Guest columnists and contributors are generously sharing their talents and insights while I’m taking some time to care for my new baby. Today’s letter is answered by freelance writer, Rachel East, AKA ReginaRey.
He has a history of anxiety related issues: his eyes roll uncontrollably when he is stressed and one time when I asked him a simple question about whether he wanted to watch a movie or talk he started hyperventilating and freaking out. I’m also not new to anxiety issues. In high school I was diagnosed with OCD and have only recently gotten it under control. So, I’m wondering: How do I best help him? I have already told him I want him to see our school counseling center (a service I have used for my own issues), and we have a plan to call together in a few days. But I worry that he won’t be honest with the psychologist and won’t get anything out of it. I also worry what this relationship will do to my mental health. I have just barely got my issues under control, so I worry taking on such a big portion of his will push me over the edge, but he doesn’t have any close friends save his ex-girlfriend. I have considered contacting her to try to help me talk to him and convince him of the seriousness of this all and learn more about his history of anxiety (because he won’t talk about it much), but I know she doesn’t like me and I don’t want to create any problems.
How can I best help this guy I care so much about without harming my fragile mental health? — Anxious about Anxiety
I applaud you for working to get your OCD under control. I know that was challenging, and I’m sure it feels good to have a handle on it. That said, let me emphasize how important it is for you to continue to prioritize your mental health. Just because you’ve experienced similar difficulties as your boyfriend does NOT mean that you need to become his nurse or personal subject-matter expert on anxiety.
To support your boyfriend the best, you need to remember to play a sideline role in his journey. Attend a few (but not all) therapy sessions with him, encourage him when you can, be positive and patient as often as possible. Be there for him emotionally and physically, but allow him to do the work on his own.
It’s going to be easy, and probably tempting, to take on a larger role than that. Maybe scheduling his counseling sessions for him, or pushing him to do certain mental exercises that you think will work, or telling him what to talk to his counselor about. I promise you – this is only a recipe for disaster. He needs to make progress on his own. That means on his own time, in his own way and without a crutch to drag him through it.
The problem is, you’ve already started taking on a “crutch-like” role. While your intentions are good, you were the one to initiate the counseling sessions, not him. And you’ve even considered reaching out to your boyfriend’s ex to discuss the history that HE won’t talk to you about. What’s even more telling, however, is that you fear your boyfriend won’t be honest with a counselor. This series of facts likely means one critical thing: Your boyfriend isn’t ready to confront his issues.
No amount of therapy, support, coaching, positive reinforcement, whatever, will help someone who isn’t fully ready to commit to working through their issues. The less prepared someone is the more they’ll rely on other people to get them through it, instead of relying on themselves. When that happens, a slew of unhealthy relationship demons are born: You might begin to feel burdened and responsible for his successes, his failures, his happiness and his sadness; He might feel unable to work through his issues without your help, and he could become insecure and codependent on you.
Understand that it may not be possible to stay in this relationship without being adversely affected. Even if he becomes a stellar example of independently taking on his mental health issues, and even if you’re the most supportive, patient girlfriend in the world…you may still be adversely affected. You’re already wracked with worry – worry that he won’t be honest with his counselor, worry that you’ll slip back into old patterns you tried hard to overcome. Worrying about anxiety will prove to be a very self-fulfilling prophecy.
One last important fact: You have permission to MOA, for whatever reason. There’s no threshold that has to be reached before you can consider breaking up, no boxes that need to be checked before it’s “acceptable” to end your relationship. You’re not married, it’s been three months, and you’re only nineteen. You don’t have to feel guilty if you can’t or don’t want to handle this. Put yourself first in your own life.
*ReginaRey (Real Name: Rachel East) is a full-time Events & Promotions Coordinator and a part-time freelance writer focusing on dating and relationships. One day, after tackling grad school, she plans to be your Marriage and Family Therapist…because the only thing better than talking about relationships all day is getting paid to talk about relationships all day. You can check out her weekly column here and follow her on Twitter @MissRachelEast.