I remember it well. I’m outside my sister’s house, doubled over in pain and worry, and I feel like my chest is tighter than it’s ever been.
“It’s OK,” I was told, as the tears came, too. “It’s just your anxiety.”
This was four years ago, and of those four years, I’ve spent two of them blissfully with my boyfriend Sam. Sam is one of those people with a sunny disposition – up with his first alarm, loves running, loves his job, laughs constantly. We are the reason people say “opposites attract” – while I’m by no means a pessimist, being sarcastic and cynical is part of my humor. I love a good debate over something meaty, like politics. I get annoyed at the dishwasher as if it were a person out to spite me. Despite this “cultural difference,” Sam never belittles my anxiety and panic disorder. He sees my little achievements even when I don’t, and coaxes a smile out of me in the darkest of times.
And he never, ever tells me it’s “just” my anxiety.
“Just” is an interesting word. For some, it can mean that something is surmountable – you can get over it. How many times have we told ourselves, it was just a dream? It’s just an interview? For me, “just” is reductive in all the wrong ways. It tells me my illness is something that I should be ridding myself of, and quickly. Why can’t you just go one day without panicking? Why can’t we just be a normal couple? “Just” makes me feel weak when I should be trying to feel strong.
“Just” makes me feel like we’re compromising. Shall we just go home? Shall we just go to the cinema first, instead of the restaurant? It feels like I’ve failed when I haven’t.
A few weeks ago, I woke up in the night having an anxiety attack. This isn’t completely abnormal – it happens perhaps once every month or so – but this one simply wouldn’t shift. I tried everything, but the blighter wouldn’t go, and eventually Sam woke up.
“Is it your anxiety?” he said as he turned over to me.
I nodded. No “just,” no nothing.
“Would you like a glass of water?”
He came back with some water and cuddled up next to me, asking if there was anything he could do. When I said I just needed to ride it out, he stayed awake, mumbling away about the flat and our pets until I could breathe normally again. It felt like hours, but it can’t have pushed more than 30 minutes. And then we both went back to sleep.
Living with a mental illness, I’m sometimes given an illusion of “normality” – for a week, for a month – before it crushes me with an attack or a relapse. Truth is, I’m not looking to be normal anymore. I’m looking to be happy. When the guilt sinks in and I feel as if my life, my personality and my whole existence have been engulfed by anxiety, Sam reminds me that they haven’t. It can be tough, undoubtedly. But right now, we’re happy just – no – exactly the way we are.
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