My entire life I treated my anxiety as if it was the Voldemort in the room – the “Thing-That-Must-Not-Be-Named”. But it became increasingly difficult to avoid this presence and I recently decided to face the Voldemort in the room head on.
My relationship ended abruptly one Tuesday night. I don’t know if you remember the guy who initially gave me power and courage in my fight against anxiety? Well, things have changed since then. The end began on a Sunday morning in Johannesburg; I was cooped up on his couch when the anxiety crept in. I stomached it, because I didn’t want to spoil the last minutes I shared with him before I left to go back to Stellenbosch. The following two days were difficult to say the least and he decided to leave me that Tuesday. Like that, a chapter in our year long story was closed.
During the days that followed, I started reading the book Reflections of a Convoluted Mind by Dr. Samke J. Ngcobo. The chapter I was busy with at the time that it felt as if my world might end was the one on the stigma that the world has about mental health.
“We all know the feeling of being vulnerable yet oftentimes there is very little empathy and compassion towards each other in this state.”
It’s this same stigma that made him end the relationship, because he didn’t have the same mental health obstacles making him vulnerable (I’m calling it an obstacle and not a problem, because problems require fixing, and you are not broken; you just have to conquer a few more obstacles than the next person). I realised that he never truly understood the struggle in order to have compassion for it.
Ngcobo describes the stigma as; negative feelings that people have about particular circumstances or characteristics that someone may have. She further explains that the lack of understanding was to cast blame as people were unfamiliar with what they were witnessing and were bewildered as a result. And the person that is on the receiving end of the ignorance of this stigma has to deal with the rejection and judgement for an uncommitted sin.
This brought me to the next phase I experienced during my break-up.
Shame and being ashamed of who you are.
Ngcobo describes her own experience of this shame: “the pain of humiliation would wake me up and threaten to drown me in a pool of tears.” She describes how she felt tightly tied to her bed by invisible ropes composed of demotivation and unfounded exhaustion.
After he left with the words; “Call me when you are better,” I felt the ropes tie me to my bed. I “escaped” these ropes by placing all of my energy and power into my career. With my anxiety disorder, not performing professionally can open another door for a panic attack to creep in. What a vicious cycle to be in.
I pushed through those first weeks after the break-up with the help of great friends, focusing on my career and the second part of Reflections of a Convoluted Mind.
The lesson that Ngcobo highlights is that we shouldn’t overlook the chapter of struggle in the haste to celebrate the phase of overcoming. We have to embrace the time of struggle as this is what shapes us to become better people. Not just for the person that is struggling with the obstacle, but also to you – the one that loves someone with an anxiety disorder.
Although my loved one just removed the struggle from his life, there is a way to love someone with anxiety. How? By fighting the stigma of anxiety through understanding and managing your reactions towards it. They need you to acknowledge the illness, support them and understand the journey with their mental health. As I recall that last Sunday together, I actually just wanted a hug. Not a solution to my problems or fighting Voldemort with the Elderly wand. Just a freaking hug. He never got that, but if you love someone with anxiety, give them that hug!
Looking back now, as the relationship hurts a bit less, here is what helped me to get back on my feet;
- Have the courage to feel it again. After a year where I had to hide the anxiety and emotions, I gave myself permission to experience all the emotions and anxiety that was cooped up.
- Talk about it. For yourself and not for him.
- Have a positive affirmation that will remind you everyday that you are not broken.
- It’s not that you don’t know who you are, it’s that he doesn’t.
- Lastly; embrace the small things that were present in the relationship, when there was no anxiety.
Once there was this guy who had the strongest power in helping the girl with the shoulders pads and anxiety disorder. He helped her to get back in the moment, but as anxiety became part of the moment, he decided to abort the climb to the top of the obstacle. Two months later – I can tell you that the view from up here is not so bad after all. Thanks Dr Ngcobo, for climbing the first steps with me.