Married to someone with anxiety

I thought I would write a post about what it is like being married to someone who has anxiety.

By Steve Whyley / 16 March 2017
8 min read

The charity MIND encourages us to talk about mental health so as we can break down barriers. My wife and I discussed sharing this post and felt it could be beneficial to some who are experiencing what we went through.

A bit of background first of all - my wife and I have been married for one year, and together for almost six. She is the most remarkable woman I know and I am incredibly blessed that she is my wife. She also happens to have anxiety.

When we were first together I don’t think either of us knew what it was she was experiencing. What some might consider to be fairly normal events - staying away, meeting parents, meeting friends - were in fact little landmines that were liable to go off at any time. Back then, I thought and perhaps even said to her (which I now regret) “what’s the big deal with these events? There’s nothing to worry about - my friends and family are nice, you’ll like them.” I couldn’t understand the sheer wave of fear that some of these moments used to cause her. These moments would cripple her and often lead to cancellations or recriminations. But then neither of us knew she was suffering from an anxiety disorder.

We moved in together and that’s when I think we both began to realise that she was suffering from something that she needed help with. For absolutely no reason at all, and this is a common theme amongst anxiety sufferers - there doesn’t need to be a reason for an attack to happen - she would be overcome with anxiety. The best way I can describe it is that you’re faced with someone who is just paralysed with fear, unable to communicate effectively and on the verge of total panic. In my wife’s case when she suffers from an anxiety attack she struggles to sleep such are the severity of physical symptoms. Laying next to her you can feel her shake as adrenaline pumps through her body. Often freezing cold, or boiling hot, she tosses and turns desperately seeking comfort. Then there’s the chest pains. She describes these as someone standing on her chest - a tightness so intense that she feels like she’s having a heart attack. In fact, in the early days, that’s exactly what we thought she had. We even went to the hospital on three separate occasions such was our concern. She had ECG’s, heart monitors and other apparatus fitted to her all of which showed nothing. The lack of sleep was becoming greater and greater.

Then the guilt began. The guilt she felt for getting me involved in this world - this world where the person you love more than anything can stand in front of you trapped by a fear, and a panic often set about for reasons unknown to them.

She tries to protect you - she tells you to run away, to forget her, to go and find someone without “complications”. More evenings with no sleep, coupled with a 4 hour commute (both ways) means she is exhausted. Our way of life soon became a bid to survive. It was us vs the world. It was us trying to work out what we could to help her get through each day. I worked more and more from home so that I could have dinner ready and waiting, washing and ironing done. I’d have the bath run for when she got in at 8pm. We bought a notice board where we pinned stuff that needed doing so it emptied her head as much as possible. All of these things helped but we were not living - we were surviving in a world where anxiety had taken over.

How did it make me feel?

I often think that love, real love, is doing whatever you can do to make that person happy and immune from any hurt. The best feeling in the world (having not had kids yet) is to see the person you love smile, laugh and genuinely content and knowing that you’ve played a part in that. Equally, the worst feeling in the world, is to see the person you love on the floor at 6AM having not slept and a body that is shaking, a face that is white with fear and knowing that whatever you suggest, whatever you do, doesn’t seem to be able to help. That you can’t ‘cure’ her. That you can’t make it all better. That this person is suffering and all you want is to stop that, and you can’t. That right there is the worst feeling in the world.

Anxiety is a mental health condition that I knew nothing about. I thought it was just a phrase for someone who felt a little nerves from time to time. It is so much more than that - it is debilitating and can even feel life ending for the person who is suffering. Because it is a mental health condition it is also difficult to explain to people what it is, as you can’t see it. This puts you, as the person who isn’t suffering in a difficult position at times. For example we may have to cancel events/plans because they’re too much, or they’re in a bad place, or you are worried you’ll get home late, not sleep and this will cause anxiety the next day. It is difficult to say you’re not going because you’ve got anxiety because people just don’t get it. And I understand why.

So what can you do about it?

So we were in a place where we were just surviving. All we had was each other. Our lives were consumed by talk of anxiety and there was no obvious way out. But the thing we had in our favour is that we talked - I was as understanding as I possibly could be. I read about anxiety, we read books together and even attempted meditation together. Turns out I am not the meditating type! But I gave it a good go! We identified what we thought were triggers and eradicated them - for example, a simple thing like buying a train ticket the night before instead of that morning removed a very small anxious thought. We created what we call “positive routines” - things that were good habits to get into - like planning our meals for the week. We tried to identify if foods and drinks contributed in some way and modified diets. Truth be told she modified her diet, and I continued down the chocolate and biscuit route. But I did try!

We took control by joining a new doctors surgery - one that we’d researched and knew they had a good range of doctors who specialised in mental health in some form. We then found a doctor she was comfortable with and if she wanted me to attend the appointment with her then I would do that.

Alongside this we found a private counsellor who could help get to the root of what was causing some of this anxiety - we then discussed a lot of these sessions and reflected on them and tried to put into practice some of the advice we were receiving. We also made big and brave decisions like my wife quitting her exhausting job up in London and her retraining to work with young people in a college environment - stressful, but local. Local means exercise, her evenings back, downtime. We also got a cat. Don’t underestimate the power of animals!

Her leaving her job and going unpaid for six months meant we didn’t have holidays and it delayed us from buying a house but it was the single best thing we ever did.

When things were as bad as they ever were I proposed. I knew I wanted this woman to be wife. She had given me a confidence that I didn’t know I had. I was always able to be myself around her. I didn’t ever have to apologise for who I was. Simply put I loved her. I wanted her to know she would not face anxiety alone. She will never face anxiety alone.

So where are we now?

I think this is an important role for the non anxiety sufferer. The person suffering from anxiety can often forget how bad things were, or they look at their last anxiety attack/spell of anxiety and think they’ve made little to no progress. It’s your role to remind them just how far they’ve come.

The changes we’ve made have made an immeasurable difference to our lives.

She is much happier at work doing something that she not only cares about, but also in an environment where she can be herself and not have hide her anxiety’s. She’s now open with friends, so much so that we rarely cancel an engagement or an event but if we do we tell them why, and we are as upfront and as honest as we can be. She still has anxiety, and I imagine she always will. But we are able to deal with this in a much more productive way. Sure, there are times where it all gets a bit too much, but what she has achieved in the last 2–3 years blows me away. We got married - as big a social event as there can be - and she loved every minute of it. She’s helping shape and change vulnerable teenagers lives. She’s taking on things like an evening course and she can’t wait to become a mum and start the next chapter of her life. And as for me, I too am incredibly happy. I have attempted to do things I wouldn’t have done had it not been for her. I’ve written a questionable sitcom! And even taken a stab at a book. The best thing I ever did was to ask her to be my wife.

So for all of those of you that have an anxious partner, know that you are not alone. And I know, only too well, how difficult it can be to navigate through the maze. My advice would be to involve yourself in your partner’s anxiety, find out as much about it as you can. Make that person feel like you’re dealing with it together, and that they are not alone. Find a great doctor, seek professional help if you feel it is appropriate - it doesn’t have to be forever, my wife no longer sees her counsellor such is the progress she’s made. Make big sacrifices (money etc) and put the partner’s health first and work out what you both think is required to give them the best possible chance of dealing with the anxiety in a productive way. Enjoy the days, and there’s countless number of these, where your partner is anxiety free and feel blessed that you are in their company - and tell them just that. And on those days where the grey cloud comes back, be there for them. Don’t shout. Don’t point fingers. Don’t blame. Instead do what you can do which may be as little as cooking a dinner, or running a bath.

Bottom line is anxiety is a horrible illness but you can overcome it, together.

They’ll be times where you are tested but if you love your partner half as much as I love my wife then I think like us, you’ll come out the other side. Love truly does conquer all.