it's complicated

How to Love Someone When You’re a Hypochondriac

Photo: J.V. Aranda

I was lying in the now-lukewarm bath, frantically rehearsing out loud what I hoped to be true: “I’m young and healthy. I’m not having a heart attack. I’m not dying.” My husband, Tim, sat on the edge of the bathtub. His kind eyes looked tired and his once empathetic tone was turning curt, obvious signs of his dimming patience. “I promise you, you’re fine,” he assured me. “You’re just having a panic attack.”

Tim’s reassurance made sense, logically — I did have anxiety — but his words did nothing to calm my explosive heartbeat and burning chest. Refilling the bathwater a third time, I weighed my options. Which story would I believe, the one born from my childhood wounds, or from my husband’s love? I could stay up all night alone, counting my breaths and waiting for certain doom. Or, I could ask Tim to stay up all night with me.

Growing up with a chronically ill, opioid-addicted mother, I had a front-row seat to the way one spouse’s constant demands can drain a marriage. Midnight trips to the local emergency room and weekend plans spoiled by sudden sickness weathered my dad, who struggled to balance his frequent work travel with my mom’s ever-expanding set of needs. Eventually, they separated — but my mom died suddenly weeks before the divorce was final, leaving my dad with thousands of dollars of medical bills. Still, what I carried with me from childhood wasn’t wisdom about a balanced relationship; it was fear about my own health. What if my body was weak, just like my mom’s was? And what if I never found someone to take care of me?

A year after my mom’s death, I did find someone: a patient, steadfast man who, on a sweaty July afternoon in our friends’ backyard, promised to love me in sickness and in health. Whether I was stuck in bed with a migraine or fending off a panic attack in the bathtub, I never doubted that Tim would take care of me if I asked him to. The problem was, I didn’t know how to stop asking.

“I want to go to the hospital,” I told Tim as I dried myself off. “I won’t be able to sleep until someone other than you tells me I’m okay.” This would be our second anxiety-fueled ER trip in a week, and I could tell my husband was tired. But in the moment — and by this time, for many moments — my perception of safety mattered more to me than his needs. So Tim cleared the snow off the car drove me ten miles an hour through icy downtown to the county hospital, where a resident told me I had acid reflux and anxiety. I probably slept three hours that night, but at least I knew I wasn’t dying.

I spent a few months like this, tired but vigilant, pushing Tim’s needs out of view so mine could take center stage. Without question, he drove me to therapy every week and wasted entire afternoons attempting to convince me I didn’t have the obscure condition I had read about on WebMD. He would come home early from work when I had panic attacks, or pick me up at a friend’s house at 10 p.m. when I was too anxious to drive myself. He never said no to the emergencies I created, and he never complained. But I feared his exhaustion would morph into resentment, that he would become like my dad and leave me — or that, even more terrifying, I was becoming my mom.

By the time Valentine’s Day arrived, I silently hoped Tim was planning something extravagant, a blatant gesture of love to make up for my difficult few months of anxiety. He came home from work that day empty-handed, totally unaware of my expectations and even more surprised at my disappointment.  “Why don’t you ever do anything special for me?” I asked him, exploding into sobs.

“When would I have time to get you a gift or plan a date? I’m literally always with you.”

He was right: He had, for three months, exhausted his emotional and physical energy in keeping me afloat. Tim wasn’t just like my dad. But he wasn’t exactly like my husband, either. I knew I couldn’t have it both ways: If I wanted Tim as a husband — if I wanted date nights and Valentine’s day bouquets and romantic, mid-day texts — I had to let go of him as a parent. I had to learn how to see and prioritize his needs.

A year after that late-night hospital visit, Tim and I walked to our neighborhood coffee shop. Our first baby, unplanned but welcomed, was on the way, another set of demands in our home. The first trimester and all the physical changes that had come with it reactivated my health anxiety and my knee-jerk need for Tim to take care of me. He was strong; I was weak. He was the giver; I was the taker. We’d played these roles for our four years of marriage, and we agreed that to be the parents we wanted to be, to be the people we wanted to be, we desperately needed a sense of balance. Tim needed more time to himself, and I needed to learn how to appraise and manage my fears — but more than that, I needed to see that I could do it without him.

Our son Oliver was born six weeks later in a birth free of major complications. While my smooth pregnancy and birth reinforced the possibility of my own strength, post-delivery blood loss left me breathless and on edge. I teetered in those early weeks of motherhood between elation and anxiety, simultaneously in awe and afraid of the responsibility of motherhood. Now I had two bodies to manage: mine and my son’s.

On one of our first nights home from the hospital, I got in the bath to stave off a panic attack, convinced I was having a pulmonary embolism. Dizzy with panic, I Googled my symptoms, then instinctively called for Tim, who responded only by snoring from the next room.

I weighed my options. Which story would I believe? I could create an emergency and ask Tim to stay up. Or I could let him sleep, and be alone with the body I was afraid of. I took the deepest breath I could, turned my phone off, and got in bed next to my husband. Because we promised to love one another in the possibility of sickness, yes — but also in the possibility of health.

How to Love Someone When You’re a Hypochondriac