and do our best, just like anybody else. We don’t expect special treatment because of our anxiety and we wouldn’t demand it in a million years.
We don’t want you, our friends and family and lovers and children, to hurt yourselves trying to shield us, when the reality is, there is no way to take all scary things away from life or to isolate us from stress.
Your loved one is coming to you not for solutions, but for love and support. They come to you because you’re a safe person who cares for them, who will love them without judgment, without anger, without infantilizing them or making them feel stupid. They come to you because you will comfort them, no matter how silly ‘it’ is or how little sense it makes.
They come to you because they trust you.
And the truth of the matter is, trust is not easily earned in this life. Believe it, and let them love you for who you are, not what you can do.