When I woke up yesterday, I found I was sharing my bed with a little beetle that was crawling around just a few inches from my nose. Ordinarily, I would have immediately screamed and jumped out of bed, then run from the room. Instead, I surprised myself by examining the thing curiously for a few seconds before flicking it – with bare fingers! – off the sheet and onto the floor somewhere. I fell back asleep moments later, unfazed. When I awoke again, the bug was gone, and I had forgotten about the whole encounter.
At no point did my heart rate double. I didn’t panic, or shout, or run. I just casually dealt with the beetle as a mild, momentary nuisance, not worthy of ruining my whole day. And it didn’t: when I went to bed last night, I didn’t have to search for the bug to ensure it was dead before I could safely fall asleep (because insects are scary to look at, but they’re even scarier when you can’t see them). The chances that it would crawl on my face in the middle of the night – one of my worst fears – were low, so I didn’t dwell on them. I felt safe.
The concept of emotional safety is one that I believe isn’t discussed enough in the context of mental health. I’ve spent my whole life trying to recover from borderline personality disorder, and though I’ve run the gamut of medications, therapies, and shock treatments, I’ve had to discover on my own that feeling unsafe in the world is a core component of my illness.
Which isn’t to say that my physical security is constantly threatened. In fact, it’s just the opposite: I tend to feel unsafe even when I’m not in harm’s way. That’s the key difference between normal fear and an anxiety disorder: anxiety is based on danger that either doesn’t exist, or is blown way out of proportion. I have anxiety, which is why my emotional safety doesn’t give a damn if beetles don’t realistically go crawling in people’s ears while they sleep. I can spend all night telling myself to calm down, but it won’t do a thing to stop my panic. I’m still going to toss and turn on the couch until morning.
Or, that’s what I would have done, until recently. Why didn’t I freak out when I found an insect inches from my face yesterday? Has my bug phobia gone into spontaneous remission? Has my logical brain finally won the day and convinced my fear instincts to just chill out for once?
I highly doubt that’s the case. Intense phobias like mine don’t tend to up and disappear for no reason. Instead, I think my calm reaction to the little beetle was due to much larger and more complex feelings of safety I’ve been having this summer.
I recently entered into a gorgeous relationship with an equally gorgeous person who makes me feel secure. Unlike previous partners I’ve had, he demonstrates that I can count on him to follow through with his commitments. When he leaves the room and says he’ll come right back, he comes right back. When he says he’ll call at the top of the hour, he’s perfectly punctual. When he tells me he loves me, he shows me what that means by doing the dishes and respecting my boundaries and hugging me constantly, among myriad other things. Because of him, I’m learning that love is something that’s performed, not just spoken. His actions continuously hardwire me to believe that I can count on him. The level of trust that we’ve developed in a short time has made me feel safer in the world.
It’s much easier to explore things that used to scare me when I know my partner will catch me if I fall. I feel empowered to challenge the beliefs that my various anxieties have fed me for years: that my apartment is the only place on the planet that’s safe, that other people are always judging my thoughts, that fear itself can kill me. Those insecurities aren’t gone forever; they still whisper to me every day. But when I’m around my safe and reliable partner, anxiety can’t echo as loudly in my mind. He fills the spaces where those fears used to sit and rot, and now they have less space to burrow into me.
On the surface, it seems strange that finding a stable boyfriend could do so much to treat a seemingly unrelated bug phobia that has plagued me tirelessly for years. But when he and I sit on a bench at the local art festival, I can focus on enjoying my hand-squeezed lemonade rather than flinching every time a butterfly lands ten feet away. Fear isn’t my priority when he’s around. Instead, I feel safe, and able to enjoy the colors of the flowers rather than run from the bugs that live among them.