Ask Maranda: How to Have Responsible Relationships While Dealing with Trauma & Anxiety

Ask Maranda is an advice column focusing on mental health & creativity for self-identified weirdos, queerdos, fuck-ups and artists.

Hi Maranda, I was really excited when I found out you’d be running an advice column, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather receive advice from. My question is about how to have responsible relationships with people while dealing with trauma and anxiety.

When I was a kid, my mother killed herself, and my dad then married a woman who was pretty abusive to me and my sister. I was already a weird, shy kid, but after that, I had a lot of problems with drugs, abusive relationships, self-harm, and all that kind of stuff. I have a lot of confidence in my strength and ability to survive things, but other stuff I find really hard.

I deal with a lot of anxiety and PTSD. I’m tense and scared and angry most of the time, I don’t have a lot of capacity to experience joy or relaxation or to live in the moment, and I can’t stand being in any situation where I’m vulnerable to someone else. I’ve been working on this stuff in therapy, but things are still really hard all the time.

I’m in a longstanding relationship, but because I’m having an especially hard year with all of the above, I’ve put it on a two-week hiatus to give myself some breathing room, which has helped a lot. I’m trying to decide whether I should continue trying to be with my partner even though intimacy and vulnerability are the last thing I need right now, if I should continue the hiatus, or if I should just call it off. Any general advice you have about this kind of situation would be really appreciated. Thanks!

Dear Anonymous,

I’m really glad you’ve been able to take time away from your current relationship to focus on yourself, and that you’ve recognized your strength and survival abilities. I can relate a lot to what you’ve written, and often ask the same questions of myself; my PTSD manifests in similar ways. I often feel vulnerable and intruded-upon, and that makes relationships really difficult for me. I require a lot of personal space both at home and in public places, and these requirements can seem confusing or odd to folks not familiar with individual responses to trauma.

Much of my advice is gonna come from my own personal experiences, and what I’ve learned this far along the way, or what I’m trying to learn. I don’t want to speak as an authority on any subject, but as a friend.

A few years ago, I was feeling highly volatile and easily triggered, though I wasn’t good at labeling exactly what was triggering me, nor was I able to take good care of myself in those situations. I’ve always had self-destructive tendencies, and they continue today, albeit with altered understandings of what they mean, why I don’t always make the best decisions for myself, etc. Anyway! In my early/mid-20’s, frustrated with myself and the time/energy I gave to toxic people and toxic situations, I decided to become celibate. I thought it was the weirdest thing ever and I didn’t really tell anyone because I felt so embarrassed and ridiculous (I was also afraid that my friends and community members would judge me as Not Queer Enough, Not Sex-Positive Enough, Not Feminist Enough, etc. – even though I knew this was a necessary decision for me.) During that time, I relocated to a town that was better for me than my hometown, and I wrote most of my first novel. I also learned how to prioritize myself and my feelings, instead of seeking validation (and orgasms) from shitty people. I’m not suggesting this is what’s appropriate for you to do, too, but wanted to share that story because I feel like it’s relevant to your questions, and because, like you’ve mentioned, alone-time and breathing space were crucial for my recovery (which is ongoing; there’s no final destination where I can call myself ‘Recovered’ and be done with it).

I highly encourage you to write a list of the pros & cons of getting back together with your partner after the two-week hiatus, or spending more time apart. Healing can’t be done on a schedule, and sometimes things feel easier to deal with when you can write them down and hold a piece of paper with all the possibilities in your hands. I also hope your partner understands that intimacy and vulnerability are really hard for you, and that it’s okay to not want to touch, hug, cuddle, fuck, etc., and that whether or not you’re able to participate in certain acts doesn’t mean you feel any less love/adoration for them – it’s about you and your boundaries right now. You and your partner are probably both aware that romantic relationships don’t always need to be treated as more important than other friendships, creative projects, and daily self-care. It’s important to be able to define what your boundaries are and to discuss them. Even though it can be difficult and sometimes even terrifying! It might also be a good idea to write a list of what has helped you deal with trauma and anxiety in the past, and what hasn’t. Keep that list with you and update it whenever necessary.

It’s also important to define what “responsible” looks like to you. What does your ideal relationship look like day-to-day? If you choose to continue your relationship, there are plenty of options: Be as clear as you can about what you need, and what you’re not feeling capable of in each moment – and make sure you & your partner know and respect that these requirements can change a million times. For example, sometimes I really don’t want to be touched, even just a hand on my arm, but fifteen minutes later, I totally wanna snuggle. My moods fluctuate a lot, and so do my desires and capacities for different kinds of closeness. Ending the relationship doesn’t mean you can’t still be good friends, and doesn’t mean it needs to be over forever; your relationship can morph and transform in all kinds of ways!

I also feel tense and angry a lot of the time, and am constantly searching for ways to deal with this. When I’ve talked to professionals about it, and consulted (I accidentally typed “confronted”) all those Mental Health 101 books, they’ve mostly just suggested taking deep breaths and drinking tea – but deep breaths and tea don’t really solve a whole lot, do they? And there are situations where even those seemingly small tasks can be difficult or impossible to do (if I’m having a panic in a crowded space, like a house show or a subway station, deep breaths aren’t gonna be possible for me – if I’m outside of the house and don’t have much cash on me, I can’t go to a café and buy a cup of tea to calm myself down, etc…). Even if it doesn’t change much, I try to tell people when I’m feeling this way, just so they know what’s up. It helps a little bit to not keep it totally to myself, even if I can’t find a concrete solution. Sometimes the best way I can deal with things is to write them down and to have conversations that make me very nervous.

I hope my advice helps you in some way. If you’d like to continue the conversation, anonymous comments on my blog are always allowed (although I moderate comments on my blog for a few reasons, so it might not show up immediately – if WordPress asks you for a name or email address, just make them up), and perhaps folks can offer contributions to the conversation in the comments as well. Take good care of yourself, however you can!

Advicingly Yours,
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2 Responses to Ask Maranda: How to Have Responsible Relationships While Dealing with Trauma & Anxiety

  1. question asker says:

    thanks maranda! this is awesome advice and i am really glad i wrote in to you. your comment about the advice to “drink tea and take deep breaths” made me laugh, cause that kind of lame advice is exactly why i stopped checking the anxiety books out of the library. i didn’t like how the answer in those books is never to listen to your trauma and do what you gotta do to survive.

    anyways, thank you again. your advice really helped me be able to think more clearly about all this.

    xo, anxious anon.

  2. kim says:

    this is really great advice. i have been trying to learn how to deal with my anxiety now that i have gone off my meds (couldn’t afford them) and this advice really resonates with me. thanks for writing, maranda.

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