Love, Etc. #3: Love and Anxiety
Relationships, more than anything else, demand presence. Anxiety, among the worst of the usual daily hells, is about absence. So, the thing we need most of all — connection with the people we like and love — is threatened or made impossible by this other, also ubiquitous thing. Sucks, right?
Anxiety is like a surplus of rationality, making bad masters of good servants like caution, preparation and thoughtfulness. It’s described as a prowling tiger, a beast, an ocean wave, a galaxy, anything enormous and consuming. I think of mine as a series of moon shots that crash-landed in a swamp.
My anxiety isn’t social anxiety, or “general,” or about major life decisions, such as taking on a 110-year old house and a to-the-studs renovation in one of Toronto’s Brooklyns after a five-minute spin and a general “vibes” assessment. My resting state is enthusiastic, confident (much of it unearned) and super-extroverted, and my anxiety is almost all about my physical environment, especially enclosed spaces and control belonging to someone or something else: subways, elevators, not being the one holding the keys.
When I’m anxious, I might be right there, with someone I love, but I’m not in “flow,” experiencing the freedom and fun that make alchemical adult relationships so urgent and spectacular. A couple years ago, as a friend twirled me through the Louvre, I stopped as we headed into the museum’s basement to admit that I was as likely to explore its claustrophobic underground as I was to see the Catacombs: not. On the same trip, I hustled out of Espace Dalí into the Paris daytime and spent an hour in the gift shop while my then-boyfriend, now-husband experienced the first of many exhibits mostly alone.
Anxiety, when it lands, isn’t any easier for the people who love me than it is for me. Relationships, all of them, are about the different ways of being together, and anxiety is about leaving the moment, and the body, to sink or spin into thought. It’s anathema to good friendship and good love, and it’s nobody’s fault. Without meaning or wanting to, the anxious tiger-tamer subjects their people to regular rounds of second-hand anxiety. Some of that constitutes the usual, expected work of friendship or family or any entangled heart, but someone with a steady habit might inadvertently make their loved one an emotional bystander, make them a static-y echo of reassurance, make them get on a rollercoaster alone, or make them three hours late to a party.
Anxiety gets inside relationships, but it’s also so often about them. It has a way of firmly, if counterintuitively, attaching itself the most to dating, the relationships with the lowest-possible stakes. When two people are trying each other out, an anxious dater might assess and reassess and magical-think their way into and out of endless imaginary scenarios of what the other person is doing, or thinking, or going to do or think, or ever has. What should be, in my correct opinion, about experiencing someone else’s pheromones, speaking voice, manners with waitstaff and relationship with their mom becomes a hothouse of assumption and worry, much of it self-fulfilling. Wondering “What if he doesn’t like me?” so often makes sure that he doesn’t.
Caring, about other people, a parent’s health, a sibling’s happiness, a girlfriend’s desires, a boss’ needs, is what we’re supposed to be doing; it’s when those feelings and actions get pulled and twisted into something else that the “absence” of anxiety replaces the “presence” of relationships, the same way that love can be bested by its own opposite, fear.
And, yeah, nobody leaves themselves out of it, especially now that social media is half of life. Instagram, especially, spawns anxiety via the nu-FOMO of watching perfectly produced and curated and colour-corrected lives play out on a phone, the ever-regenerating timeline suggesting that everyone else, but not you, is surrounded by endless beauty and good times.
I really don’t relate to that kind of anxiety, not because I’m posting up on a yacht — I am, with few exceptions, wearing some form of Daytime Pajamas, with my muddy dog nearby — but because my aspirational dream of what life could be like is just about feeling basic physical ease, when confronted with a tight space, without generating what my cool, calm husband says is like “a vibration that hangs in the air.” More than anything else, I daydream about normalcy — and being present for all of it.
The "Love, Etc." column also appears in the Toronto Star.
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