Two young people with long standing relationship want to break.

Yesterday, I broke up with my boyfriend of a year and a half.

For the past few months, my anxiety has been weighing on my conscious; I had been considering breaking up with my boyfriend, even though I cared for him so much.

I felt so much physical pain at the thought of ending our relationship but also at the fact that there would be a lot of pain afterwards once that relationship was broken. I try to avoid pain in any way possible, so I held off speaking the truth for months. Honestly, that probably cost me (and him) the most pain in the end.

Right now, it’s hard for me to think very clearly. It’s hard to remember the reasons as to why I ended things with him. All I can remember are the good times we had together and the fact that I can’t bear to lose those memories. Being in a relationship with him helped me to grow into the person I am today.

However, I’m constantly questioning whether I made the right decision or not. My brain and my heart are almost speaking two different languages: my brain says I made the right decision, but my heart says it’s not time to let go.

He was, and still is, my best friend. I can feel it in my heart. My whole body may hurt now, and this whole situation may suck for both of us, but it was probably the best one. Even if it wasn’t the best decision, I still have a whole future in front of me to figure it out. If it’s meant to be, we’ll find each other again. Hopefully by then, we will both have grown up and will understand how to treat someone else in a relationship. Maybe right now we need to grow into our own, separate people. We both need to find ourselves and find out what is ultimately important in a life partner.

My heart is aching, and I’m sure his is too. We both lost someone important to us, and it’s going to take a while to recover. However, it is important to remember that in times like this, it (eventually) gets better. It’s just hard to see the end of the tunnel now because I’m at the beginning of it. As time passes, the distance gets shorter, and the end seems more reachable everyday.

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To the significant other of someone with anxiety and depression.

I know how hard it is for you to understand what we are going through. I know how frustrating it must be.

You see us laying in bed or on the couch. You tell us to get up and do something, but we just can’t.

It’s not that we don’t want to; it’s that we cannot get up.

You see, when a person has both depression and anxiety, it’s often a nonstop battling. Our brain may feel slow while our hearts are racing. We want so badly to get up. We see how you look at us.

So we get up, shower, attempt to put an effort into our appearance, get ready to leave, only to have a panic attack as we are walking out the door.

I know you don’t understand what it’s like, but know what we are feeling is real.

We’re not over exaggerating these feeling. We are scared to death and feel alone. We tell you to go without us, but sometimes we really just want you to stay back and be there for us.

I know you feel helpless. I know you feel frustrated and annoyed. Trust me, so do we. This is something we cannot help. We live with this on a daily basis. So please, be gentle with us and know you are the most important person in our lives and that we love you, more than we love ourselves.

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Photo by Pavel Badrtdinov, via Unsplash

To paraphrase the former would-be Vice-Presidential candidate Admiral James Stockdale: “Who is the Universal Man? Why is he here?”

These are questions that I’ve asked of myself. Depending on who’s asking and/or what the conversation is about, I’ll give slightly different answers. There’s the short, easy answer; and then there’s the long, complex answer. Let’s start with the short response and then work backwards.

The Universal Man is a fictional superhero character I created and portrayed during my work as a summer camp counselor. I chose that name as a sort-of ode to “Doctor Who,” a TV show which has lifted my spirits and inspired me for the last 12 years, and because I imagined my character as an enigmatic figure who may or may not have looked to the stars a few times.

Anyway, we were acting out a cliche-free superhero story over a three-day period, which began with the apparent theft of the camp’s dinnertime cookies by the Joker and his villainous underlings. Batman chased the bad guys away, and then the Universal Man stepped up, introduced himself, and gave the campers (and counselors) some not-so-cryptic instructions as to how to defeat the villains and recover the cookies. The Universal Man was unable to assist with the rescue mission any more than that, but he was the wise, enlightened hero who led everyone else down the right path.

The following afternoon, the Universal Man returned, having opened up a thrilling, brand new “Superhero Academy.” He was looking to recruit some brand new superheroes into his Academy to step up the fight against evil. Acting on his request, the campers created some new heroes for him (i.e. they dressed their counselors up in character), and these new heroes were introduced to the Universal Man through a series of on-stage interviews. He welcomed his new allies into his Academy with great excitement… and then, in a massive plot twist, he gleefully let his pretense slip away. The Universal Man was actually the arch-villain of the story.

After confessing he had masterminded the previous evening’s cookie theft, he revealed that the Superhero Academy was a sham. It was nothing more than a lure for the new superheroes. Frustrated at the campers’ (and counselors’) repeated, deliberate failure to sing his favorite camp song correctly, the Universal Man was hungry to get his own back. He thus ordered his accomplices, the Batman villains, to kidnap the new superheroes and hide them away at various locations around the camp…

With some assistance from Batman, the campers and counselors eventually located and rescued the new superheroes. But, in a further plot twist, the Universal Man renounced the kidnapping plot (while showing no signs of repentance), and announced that Batman had actually helped him plan and orchestrate the whole plot! As he tried to pin all the blame on Batman — who had joined onto the villainous plot out of fear that the new superheroes would bin him off and steal his limelight — the Universal Man encouraged the campers to think of a theatrical punishment for him. It was only then that the camp director spoke up, pointing out that even the campers were not blameless in the story: they had (mostly unintentionally) antagonized the Universal Man by repeatedly singing his favorite song incorrectly, and in their mission to rescue the superheroes, they had undertaken challenges that forced them to go against our cherished, fundamental character values. She, Batman and the Universal Man had actually engineered the whole story to make this point, emphasizing that “good vs. evil” is always an oversimplification, and that empathy and dialogue would have helped everyone (campers, Batman and the Universal Man) to avoid defying our Pillars of Character. (Batman avoided receiving a theatrical punishment as a result!)

That’s my short, “easy” answer to the question of who the Universal Man is: he was a superhero who took extreme offense whenever he felt he was being belittled or undermined and who wasn’t afraid to resort to an elaborate plan to make himself look big.

Now for the long, complex answer:

The Universal Man is a walking metaphor for my anxiety.

While I was writing his character biography in my head, I imagined him as a man who feels the world has been acting against him in every way for too long. He never felt adequate in his academic or social lives because he was too used to being on the receiving end of trivial, malicious criticisms. Whenever he attempted to do anything or apply himself to anything, it was never enough. All of his friends and peers were flying high and succeeding in their fields, and everyone else on the Universal Man’s program of study was having more fun, more enjoyment, more positivity, and more good fortune than he was. The Universal Man had been ranked third (out of almost 100) in his class a couple of years earlier; he ultimately graduated outside the top 20 (out of a graduating class of 50-60).

His feelings of inadequacy hadn’t started there — they’d been around for a long time before that. But they were magnified by the events of the last year. And he had never really forgiven himself for walking into what he termed “the heartbreak that changed his life” a few years earlier.

I didn’t have to look too far to devise this character because this character was me.

In the year before I created the Universal Man, I was working on my final-year university project in a university research building. My colleagues took an immediate dislike to me and held me up to double standards, unrealistically high expectations (especially in the first few weeks), and a general impression that I was clearly incompetent in my field of study. It got vicious a few times. I mostly got through it by keeping my head down and avoiding them as much as possible, but, for the first time in my life, I was once overcome by a genuine fear that this was the end of the road. I was stuck. I wouldn’t be able to graduate.

I did graduate in the end — but the saga had scuppered any chances that I would graduate with a top-quality grade. So, in a sense, the nightmare came partially true. One week later, I was treading the boards in character as the Universal Man. I couldn’t have asked for a better trick to help me to cope with the past and move forward from it.

It helped that the Universal Man was a villainous character. He allowed me to vent my frustrations as subtly as possible. At least one of his lines of dialogue was adapted directly from one of the most hurtful criticisms I’d received during the last year. The Universal Man’s apparent hypocrisy — in getting angry at the campers over the trivial issue of song lyrics, before ordering the kidnapping of six inspirational new superheroes — was a liberating call-out to my old critics (who weren’t around to watch me this time). Best of all, I was able to get away with playing such an angry character because I was careful to ham it up for the most part, thus pitching the Universal Man as neither a horror-movie monstrosity nor an outright comedy villain. And then his evil plot was thwarted.

So my ghosts were symbolically vented and defeated there. But I still struggle to put my anxiety away all the time, even with that particular experience confined to the past. So I’ve been trying a new tactic in recent months: using the Universal Man as a personification of my fears. “The Universal Man is out to make you fail. He wants you to do a bad job. He’s whispering critical remarks into everyone’s ears, and he wants to blow their remarks out of proportion. He’s cheering for/giving strength to all of your opponents in your competitive swimming races. When you were turned down after that recent job interview, he looked at you from across the street and laughed in your face.”

It definitely works. The Universal Man was born out of perhaps the darkest time of my life so far, and he has helped me to try to decouple my anxieties from what’s actually happening around me. He is still a “version” of me, but he’s not the real me — he’s just a character. And I am aiming to stop him from winning. “Don’t let the Universal Man win” is a good promise, and I hope to stick to it.

It has been a while, but my old friend, Anxiety, has come to stay again. Oh yes, she has come for a visit every now and again but normally only fleetingly. It has been quite some time since she arrived with her bags packed and demanded room and board.

I wish she would leave, but it really feels as though anxiety has settled in for now, and the most irritating thing is that there is no reason for her to be here. These past few days have been some of the best I have had in a long time. Physically, I am feeling well, my pain levels are managed and low. Emotionally, I am positive and well on track in my recovery journey. There is nothing to worry about, and that means there is everything to worry about.

With nothing going wrong, my anxiety has launched a full investigation into what could possibly go wrong. That calm and peace I was feeling emotionally has dissipated into the fear of the unknown, and while the pain is managed, the racing heart and nausea that comes as part of the anxiety package deal is now in place. The excitement of children home from holidays, the busyness of a full house, the loudness of generators and vacuum cleaners and the dog running frustratedly around the house have turned into threats in lieu of any real danger.

The familiar feelings that come along with a panic disorder have returned. My heart is racing while I lay on my bed. My chest feels tight, as though my lungs are becoming frozen with fear. It hurts to breathe. The ribs that protect my inner organs feel as though they are squeezing in on them, shrinking and crushing me. Is it possible that my throat is closing? It feels as though I can’t swallow!

I get up and try to walk, to ease the racing of my mind, but my head spins and I feel as though I might pass out. My legs feel like jelly and my hands are shaking from the adrenaline coursing through my veins. My stomach is churning. I feel as though I may be violently ill at any moment, and there is a pressure in my head that I can only describe as being uncomfortable and worrisome. Everything feels too loud, too bright, too fast.

I have bitten at my nails and chewed on my lips. I have held my breath until things seemed to be turning black around the edges. I don’t know what I am doing wrong but nothing seems to be able to end the panicked feeling racing around my body today.

Breathe. Focus. Decompress. I lay myself down on the floor and try to remember to breathe all the way in and all the way out, to focus my mind on counting or grounding, practice mindfulness and calm my heart to a regular pace. I practice self-talk, positively affirming I am not going to be sick, my body is fine, there is nothing to worry about, I am just feeling anxious and it is all going to be OK.

But for every gentle moment I try to evict my familiar friend, she battles harder to stay put. It is upsetting when these things happen, and it can feel like you are failing at recovering. I feel like a failure today while I struggle to understand why I am letting panic take control over my mind and body. 

I feel panicked and overwhelmed, and even more annoyingly, I feel angry at myself for feeling these things when there is no real reason for them! And that is OK, it is perfectly acceptable to fall apart sometimes. We cannot be strong all the time. I am a capable woman and have worked hard to get to this place in my recovery.

I am so afraid this feeling will last, and it is feeding the worry and making me terrified. But the one thing I am trying to remind myself of is this: feelings are not facts.

Today I will rest, tomorrow I will work on evicting my unwanted guest.

Follow this journey on The Art of Broken

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One of the most disheartening aspects of anxiety for me is how it impacts areas of my life I love. I wish I could decelerate its growth, but like an avalanche, my anxiety builds in size and intensity, touching every dimension of my life. Anxiety is a part of me and accompanies me in every step of my life’s journey.

A time when I tend to feel ashamed of my anxiety is when I’m trying to make friends. As I make a new friend, I wonder, will you want to spend time with me again? Will you continue to see value in our friendship? For friends whom I have known for a long time, my questions change into, will my anxiety ever make me a burden to you? Will I ever disappoint you or let you down, causing you to walk away? I also ask myself, why do I still become nervous in the company of my dear friends, for whom I greatly care and unconditionally love, as if it is the first time we are meeting again?

These questions troubled me because I worried they meant I doubted the strength of my friendships. How could I doubt my friendships when they contribute to my core? It is difficult for me to share this concern, because I don’t want my friends to think their meaning to my life is not enough. My friends hold a special place in my heart, and their encouragement, love and support mean more to me than I will ever be able to adequately express. It’s just my anxiety makes me feel I am not worthy of someone else’s love.

I finally voiced this concern to my counselor, and she reassured me I don’t doubt my friendships. She explained what I doubt is my own value within the context of my friendships. I question if I am good enough, if I can be a good friend even though I have anxiety.

I now realize the nerves I feel in the company of friends reflect I care. I believe in the value of my friendships and want them to be lasting. Life can be filled with uncertainties and unexpected changes, which is very unnerving for me. That is why I worry.

Yet, amidst my fears, you — my extraordinary friends — provide me with the reassurance I seek, reminding me you are constants in my life. Thank you for helping me to see I am good enough, that I am a good friend and anxiety doesn’t lessen my value. You show me I am more than my anxiety. I am so grateful you have stayed in my life; it is a true blessing to be a part of yours. I am also appreciative of your understanding. I may not always feel comfortable calling or video chatting, but I will make sure to stay in contact through text messages, emails, and/or handwritten letters. I may not always feel comfortable hanging out for too long or too far from my home — which is my comfort zone — but I will always value your company and our shared time together. I may not always feel comfortable verbalizing how I feel, but through my actions and writing I hope you can see how much I care about you. And even though life may be filled with unknowns, I am certain I will always be there for you.

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Thinkstock image by: Ingram Publishing

I am figuratively blind.

90% of the time, my eyes do not see what is in front of me
Only what the master of my mind projects through me
The master, you ask, was never me
The master is a demon who plucks horrible images
And projects them through my eyes so I think it’s me
Why can’t I see?

The projector is on a loop for what feels like an eternity
Preventing me from interacting with what’s in front of me
Only concerning myself with what could be
The medicine makes it better than it used to be
Not completely

This goes against everything they have taught to me
My thoughts are not my own. Seriously?
This fact haunts me

I look out the window, but I do not see the trees
I see all the things that I could be
And should be
All of the things that could happen to those around me
It’s utterly frightening
And it’s all my fault because the way I moved my body
That day didn’t seem quite equal on both sides

All of this is projecting through my eyes
While I sit completely still and silent
If only I could find the off switch

The truth is this — I deal with these feelings daily, but I will not allow this to be who I am. I am a strong woman, a great mom, a great wife, a great friend. I was made to explore this earth and spread as much love as possible. I was made to soak it all up. We all have our own demons to wrestle.

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Unsplash photo via Jeremy Yap

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