By Kirt Ethridge
Editor’s Note: We’ve been studying relationships for the last four decades, but we still have so much to learn. Through the stories and experiences shared in Real Relationships, we aim to paint a more realistic picture of love in the world today. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and are not necessarily based on research conducted by The Gottman Institute.
My anxiety and queerness grew side by side, tangled together. My anxiety fed on my queerness, particularly in southern Indiana, where fundamentalist Christianity constantly reinforces that all queer people go to hell. But I knew I couldn’t stop being queer, even if I wanted to—and usually, I didn’t.
In high school, queerness became the center of my identity. I cropped my hair short, first into a Beatles-style mop top and then into a Bieber swoosh. I embraced scene culture’s gender-bending guyliner and skinny jeans. Many of my friends who would eventually come out as queer weren’t out in high school, but I was. I constantly felt volatile, alternating between frenetic periods of sleepless writing and self-loathing so deep that I wished I could open up my skin to crawl out of it. I doubted I would live past 20. I definitely never thought anyone would want to marry me.
When I was 20, I met Grace.
She was out of my league, and I knew it. At the time, her hair was buzzed short, growing back from when she had shaved it off to raise money for a childhood cancer charity. She had this ambiguous Northern accent that turned out to be Canadian. With her short hair and the watercolor wing tattoos that spanned her shoulder blades, she looked cool. Collected. Confident. Like someone who’d never felt muscle-tensing, stomach-twisting anxiety in her life. For the first month that we dated, I thought someone as stunning as her could never hate herself.
Then I saw one of Grace’s panic attacks.
During that first panic attack, she sobbed on her dorm bed while I nervously petted her short hair. She confessed that OCD had trapped her in patterns of perfectionism for years. She had to read emails to their very ends, even spam ones with tiny print. She couldn’t make a single mistake in class or relationships or at work without wanting to hurt herself. She said, “I’m always reduced to only thinking of tomorrow as a new day when I try again.”
I held onto her through the wave of vertigo that came with not being the one comforted for once. Secretly, I was also a little excited: Grace trusted me enough to lay her fears about her new anxiety medication bare. As horrible as her tears were, they were also a promising sign. She said she felt ashamed to take medicine, but I was just proud of her for communicating something that caused her so much pain.
“Don’t worry,” I told her, cringing as I said it because “don’t worry” is the most impossible command for anyone with anxiety. “I get it. We just always have to be honest with each other about this stuff.”
My first panic attack around her came pretty soon after that, set off by not enough sleep and too much sensory input. Because she had already been honest with me about her anxiety, I was honest about mine, too, despite my shame. Together, we learned each other’s triggers. We taught each other how to take care of us through meltdowns. When she struggled to walk down the hall to the water fountain to take her medication around midnight each night, she would call me, and I would stand out on the porch, staring out at the dark trees while I talked her through the steps: Just make it to the water fountain. Just press the button. Just take a sip. Good.
On days when we couldn’t see each other, we wrote each other letters detailing our highs and lows. We communicated so much that sometimes we only had to say one or two codewords. “Reassurance,” Grace’s favorite code word, meant that I would pause to tell her, “You’re good just the way you are. I’m proud of you. I love you.”
By Christmas of that year, even though we hadn’t exchanged rings yet, we privately thought of ourselves as engaged. The U-Haul lesbian jokes we told each other served as reassurance: we aren’t the only queers moving this fast.
That spring, Mike Pence, who was our governor, signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law to allow businesses to discriminate against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity. I opened Facebook to post pictures from the queer rights protest I’d just attended when I saw my best friend, the first person I came out to as bi when I was thirteen, posting in favor of the act. The posts kept coming, all ten of them. The worst: “Gay Marriage Isn’t About Justice, It’s About Selma Envy.”
I’ve never been afraid to call my friends out—or I have, sweat pooling under my arms, but righteous anger usually pushes my anxiety down long enough for me to speak out. I told my best friend, “I don’t understand how you can reconcile discrimination with Jesus or how you can think a certain way when just about all your friends are queer.”
She came back with, “I’m not discriminating against you. I’m simply following my Catholic faith.” And, “You’re going to hell.”
My queerness is inherent to me, and I saw it as a gift from God. Back then, I was devoutly Catholic. Hearing that I was going to hell because of my queerness, which I so deeply valued, was always painful. Hearing it from someone I loved and looked up to in the religion broke me. I had a paralyzing panic attack in Grace’s dorm room, screaming “I don’t want to go to hell” as I hit my head against her mattress. It was the only thing my brain could make my mouth say.
I waded through the next week of school in a fog. I wrote feverishly instead of sleeping. I obsessed over making sure Grace was safe, comfortable, fed. I read my friend’s words—you’re going to hell—until my eyes unfocused. A week after my friend sent that message, my mind couldn’t take the strain anymore. I sat in my childhood bedroom, weighing my options for dying. But before I left, before I stepped into hell or what I hoped would be blissful, eternal nothingness, I knew I had to text Grace: “We said we’d always be honest about this stuff so I just want you to know that I’m suicidal.”
Less than an hour later, before I had decided if I was really ready to die, a car pulled up in my parents’ dark driveway. Grace hated driving so much that she didn’t even own a car, and yet there she was in her friend’s borrowed car. We spent the night in the basement, watching Lord of the Rings while I slept fitfully. Several times in the middle of the night, I cried myself awake. Grace pulled me tightly against her and held on until the waves retreated again.
I don’t remember if she told me I needed to go to therapy, or if we agreed on it together. I don’t remember how much I resisted starting medication or if I did at all. So much from that time is a blur. What I remember clearly is Grace spoon-feeding me chocolate cheesecake because Zoloft stole my appetite and she was afraid I was going to starve.
She stopped taking her own medication around that time, struggling to care for me and probably alarmed by how my medication initially numbed me. For weeks, she suffered without telling me until, though we were spending nearly every day together, she wrote me a letter:
“I don’t know if I should start taking it again. I haven’t hurt myself yet. But I constantly feel like a failure. I don’t want to disappoint anyone but it feels like that’s all I’m doing, simply by existing.”
I swallowed down my own instantly sharp fear and told her, “I love you. Still proud of you. Always. I know that medication’s not fun.” I knew that intimately. “But I want you to have some kind of safety net.”
We started over together. We kept each other accountable for each swallowed pill until, even though anxiety attacks still overwhelmed some days, we came out on the other side of that heart-hurting year, exhausted but alive.
By the time we got married, two years after our first date, we had caring for each other down to a science. After she’d had a rough day of teaching, battling OCD each time a lesson plan didn’t work to the letter, I cleaned her classroom, sorting homework, plugging in iPads, and fishing dirty tissues out of desks.
When I doubted my writing, she compiled a list of places to submit where she thought my stories would be a perfect fit. I cooked her whatever she wanted for dinner, buying bucket after bucket of raspberries when they were the only food her body wanted to eat. We were two wives together, small but stubborn and seemingly indestructible in the middle of often anti-gay Indiana.
But I wasn’t her wife. The word didn’t fit. I quietly but desperately wanted to be her husband instead.
I’d actually realized I was genderqueer when I was 19 and in the middle of the worst depressive episode of my life. I thought, “I’ll deal with that if I’m alive later.” Then I started dating Grace and thought, “I don’t want to scare her off. I’ll deal with this later.” During the times Grace struggled with her own anxiety, I told myself, “Don’t make this about you. You need to take care of her.” I pushed down the dysphoria that secretly fueled so much of my self-hatred until a few months after we married, it all burst out. I couldn’t see my chest without digging my nails in and wanting to claw it off. I couldn’t hear the word “she” without feeling nauseous. I spent full days in bed, only leaving to pick Grace up from work.
More than anything, I wanted to bind my chest and see it flat. I wanted to be strong like the superhero actors I looked up to (though I know that being strong is not exclusive to men and that men don’t have to be strong). With each day after my dysphoria reached a breaking point, I understood more and more that I couldn’t go back. I would either embrace who I was as a guy, or guy-adjacent, or I would want to kill myself more and more until I finally did it. Sometimes that didn’t scare me quite as much as the thought that I’d unintentionally lied to Grace. We’d always promised to be honest with each other, especially about anything that lured our anxiety out of its dark spaces. I didn’t know what I would do if she left.
Instead of leaving me, Grace taught herself to be my greatest advocate. While taking my anxiety into account, she also pushed me when I needed to be pushed, once literally out the front door so I would attend my first-ever trans support group meeting. Despite the social aspects of her anxiety, which make her shiver in large crowds, she’s come to almost all of my support group meetings and doctors’ appointments. She makes sure I take my hormone shot even though she hates needles. At work and to her friends, she brags about me being her husband because she knows it makes me feel like myself. Every day that she affirms me, I feel stronger and safer.
One of my favorite letters from Grace ends: “I am so very proud of you.” I responded: “Your pride means more to me than anything else.” We’re proud of each other not just for our bigger achievements, like graduation or publication, but for everyday tasks that the outside world might not see as accomplishments, like taking medicine or eating dinner. We recognize how much effort it can take to redirect our minds away from panic.
We’re ferociously protective of each other, and I hope we always will be. That deliberate love provides a buffer between our queer home and the unpredictable world outside of it. Love softens anxiety’s hold on both of us. It sees our queer selves as not just survivable but good.
My anxiety will always be part of me, just as I will always be queer. Grace is with me, though. She understands. Together, we keep each other steady.
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