During the first year that my boyfriend and I were together, I was smack bang in the middle of an anxiety disorder. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been formally diagnosed at the time and like many others presumed that this was just a ‘character flaw’. It certainly wasn’t something that I needed to see the doctor about, right? I thought I could control it myself with self-discipline and punishment.
Most of the time, I was very good at hiding it (I’m talking Oscar-worthy performances). However, on the occasion when some of the ‘crazy’ seeped out – like the time I locked myself in a hotel bathroom and cried for 90 minutes – I had two main excuses to explain my behaviour:
How on earth was I actually going to explain my true feelings and fears to him? He was the most rational, level-headed guy I’d ever met. “He’ll leave you” my anxiety hissed. “You’re pathetic. Do you really want him to find out how pathetic you are?”
Based on counsel from this ‘anxiety demon’, I decided to repress everything and stay quiet.
Spoiler alert – this was literally the WORST thing I could’ve done!
Fast forward to three months later and suddenly I’m running around our flat screaming and crying, while he watches in horror. Suppressing my anxiety for so many years had finally triggered a breakdown, and one that would not be ignored.
I realised I couldn’t do this on my own anymore. I needed some help.
Firstly, the guilt and self-loathing I felt was overwhelming. Not to mention the secrecy of it all. Dr David Carbonell writes about ‘secrecy and self-disclosure’ in relation to panic attacks and anxiety. He argues that a person keeps their condition a secret because they are tricked into believing that a loved one will react negatively. He writes: “People with anxiety disorders tend to imagine the worst possible outcome and as a result, end up with emotional feelings that fit their dire predictions”.
Basically, without any evidence, a person will convince themselves that a loved one will be disgusted, and this can trigger a negative emotional response. The fear that a close family member might think badly of them - or worse, abandon them completely - is what keeps people silenced.
Nina, a twenty year-old commercial technology intern from Bombay, talked to me about the limitations of her culture, and why she feels that she must keep her mental illness a secret. “My parents are strict Hindus, who are focused on appearances. They believe that we should be able to control our minds without outside help.” Nina also explains that her parents see her condition as a weakness, and one which could jeopardise her chances of finding a husband. “My parents aren’t bad people, they just don’t understand. I want to find a way to explain my illness to them clearly and concisely.”
My personal moment of realisation came when I was six weeks into my recovery. I picked up a ‘Basic Guide to First Aid’ in the doctor’s waiting room (they were clearly short on reading material) and I read a chapter on ‘Choking First Aid’, and what to do if someone needed help. Up until this point, I was still having difficulty articulating my anxiety. Yet, it occurred to me that maybe I could write something similar to a first aid leaflet, only about my experience with anxiety. After all, physical ailments have literature, so why can’t mental health issues have the same?
At home later, I put together a two-sided document that listed how anxiety made me feel - both physically and emotionally. I also listed things that soothed it, and things that made it worse.
My boyfriend, (who is now my husband!) found this document to be invaluable, and to this day, he still keeps it on his bedside table. He told me that it’s his ‘map to my brain’. One that helps him to help me.
Don’t do it during their favourite TV show or sports game, or on their commute home! Instead, ask him/her if you can have a good 30-minutes of their time to talk about something important. This will help to manage their expectations.
Have a think about what you want to say in advance. Make notes if you feel more comfortable. Be as clear and specific as you can. E.g. “I have ‘x’ condition. THIS is how it makes me feel…and THIS is how you can help me.”
This doesn’t have to be a document that you created yourself. There is lots of valuable information out there (just make sure you get it from a reputable source!) It can be links to some helpful websites or books. People tend to learn at their own leisure, but it will help if you can point them in the right direction.
If you worry about your loved one’s reaction, have your doctor, nurse or counsellor to help support you in the conversation.
Don’t expect the reaction that you want immediately. They might not understand, or they might be emotional. Encourage any questions and suggest that you talk again the next day.
Remember, your loved ones don’t have to understand your condition, but they do have to respect it.
Who knows, you might even be pleasantly surprised by their reaction.