At dinner, my mom turns to my husband and says, as she has many times over the years, “I prayed against all the other boyfriends, you know. Every single one of them. Except you.” She pats his hand. He grins and gives her a fist bump.
“Well,” I say, laughing, “I guess it’s not my fault those other relationships never worked out then, huh?”
I can’t help but think about the bad one. Not the one who cheated on me or the one who pouted like a fussy 3 year old. The bad one. The man who first made me feel deeply loved and attended to, and then, with my cooperation, proceeded to wipe out my sense of self. The man whose ego so obliterated my own that months after we broke up, I would find myself standing in the frozen foods section of the supermarket, battling tears and panic because I couldn’t remember what kind of TV dinners I used to like.
It’s been decades since I last saw this man, but the stain he left lingers. I’m a wise, therapy-going, self-advocating woman these days – nothing like the shaky girl he knew, but still, it’s taken me until now – and by “now” I mean days ago – to realize why I chose him. Why I let him do what he did. I had a compassionate family, loving friends, and my parents’ strong marriage to model. I knew what healthy love was. What I didn’t know was that I also had depression and anxiety disorder, which went undiagnosed for years, and that the latter, in particular, made me vulnerable to this kind of dangerous narcissist.
I first learned that I had clinical depression about 14 years ago, after a family medical crisis that left my mental and emotional reserves tapped dry. The relief of the diagnosis was so keen I wanted to sink to my knees and weep. I might have, if I’d had the energy. I could look back on my life and identify two other periods of what had to have been depression. Sleeping 17 hours a day, having difficulty performing even perfunctory maintenance like showering and brushing my hair, the strange feeling of paper-doll flatness. At last, I knew what that was!
I went to therapy. I took medication. I paid attention to diet and exercise. Most importantly, I learned to watch for the signs of depression in myself, and later, in my children. However, it wasn’t until 2 years ago when I went back to therapy to deal with the stressful end of a friendship and business relationship that I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. To me it was normal to have racing thoughts or to wake several times a night with a thundering pulse. I thought everyone woke up terrified when the alarm went off. I mean, loud noises are scary, right? Why wouldn’t your heart be pounding so hard your chest would actually ache?
Every time I learn something new about my mental health, it feels like I am gently working myself loose from a giant metal hook, wiggling first this way and then that, until at last my feet touch the ground. It’s not uncommon for anxiety sufferers to have difficulty speaking on the phone: A-ha. I’m not a freak. I might not be totally right, but at least I know what kind of bent I am. One of the most fascinating things I learned was that anxiety isn’t just in my mind, it’s in my body. My muscles, my nerve endings – they feel like they are being threatened. This is why the alarm is merely annoying to my husband, but to me, it feels like an air raid siren and every instinct in me is screaming TAKE COVER! Perhaps the most important thing I learned is that when my body is feeling anxiety, my brain is trying to make sense of it. And if it cannot find a logical reason, it will manufacture one.
I am certain that I have had anxiety since very early childhood. It’s always been there – a tense hum in the background, so much a part of my reality that I never questioned whether or not the thoughts that came from it might be wrong. The anxiety tells you that everyone scrutinizes you but no one really likes you. I believed, deep in my core, that people saw through me. That I was unlikeable and unworthy, and that kindness and love were shown to me out of charity and not because I deserved it. Of course, these thoughts are crazy. I was loved – so loved. I had friends. I did well in school and at my part time job. I was smart and funny and kind. But how then to explain the buzzing hum of anxiety? Something had to be off, and that meant that all the goodness in my life was probably fake.
This is the belief I had when I met the bad guy I didn’t yet know was bad. He was so confident (arrogant) and full of self-esteem (narcissistic), and he paid so much attention to me! It was hugely freeing to be with someone who voiced the critical thoughts that were constantly running through my head. At last, here was someone who could see me. When he told me he hated the cut off jeans shorts and tank tops I liked to wear and that he thought I would look so much more feminine in flowy sundresses, I went out and spent an entire paycheck on dresses and matching sandals. I was so happy not to have to dither about what to wear. He told me what looked good on me, and now I knew what to do. That first evening, I proudly modeled my purchases, twirling to make the skirts flare like hibiscus petals. He rewarded me with kisses and advice about how to wear my hair.
It’s surreal now for me to realize I was only with this man for less than a year, because his impact was so intense. Well into my marriage, I was still picking out shrapnel he’d left behind. At the time, though, I felt so cherished. He examined and dissected every aspect of my life. No one had ever been so interested in me, I thought. I became a vegetarian for him and learned a million ways to cook tofu. I read the dry philosophical texts he gave me and hid my dog-eared fantasy novels when he came over. Life felt so good when I pleased him. The only time I felt the hum of anxiety was when I hadn’t done something “right,” meaning, according to his express wishes. Other than that, everything was fine. It was fine.
I wasn’t very good at getting it right, though. Once, he called to check on me during final exams – he often called to check on me. Where was I? I was studying in the library, I told him, knowing he’d like that answer. And I was, but soon after I hung up, I got hungry, so I wandered over to the university’s campus center. When I returned to the library, I found him out front. He was livid. He wanted to be thoughtful, he said, so he’d come to surprise me with a snack. He’d looked everywhere for me. I probably didn’t even care that I’d worried him. I apologized tearfully while he deliberately ate the sandwich he’d brought me, washing it down with the iced tea he knew I liked. He stared at me, daring me to protest. I said nothing. “This is what you get,” he sneered, tossing the empty bottle into the recycling bin. I silently berated myself for deciding to leave and missing out on this chance to experience his love.
I can look back now and see the spiral. I can see how my anxiety would spike and he would reassure me. Then he’d jab at me again and volunteer to patch up the wound. I was so relieved to have all my awful doubts and insecurities validated that I would eagerly submit to his opinions. The good voices – my family and friends – became the background noise. All I could hear was the roar of my anxiety and I was desperate for the next hit of his approval that would make everything right. Oddly, he was never interested in the people who loved me. All that mattered was that he loved me.
If he hadn’t left me, I’m not sure what would have happened. He didn’t leave-leave. He went off on a spiritual adventure, though I begged him to stay. I think he was confident that I’d be there, puppy-like, when he returned. Instead, the friends I’d ignored for months began calling me, and since he wasn’t there to disapprove, I let them take me out. We went to the beach. We went to the movies. We went dancing – DANCING! I pulled out the fantasy novels and the journals I’d stopped writing in because my thoughts were so clearly “sophomoric.” I felt like I was coming back into myself.
Then, one day, I got a phone call from him. He was at the airport. Could I pick him up? My throat squeezed shut and I had to force out the words. I told him, yes, I would. Then I hung up with shaking hands, walked to the bathroom, and threw up. My body was having an instinctive reaction. My anxiety was shrieking, but this time, I knew he was the cause, not the cure. A few weeks after he returned, I broke up with him. It was ugly and scary, and there are things that happened that I still don’t like to think or talk about, but I did it. I fucking did it.
I would go on to struggle with self-esteem and anxiety issues for another dozen years, but because I got out of that situation, I was able to do so with a loving support system around me. I still deal with anxiety every day, although the panic attacks are fewer and I am able to mitigate them somewhat with medication. I’m very open about my mental health issues with my family and friends and with internet readers, but I still go clammy and breathless if I have to explain my situation face to face with someone I don’t know well. I still loathe talking on the phone, and I have a hard time with ordinary grownup tasks like going to the bank or post office. I still get angry with myself over it. I know who I am now, though. I’m getting better at believing the people who love me, and at caring for this glitchy brain of mine and the body that houses it. And though I haven’t had one in years, I remember that my favorite TV dinner is Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes.
This essay originally appeared on StigmaFighters.com and is featured in the Stigma Fighters Anthology, now available on Amazon. For more first person accounts from men and women who live with mental illness, visit their site.