The first memory I have of my boyfriend soothing my anxiety is simple. He gave me a tall glass of water and rubbed my back as I drank it. Then he sat across from me at the table, looked at me, and took a deep breath. Our eyes locked. Like a reflex, I also inhaled, long and slow. No words were said, but those few minutes are etched in my memory forever.
We had only been together for a couple months, but I was going through some significant changes. I had recently sold all my belongings, given up my Boston apartment, and moved to Australia to start a new life with him. Everything transformed pretty drastically, and although I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do, I was also severely anxious about it all. I was worried what people would say, and whether it would all work out — or whether it was all going to crash and burn. The anxiety got so bad that I was chewing my nails, picking off skin, and suffering from shortness of breath every single day.
Before my SO came along, nobody had ever fully accepted my anxiety as part of who I am. My parents never understood its broad impact on my life. Some of my friends never believed I even really had anxiety. So when my partner and I met in 2013, we immediately connected, regardless of our age difference and the fact that we lived on opposite sides of the planet. He'd dealt with anxiety in his past too, so he knew the pain of a mercilessly worrisome mind. I didn't have to explain myself or any of my strange habits to him. He received everything without judgment.
As time went on, we became closer and I felt the need to hide my anxiety less and less. He continued to make little gestures that made all the difference — reminding me to relax my shoulders when my heart raced, holding my hand when my breath shortened, cooking me hearty dinners when I was emotionally exhausted. He did more for me than anyone else had ever done, and he never made me feel like I owed him anything for it.
If there's someone in your life, whether friend, partner, or family member, who has made living with anxiety a little bit easier, take a moment and thank them.
I'm sure I'm not alone in this experience. Recently, I recognized myself in a recent interview I read with actor Ryan Reynolds, of all people. In the Variety article, he opened up about his lifelong battle with anxiety, and how working on Deadpool was an extremely stressful endeavor that kept him up at night and had him manically working.
"The expectations were eating me alive," Reynolds told Variety. But he said his wife Blake Lively was the person who eased his anxiety and supported him. "Blake helped me through that,” Reynolds said. “I’m lucky to have her around just to keep me sane."
When I read those words, brief though they were, I shed a few tears of recognition. It reminded me of all the times my SO was there for me, all those times he brought me back to life. Like Reynolds, I felt lucky to simply have someone around who could make me scrambled eggs after I'd been up half the night pulling at my hair and worrying about planning our next vacation (yes, I stayed up to worry about vacations).
In addition to being my personal chef when I was worn out from insomnia, my boyfriend also helped me understand my own anxiety. Even though I'd been anxious for many years, most of my nervous ticks were unknown to me before he pointed them out. He opened my eyes to some of my unhealthy habits, like shaking my legs under the table when I was skittish or chewing on the skin around my thumb when I was distressed. Rather than just abruptly telling me to stop, which can sometimes make me completely shut down, he encouraged me to identify my patterns. When was I picking my skin? In what kind of situations? What was I trying to avoid? And if I needed a sounding board to talk through these questions with, he was there, always.
When you're stuck in an anxious reel of thoughts or an anxious cycle of habits, you don't necessarily see it at the time. Just like Reynolds says of his anxious ticks that he simply thought he was a "twitchy kid," I always just thought I was "a worrier." My partner was the person who helped me untangle all the complicated layers of my inner dialogue and understand the tangible effect anxiety had on my everyday life.
Sure, I had my therapist to aid me in working through this stuff in a clinical setting, but my boyfriend and I made sense of the ins and outs of my illness in a language I was most familiar with. He helped me identify triggers without actually calling them "triggers." Besides, he knew my patterns better than anyone else — sometimes better than I knew them myself. For example, after being together for several months, he approached me about my morning habit of scrolling through Instagram upon first waking up, which made me jumpy and stupidly self-conscious about my breakfast choices.
"Why don't we go for a walk instead of jumping straight on our phones?" he said. Rather than distinctly calling out this habit as a "trigger," he redirected my attention. It was a clever trick, but it worked. My mornings became less electronic, and much more personable, which set the tone for a decent day.
Of course, there were many times over the course of our three-year relationship that I felt like turning my phone off and hiding somewhere no one could find me. There were times when my anxiety consumed me so much I wanted to kick my boyfriend out of the house and out of my life completely. There were times I wanted to erase my identity and start all over again in another country. But I've been hitting those walls less and less over the past year, and my SO has elegantly lived with all the ups and downs.
Sadly, we live in a world where it's common for anxious or depressed individuals like myself to feel misunderstood or unsupported by their loved ones. There is still so much stigma around mental illness that my friends and family have no idea how to do the simple things like talk honestly about the side effects of anxiety, or inquire about the state of my mental health. I would have been thrilled if a friend had simply asked how I was, or if I had been sleeping alright. But they were too terrified to even utter the word "anxiety" in my presence.
You don't need to be an expert in the world of mental illness to make a world of difference in someone's life. Simply being a loving presence and offering support can be exactly what they need. And cooking them a warm meal when they're feeling particularly stressed can go a long way, too.
I can imagine — and I hope — there are many other people out there, like myself and Reynolds, who feel a deep sense of appreciation for the person who has helped them wade through the lifelong bog of anxiety. If there's someone in your life, whether friend, partner, or family member, who has made living with anxiety a little bit easier, take a moment and thank them. Thank them for listening, for being patient, and for making you breakfast when you're so hungry you can't think straight. It makes all the difference.