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How do you untangle the threads of a beat-up heart?
February 11, 2014 11:01 AM   Subscribe

I'm in the early stages of a relationship with a wonderful woman; it's our second go at this. I'm pretty sure this is love. But my anxiety and depression is holding me back, or making me doubt how I feel, or stopping me from actually expressing how I feel. And I don't know how to navigate this. I don't know whether to push through all these uncertainties or walk away. Help me work it out, mefites.

I've been agonising about writing this for several days; I'd promised myself never to write another relationship question on AskMeFi again, and yet here I am... Apologies in advance.

You'll remember, if you look at my posting history, that I left a bad, some would say abusive, marriage at the end of 2012. I spent much of 2013 trying to build a life for myself. I had no intention of dating anyone for a long time.

Enter J, in around about August 2013. J and I had been good friends six or seven years back, but we had fallen out of touch for one reason or another. We met again in summer at a professional networking event in the city where she lives.

We hit it off immediately, and a coffee-and-catch-up date developed into a second, proper date over dinner, which then turned into a third date and so on. When we were together, it was like there was no-one else in the world for either of us. We were great in conversation, great in silent contemplation, great in bed, and for a while it seemed like everything was wonderful

At the same time, though, I was struggling. I wasn't admitting it to myself β€” maybe I wasn't even able to at the time β€” but I was suffering from a deepening depression and a lot of anxiety. Leaving my marriage had been stressful, but my finances were by then very poor, work had become slightly toxic after I was summarily removed from a management position with no warning. In short, I felt worthless.

Whilst falling in love lifted me for a while, as things settled down a bit I fell down a deep hole of depression and anxiety. I'd already had several anxiety attacks when travelling to see J (she lives some 3 hours away from me by train) and sometimes was barely making it without melting down. In late October, when I was due to head down for a long weekend with her, I got a phone call telling me that my cousin with whom I was very close had been killed in a car crash. This tipped me over the edge and I phoned her and told her that I couldn't come down, that she was better off without me and that I was breaking up with her, because I didn't have the wherewithal to deal with keeping a serious relationship together. I completely imploded, and looking back I deeply, deeply regret handling things as badly as I did.

The next day, knowing that I'd had very little control over my actions the day before, I went to my doctor, got a psych referral, and am now doing okay on SSRIs, with a side order of anti-anxiety meds should I need them (so far, I haven't; lots of yoga and mindfulness has been good enough to manage it so far). But the damage was done, and in our final conversation before Christmas (which, as J pointed out, I owed her) I said that I needed time to work on myself. From then, we went NC, with the exception of Christmas and New Year text messages.

Four weeks ago I ran into J at yet another work event (I visit her city regularly for work, and its on these travels that I come closest to using my anti-anxiety meds. For some reason, long distance travel is very stressful to me right now). She asked me if I'd be okay with going for coffee and I hesitantly said yes. We started talking and it was like nothing had ever changed, everything was wonderful again. She told me that she understood about my anxiety and depression, having suffered from both herself, and that she wanted to help me through my struggles.

We spent several days in each other's company, just hanging out at first, but gradually things got to the point where we were sleeping together again.

Since I got home from her city we've kept in touch by email, phone and Skype. My heart leaps when I see her or hear her, and I know that she feels the same.

And yet, it feels like there's something missing. I don't know what it is, but it's almost as though a part of me doesn't want to be in a relationship with this wonderful woman, whom I'm pretty damn certain I love and with whom I was, not all that long ago, been very happy. And I don't get it.

I'm supposed to be spending this weekend with her, but every time I think about it I get one of those horrible anxious knots in my stomach. I've tried to talk to her about it but I find myself playing down just how bad it is. On top of that, I then get angry and shouty at myself in my head for not telling her how horrible it's feeling: my internal voice tells me what a liar and a worthless person I am for lying, and then, more insidiously, another internal voice tells me that the best way to punish myself is to share the pain with no-one and deal with it all myself. How I get up in the mornings I don't know.

I don't know how to unpack these feelings (I have a therapist, and she's great, but she's also out of the country right now, so she can't be of much help). I don't know how to phrase "I want to love you with all my heart and I feel like we belong together, except that there's this huge gaping something that I don't know really understand and can't explain, and which is absolutely killing me inside, and by the way that weekend break we've got planned is terrifying me" in a way that doesn't make me sound like a gigantic asshole for leading her on. She's asked me a couple of times if I'm sure I want to pursue a relationship, and I said yes, because at the time I was... and then later I found myself thinking "... but really, I'm not all that sure..."

I don't want to be the guy that led her on, but I feel almost certain that's what I'm doing. I'm also aware that depression and anxiety both lie, and I could be falling victim to that; I can't really tell which is which.

How should I navigate myself through this? Is it best if I just call it off with J and let her be, despite the fact that she wants to support and help me? She deserves better than this, surely. I know someone's going to say "put on your own oxygen mask first" but I owe it to her to be a decent human being before I start worrying about myself.

(And yes, I should have waited longer before dating. I'm a mess right now, and that's helping no-one).
posted by six sided sock to Human Relations (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Jeez, you are being so hard on yourself. It makes me sad for you.

I'm also aware that depression and anxiety both lie, and I could be falling victim to that...

Yeah, that: I don't think you should break things off with J at least until you've had a chance to talk to your therapist. You don't sound particularly rational about this. Also you say you have your anxiety under control without using the meds, but then you say you have horrible anxious knots in your stomach about spending the weekend with J. What are you saving the anxiety meds for? You don't have to wait until you're having a debilitating panic attach to take them.

Also, I don't know J, and she's not the one asking the question, but could she be your friend even if you weren't "in a relationship?" Is there a way she could provide you with support without you feeling like you're leading her on? Maybe think about that when you're in a better headspace.
posted by mskyle at 11:21 AM on February 11 [3 favorites]


"I want to love you with all my heart and I feel like we belong together, except that there's this huge gaping something that I don't know really understand and can't explain, and which is absolutely killing me inside"

The huge gaping something is life. The human condition. Existential angst. The unbearableness of being. A combination of depression and anxiety. Entering a relationship will not repair it, and exiting a relationship will not repair it. You are stuck with it, and I think you can make a good life (and a good relationship) in spite of it.

I recommend the movie Take This Waltz, where a woman leaves a truly excellent marriage because she thought that something else might resolve what she felt was missing in her life, only to regret losing her marriage and get told off by Sarah Silverman's character who says basically what I said above. Listen to Sarah Silverman's character.

I also recommend the book Monkey Mind by Daniel Smith. He is a guy with severe anxiety, who dumped the woman he loved because his anxiety made him feel he had to (travel was also involved), but then begged her to forgive him. They are married now, and he shares a lot of techniques of how he is making that work.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 11:32 AM on February 11 [9 favorites]


SSS - I think I can understand what you are going through. Thinking about the uncertainty of a relationship makes your anxiety worse. Take your meds, as prescribed, as needed.

I don't think you need to break it off with this seemingly generous and kind woman. Leaving her might feel like one more reason to be depressed and anxious. What would it feel like to practice your mindfulness in this situation and just feel the fear you are feeling, but keep moving ahead with seeing her? You might find that you are perfectly lovely too and have a lot to give. Have you read the book If the Buddha Dated? Corny title, but it addresses anxiety and mindfulness while dating. Might help.
posted by quixotictic at 11:57 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]


Hrm. Well, you have a lot of things on your plate. Healing from stress/divorce/job changes takes energy. Maintaining the work environment while healing is tough. Dating also requires energy. Normally, if the dating takes more energy than it restores, and your energy is being drained from other things heavily, I'd say break up. BUT, I don't think you want to do that. I do suspect your fear and anxiety and depression are trying to sink you. I would do your best to tell J how things are; that kind of sharing is cathartic and healing and would, in my opinion lessen a lot of the energy demands of having to 'act normal'

Be gentle on yourself. Try to see the good things in you- the way J does. Abusive relationships, getting demoted, having anxiety, etc, are NOT things that make you broken, flawed or worthless. You DO deserve a good relationship. If you can, give yourself the love and faith to explore this; my gut says J is a good thing.
posted by Jacen at 12:13 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


On the one hand, it sounds like it's still too soon to have a serious relationship. But on the other, you've found someone who is willing to work with you and be patient. I think it's only going to work if you talk to her when you have these feelings. I know it's hard and scary but if you get the words out then it can give both of you a chance to look for solutions together.

And you don't really have to tell her about the "want to love you" part right now. Maybe talk to her about how travel makes your anxiety so much worse and you can both work on a plan to help make that better. In other words, don't force yourself to go on this trip unless you talk to her and figure out what's going on with you first.

Learning to Breathe is a book written by a women who tries all sorts of methods to help deal with her anxiety attacks. I really liked it because, after I read it, I came away with a much better understanding of the issue and what kinds of treatments are available.

Also, the work of Brene Brown has helped me so much this year. She talks about how the only way to really show up and live your life is to let yourself be vulnerable with the people who are closest to you. It's ok to need help with this. You've done a great job reaching out here.
posted by dawkins_7 at 12:44 PM on February 11 [3 favorites]


Breaking up with someone isn't just something you can emotionally reverse instantly. You mourned the relationship already, and now you're back in it. It will never be the same as it was before, but it can still be nice in a new way.

Right now, you're like Jim Carey and Kate winslet at the end of Eternal Sunshine. You dated her, broke up with her, erased her, and met her again. Treat it like a new relationship instead of a continuation of the old one. Are you happy with the relationship as it is, right now, without comparing it to the old one?
posted by empath at 1:34 PM on February 11


its on these travels that I come closest to using my anti-anxiety meds. For some reason, long distance travel is very stressful to me right now

You know you don't get a medal for not taking the anti-anxiety drugs, right? That there's no reward or commendation for resisting really, really hard? You seem to be tortured with treatable anxiety and yet you refuse to treat yourself with the drugs that are literally in your hands. What's up with that?
posted by DarlingBri at 2:12 PM on February 11 [9 favorites]


Do you WANT to break up with her? It's okay. It doesn't matter if she's objectively wonderful or you feel like you "should" date her. All of that is just stupid noise. Do what you actually want deep down. Even if you feel like you shouldn't want it. If you want to stop seeing her, stop seeing her. If you don't, don't. All else is stupid irrelevant noise.
posted by quincunx at 2:13 PM on February 11


What DarlingBri said times a million. Those situations are why you have the anti-anxiety meds. If there's one thing I've learned from many relationships conducted whilst depressed, or while a partner was depressed, it's that the first part of being good to your partner is actively managing your mental health. You say:

but I owe it to her to be a decent human being before I start worrying about myself.

This is wrong. THIS is the anxiety/depression lie. The lie that says "do everything on this earth except cure your depression and anxiety."

The way you "be a decent human being" to her is by worrying enough about yourself to use the prescribed treatments and see whether they work.

That said, she may just not be right for you. You don't have to date her, even if she's great. It's really really hard to let go of something that's mostly right, but it's much harder to stay with something that's wrong in some small but essential way.
posted by like_a_friend at 2:28 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


FWIW, I don't think waiting longer before dating would have been able to prevent this. I think this was due to happen with a falling-in-love experience like this, anytime. It was just a matter of sooner or later.

​In situations like these, where a person is experiencing a profound sense of emotional safety after a long struggle in self-determination, the fact that things are well is exactly what's triggering your deepest, most unresolved issues to struggle to the surface of your consciousness. In other words, what you're experiencing now is your parcel of the human condition which you have inherited and still need to do to the work to own. It is a by-product of the human condition that was always meant to come due through you.

So basically, no matter what, be prepared to do the work to own/heal/resolve/confront/etc it -- although I'm sure you know that already.

When it comes to your girlfriend, I strongly urge that if she says she can relate to you, then give her a fair chance. Avoid having an ego such that it presumes only it has known true suffering (which would also mean your ego is half-integrated with some of these voices you are experiencing). Stay true to not living in the world of limits your negatively-charged internal dialogue is trying to suggest is absolute.

To me, it sounds like being near her is making you feel (disproportionately and unfairly) vulnerable at times. Communicate this to her, and see if together you two can brainstorm how to work around these obstacles. I'm cheering for you to find a way through with her because I think if you can learn to have more compassion for yourself, and know without doubt that your suffering is coming from a just place, then this could be a very grand opportunity to genuinely delve down into dealing with your dreams, with the benefit of an ally. If you could navigate ensuring your ability to be whole within yourself, and not feel that doing healing work with an intimate friend in your life will mean that you can't still meet her as an equal in a relationship (in spite of starting out in a more vulnerable place), then this doesn't have to be the experience of burdening someone with your worthlessness like you're dreading.

Keep your mind open to the possibility that she just might have the life experience and wisdom to mean it when she says she's struggled through depression and anxiety as well. If you stay with her through this, accept within yourself clearly that she's not going to have all the answers, but she just might have some from her own hard-earned experiences that could really help you in a way you deserve to be helped -- with solid understanding, experience, and empathy.

a part of me doesn't want to be in a relationship with this wonderful woman

This is going to be there no matter what, whether it's with her or the next possibility. That is why I think you're far better off to work through this now, and while you actually still have her as a friend in your life. I am definitely speaking from having had the experience of pushing someone out who I was deeply in love with, and having done it in a way that I regret because if we could have stayed friends, I still feel that he would have been a great ally in what I'm still struggling with today, a few years later. I'm at a point where I find alternative approaches to well-being are working best to guide me through it -- if you want to know more, feel free to message me. Best of luck, six sided sock!
posted by human ecologist at 2:30 PM on February 11 [4 favorites]


allow yourself to feel anxious. its ok. but the feeling of anxiety is not a thing that represents any truth about the world. you are fighting the anxiety, mainly, J seems to be no problem.

strongly suggest you get into some CBT.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:24 PM on February 11


Take your meds. They are to help you cope. This is the kind of thing they are meant to help you cope with. Change, even good change, is scary and anxiety-inducing.

Make yourself vulnerable. J sounds like a good person with some understanding and wisdom of her own around depression and anxiety. Even if she hasn't personally suffered but has, perhaps, had a relative, friend or partner who did, that's worth its weight in gold. Obviously depression is different for everyone, but you'd have to explain so much less. I'm a bit envious actually! Go away with her for the weekend (taking your meds). Be open with her. Try to separate yourself from those doubts and fears.

Because yeah, it does sound like the depression talking. You don't want to be in a relationship because you don't deserve to be happy, because you think you will mess it up, because you're scared she will turn out to be a wrong 'un too, because... you fill in the reason(s). What's the alternative? Never getting in a relationship? Because there are no guarantees.

As for whether you should have waited longer before getting into a relationship, well, maybe. But when will you know if you're ready? Will the timer go off? Will the sanity board come to your door with a certificate saying that you are now eligible to pursue romantic relationships? If you wait until you have "fixed" everything before you inflict yourself on someone else, you will be waiting a long time.

Those last two bits are things that I am writing to myself as much as to you, because I am currently stuck in the "I'm still too broken to be in a relationship, I should just stay alone because it's easier/safer/less scary/more fair on this imagined other person/etc" phase. I don't have a J who is gently encouraging you to open up and trust and love again. You do. The least you can do is try.
posted by Athanassiel at 7:54 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


You may have PTSD from your abusive relationship. Try EMDR therapy for that and take the meds as prescribed. Also, if you need to not date while you sort this out, let J know and see if you can be friends. It seems like she would be supportive of whatever you need to heal.
posted by xenophile at 7:59 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


A lot of the people here are saying to take care of yourself... but I am going to speak as someone who's been in your girlfriend's shoes.

You are being reckless and you stand to hurt her a lot. Whenever you say, "I'm worthless" and other put downs, you are setting yourself up for hurting her, because as long as you've spoken badly about yourself then "it's not your fault, you're an anxious guy with problems who is an emotional mess. Therefore it's okay for you to hurt people." Those can be the excuses you make in your mind.

If you have sex and a relationship with someone, if you say you love someone, you owe them more (a LOT more) than a sudden breakup without so much as a thoughtful, considered, in person conversation, preferably over time. If you decide to make a choice that will emotionally devastate someone, you owe it to them to be resolute enough that you're not going to take it back and lead them on when you feel like it later. Like you are doing right now by sleeping with her again.

I am not going to say "put on your own oxygen mask first." If you're an employed guy who has the wherewithal to travel and f@#$ this lady, you're not starved of oxygen. You owe it to her to be a decent human being before you start worrying about yourself.

On the other side of dating questions, AskMefi often says, "When someone tells you who they are, believe them." You are exactly that guy women are warned about, who is telling this lady he's worthless and emotional mess, because he is setting up to hurt her (and already has). I am not sure why these responses to you are so kind.

"How do you untangle the threads of a beat-up heart?" That is so melodramatic it's almost a caricature, of That Guy who is so "emotionally wounded" that he hurts women and believes it's somehow okay. When you're in a long term exclusive relationship with someone who you supposedly love, your actions are a big deal. You are treating it like a melodrama that has more to do with your poor wounded emotions than your responsibilities to another person. You sound like an angsty teenager rather than a mature adult.

Make choices and stick to them. Care for people. Put good actions above your emotional whims. Be a man. That would be my advice.
posted by htid at 8:09 PM on February 11 [2 favorites]


Since I got home from her city we've kept in touch by email, phone and Skype. My heart leaps when I see her or hear her, and I know that she feels the same.

And yet, it feels like there's something missing.


What's missing--and I say this as someone in a remarkably similar place to you--is that inner voice telling you that this is bad. So, depression being the tricky little devil it is, that inner voice now is trying to persuade you that its absence is a bad thing.

I was feeling the same about the guy I'm dating. A sort of ambivalence. Fear/anxiety. Lots and lots of basically everything you've described except the breakup.

And then one day I just said "fuck it," and told him that I love him (because I do) and more or less decided to trust that he would be careful with my heart. I've been very open with him about my mental struggles, and his generosity is much like your lady's; he'd been waiting a month to tell me he loves me, and didn't, because he didn't want to push me or make me anxious or scare me away.

I mean, I'm still scared. I still don't think I deserve him. But he thinks I deserve him, and he's pretty fucking smart and thoughtful, so I'm trying to make myself trust that he's right about this. Try doing the same with J.

She's told you explicitly that she understands your issues, having been there herself, and still wants to be by your side. She sounds like a hell of a person. Be open and honest with her about your feelings, and try to make yourself trust that she sees something lovely in you

I am not sure why these responses to you are so kind.

Because he is mentally ill, and mental illness makes you do stupid, horrible things? Because some of us have intimate experience of exactly what he's going through?

Make choices and stick to them. Care for people. Put good actions above your emotional whims. Be a man. That would be my advice.

Wow, um. Did you miss all the stuff about depression and anxiety and therapy and medication? You don't get over that by someone telling you to 'be a man' (whatever that gender essentialism means), or ignoring your 'emotional whims' (again, depression and anxiety. They fuck with your emotions, it's not immature flightiness); you get over it the same way you get over any protracted illness: slowly, in fits and starts, by learning to stop listening to that inner voice telling you how worthless you are. Other people telling you that you're acting like an angsty teenager is the exact opposite of helping. Please show some compassion.

Take your meds. They are to help you cope. This is the kind of thing they are meant to help you cope with.

For serious. I have no idea why you are forcing yourself to feel gut-wrenching anxiety when you have medication prescribed to you to deal with exactly that situation. Stop torturing yourself. I know how easy it is to do that to yourself when you're depressed, but you're only making your situation worse by not taking your medication as prescribed.

Talk to your lady about how you are feeling, and work out ways to ameliorate your tension about the upcoming weekend. (Taking your anti-anxiety meds should be method #1). "I love you, but this weekend is filling me with anxiety because XYZ. I don't want to miss out on the amazing time we always have together, can we work together to find some solutions?"

Another avenue to explore: since so much of your anxiety is linked to travel (perhaps because you're moving from your safe home base, in a method of transport you can't control, into an area where you can't easily control even the simple ability to lock the door and be alone to decompress), have you two considered having her come visit you sometimes? (It seemed from your question that you always do the traveling).

Also, does your therapist not have anyone covering their patients while they're out of the country?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:58 PM on February 11 [4 favorites]


Also, looking at your post history, this isn't the first time your therapist's absence has corresponded with increased anxiety on your part. If you really like your therapist and think she is doing a good job, so it's not a problem with the therapeutic relationship, perhaps she could recommend someone else for you to see when she's going to be away for a while? Because it sounds like you might not be at the stage where long gaps between sessions is ok.
posted by Athanassiel at 11:33 PM on February 11


Thank you all for taking the time to reply. Sorry I haven't replied sooner; it's been a long week with a lot of spanners thrown in the works.

So, after watching Brene Brown's TED talks, as recommended by dawkins_7 I decided to dare greatly and deal with my shame (or rather my feeling not-good-enough) and I showed J this thread. It was possibly the best thing I've ever done in a relationship. And yes, I'm in a relationship, and we love each other, and we're going to make this work.

So thank you, everyone, for encouraging me to not give up on a good thing. And yes, I shall start taking my anti-anxiety meds (the reason I resisted thus far is simple: I didn't do well for my first few weeks on SSRIs; I didn't want to add more meds to the mix until I'd settled down. And then I figured I was coping, even though I clearly wasn't).
feckless fecal fear mongering: What's missing--and I say this as someone in a remarkably similar place to you--is that inner voice telling you that this is bad. So, depression being the tricky little devil it is, that inner voice now is trying to persuade you that its absence is a bad thing.
Reading this was a scales-falling-from-the-eyes moment for me. I can't favourite it enough.
htid: You are exactly that guy women are warned about, who is telling this lady he's worthless and emotional mess, because he is setting up to hurt her (and already has). I am not sure why these responses to you are so kind.
This comment was the closest to what my mental narrative about myself was saying. So, whilst I didn't enjoy reading it (and now I'm in a bit of a better place mentally, I don't agree with it) thank you anyway.
posted by six sided sock at 8:52 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


Thank you for the update. I am so glad you showed her this! That must have been incredibly scary. But it sounds like it was worth it.
posted by dawkins_7 at 12:35 PM on February 21


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