Shut Up, Brain is a column by Jill Gutowitz in which she looks at everything from pop culture phenomena to the quirks of interpersonal relationships through the lens of someone who lives with anxiety.
My 2019 mantra is "Say the Thing." As a person who spends every day enduring unfaltering anxiety, I've always had trouble communicating. If small stuff like deciding what to eat for lunch is nearly unmanageable, you can imagine what having a sensitive conversation might feel like. I'm barely capable of asking for what I need, or expressing how I feel in the most mundane of interactions, so naturally dating is particularly delicate and fraught—especially in the beginning.
The fear I have surrounding intimate communication is mostly due to the laundry list of "what ifs." What if being upfront pushes them away? What if they think I'm being crazy? What if I am being crazy? But I wanted to work through these anxieties, and try to get control of them. So, when 2019 rolled around, I promised myself that I would start speaking up for myself more—in business, with my family, and in my relationships.
When you suffer from persistent anxiety, it's important to acknowledge and celebrate the little wins when they come. That's what I want to do today: Celebrate one of my big little wins. Last week, I told a girl I had a crush on her for the very first time. That sounds so cowardly and adolescent, but trust me when I say that, as a person who barely communicates, it was one of the scariest and most rewarding things I've ever done. And here's the most bonkers part: It actually relieved my anxiety. Yes, reader. I did something brave that actually improved my mental health.
Let me rewind. Recently, I found myself lodged in one of those ambiguous we're-friends-but-we're-definitely-flirting queer girl paradoxes with another woman. Queer women know what I'm talking about and how it's specific to WLW relationships, but every person has probably experienced some degree of the following: We were at a concert together, bopping to gaudy pop music, squinting under neon strobes, shouting in each other's ears over the loud room. She stood behind me on the sticky dancefloor. I turned my head just a notch, and saw her jaw in my peripheral, so close I could feel energy radiating off her. She touched my lower back, leaned her chin over my shoulder, and whispered in my ear, "Let's go," before grabbing my hand and pulling me through the crowd, closer to the stage. My heart fluttered. The night was lurid and flirty and magical and tingly and vibrant. I got home in the middle of the night and stared at my ceiling, running a highlight reel of the night through my head like a crazed teenager.
But then I started questioning everything. I wondered if I had misinterpreted it all—was that lower back touch just friendly? Isn't holding hands while you pull someone through a crowd just what you do when you're in a crowd? My brain told me that I wasn't reading the signs, I was actually willfully ignoring them. Maybe I had made up an entire relationship in my head. The night—once crisp and wonderful and brimming with possibility in the way only a new crush can make you feel—ended with crushing anxiety. I thought, Jill, if you tell her how you feel, you will not only suffer a romantic humiliation worse than anything written in the Meet the Parents franchise, but you'll spoil any kind of relationship you might want to have with this person in the future. You know, cool, normal dating stuff!
I've been here dozens of times. My longest relationship was just under a year (and I'm very self-conscious about this). My romantic life has been defined by short-lived bursts of passion between me and another woman that ultimately collapsed right when I was deciding if I should let myself get excited about it. I've gotten comfortable with being pursued rather than taking a leap of faith and putting myself out there.
I can't say for sure if my inability to express myself is the sole reason for these romantic failures, but I know it's something that makes me feel gutless, and something I really want to work on. So, that's where my 2019 mantra stems from: I decided that if I was going to keep mowing through miniature emotional traumas like a deadly tornado, then I would at least treat each one as a practice round: Every short-lived burst could be an opportunity to put communication into practice. Easier said than done, of course.
Over the years, my anxious brain has created an intricate, unnavigable, labyrinthine network of walls that have prevented me from saying how I feel. My feelings are scratching at the barriers like a cat helplessly trying to open a closed door, with no actual hope of escaping. I get so worked up about communication because I don't want it to lead to a confrontation, which is worse. Then I end up ranking the urgency of the situation in my head: Is this specific issue worth the stress of a possible confrontation? And what's worse? The stress of keeping this to myself and stewing about it, which only I have to deal with? Or, the stress of the confrontation, which makes me and another person uncomfortable, and will probably be so terrifying that I'll black out?
But as we know—because every psychologist, therapist, life coach, and guru under the sun has repeated it in some variation—communication is the key to a healthy relationship. If I have any shot of forming real, honest, lasting bonds with a romantic partner, I need to start saying these things out loud and communicating my fears instead of continuing to internalize them. Basically: Say the thing.
Which brings me to last week, a couple of months after that fateful concert. I asked the woman in question on a date—well, I asked her if she wanted to do something "just you and me," which I thought was forward as hell. The date was really nice, and the magical tingly feelings were there, but I hate dates. The formality of it all makes me feel anxious and trapped. I don't want to sit at a table where I feel anxious and trapped; eat a meal, that will probably make my stomach hurt because I feel anxious and trapped; which will, in turn, make me feel… anxious and trapped. And all this is supposed to be fun? How am I supposed to focus on spending time with a person I like while squirming at a table with a meal I don't want in a room that's closing in on me? So, regardless of how date-like I thought it was, I was worked up the whole night, and as a result, went home and spiraled again about whether or not she thought it was a date. Why am I like this?
So, I went apocalyptic—the burn-it-down mentality—and decided I had nothing to lose. It was the scorched earth tell-your-crush-you-love-her approach. I spiral-drafted a text, stared at it unblinking and catatonic for who knows how long—two minutes? A week? Have I been here for a full year? Am I stuck in a Russian Doll time loop and am going to just keep waking up right before sending the text? Either way, when I came to, I had courageously slammed "send" on a text that read, "I had fun. I have a giant crush on you."
Now, there are levels to anxiety. There's the baseline intensity, the kind that whispers in the back of my skull all day, at times paralyzing me in my car or in my bed or on the couch. Then there's DEFCON 1, fight-or-flight, panic mode. From the moment I had the idea to send the text, to the moment she responded to the text, I was at DEFCON 1. When I sent it, I stood up—not because I wanted to—but because adrenaline shot through my body like rocket fuel. Picture me, in full-on rigor mortis mode, falling over like a stunned Looney Toon. I was sure that I had made a fatal mistake and was ready to spend the rest of my life punishing myself for it.
And then she responded. I heard my phone "ding" from the other room and burst through the wall like the Kool-Aid Man, desperate to read my fate. What happened next was shocking: We had a really open and honest conversation about our feelings, and what level of emotional intimacy both of us are capable of giving right now. Wild! Luckily, she felt the same way about me—but even if she had been like, "Fuck you" and torn up my "to me you are perfect" poster—I would've felt exactly how I did in that moment: relieved.
I was so proud of myself for saying the thing, for releasing what I've kept a secret from so many people in the past (and eternally regretted). I felt release. My emotion wasn't just mine anymore—it was out there, being heard, being smiled at, being responded to. Relief had washed over me like a cool ocean breeze. As it turned out, I didn't just want her to have a crush on me too, I also wanted an answer. Instead of internalizing this, frantically texting my friends to ask for advice, or looking back on this moment—where I could've been silent—with a swell of regret, I now carried a sense of pride. Ninety percent of the ache of dating is just wondering where you stand with someone—what a marvelous solution, to just ask them. How has no one thought of this? (They have).
There's no shame in being turned down. I was so fearful of suffering another romantic humiliation that I almost prevented myself from having something good. In hindsight, the anxiety I had over the ambiguity of this relationship, and not being upfront, was actually infinitely worse than just saying what I wanted to say. Admittedly, doing so took a lot out of me. But that's why I needed to do it—I have to start somewhere, and I have to practice communicating.
My evergreen mental health goal is to keep finding new ways to allay my anxiety. Sometimes it's going on a really good run to old Jonas Brothers songs (which may or may not have happened this week). Sometimes it's breathing exercises. Recently, I discovered it could be as simple as opening up. Go tell your crush how you feel. Wouldn't you rather know? Or, wouldn't you rather be proud of yourself for Saying the Thing?