The Surprising Way A Breakup Helped My Depression & Anxiety

Photographed by Rochelle Brock.
I’ve had obsessive compulsive disorder since I was a small child. I obsessed about eating off of a certain plate and drinking out of a cup decorated in Little Mermaid cartoons. I fought to say my prayers perfectly, every night, in a certain order, and spent nights wide awake replaying a song on repeat in my head. All because my brain told me to — and if I didn’t do it, I thought that something catastrophic would happen; someone I loved would die, or I’d never get into college.
My first experience with depression was at age 12, when my family moved to a new state. I had no control over this place, the people, or, it seemed, my life. Yes, as a preteen I was concerned with maintaining “order.” Seems impossible to fathom looking back at it, but the accompanying fear and sadness was very real. Despite my struggles, I never actually sought help until an abusive relationship ended in college.
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The termination of this relationship, and the accompanying damage it had inflicted, was the ultimate loss of control. And I’d while I’d always had OCD and depression, it wasn’t until the relationship ended that I noticed just how bad my anxiety had become, and realised I needed to see a psychiatrist, who officially diagnosed me.
Over the last four years, thanks to regular therapy and proper medication, my anxiety and depression have improved tremendously, but if there’s one thing that still has the power to send me into a tailspin, it’s dating. I don’t think anyone really loves dating — especially those of us who live in New York — but for me, it’s even more of a shitshow, thanks to my OCD telling me I need to be in complete control of every situation I’m in.
Because I need control, I get into the habit of putting so much pressure on myself throughout my relationships to make things perfect. I put so much effort into making things work and always ensuring the other person is happy, that I forget to make sure I am happy. I give and give in my mission to perfect, so much so that when the relationship ends, I have nothing left — I’m hollow.
I didn’t recognise this pattern, though, until my last pseudo-relationship ended. I had been seeing someone regularly, and we had been in near-constant communication for over a month and a half. He had stayed over at my apartment, something I consider very personal, and I started to let my guard down around him. For me and my anxiety, that meant investing in him — and subsequently trying to maintain control over the situation to protect my investment.
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Maintaining total control isn’t possible in any relationship, and certainly not in this one, which became clear when he told me that he had been on a date with someone else. We weren’t exclusive, but it sucked. I had done everything “right” — I’d tried everything to make him like me, to make him happy, and yet, the situation was utterly and completely out of my control. I could feel the deep, dark vortex of depression bubbling up in my throat and nestling into a familiar corner of my brain.
The thing about my depression and anxiety is that, when something triggers them, regardless of how small or large the trigger actually is, my brain rings an alarm. Panic rushes over me in waves, taking over my body, building on top of each other, until I feel like I’m drowning. Hopelessness invades my brain in a way that’s almost impossible to explain and exhausting to fight.
Frustratingly, I knew my panic was a reaction to someone else’s choices — which, of course, I never had any control over. And I knew that these thoughts were unproductive and a product of a part of my brain that wasn’t “me,” but I still couldn’t shake them.
The day after he told me about the other person he’d gone on a date with, I left work early, crawled into my bed, and cried. The panic still shot through my body in thunderbolts, reverberating through my limbs. I tried to breathe, tried to stop it, but it was useless. And as I lay there, thinking about how much this non-relationship relationship had messed me up, I realised that this was a pattern. I’d spent most of my adult life trying to make everyone else happy — friends, family, coworkers, partners — banking on absorbing their happiness via osmosis. And whenever someone wasn’t happy, I immediately blamed myself for not being able to control their emotional state. It sounds wacky, but it’s my brain’s default setting.
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And as I sat in my bed, and began to round the corner from sad to angry, I realized that I was expecting something that was completely and utterly impossible. I can’t control other people’s actions or their emotions. I only have agency over myself and my decisions. And falling short of perfection isn’t “failing,” because perfection is bullshit. Life, and relationships especially, are clunky.
These thoughts didn’t magically transform my life, but they did start to shift the way I related to my OCD and depression. The idea that I cannot force someone to be happy, especially in a romantic relationship, has helped me halt the obsessive cycles in my head. Realising I am only responsible for my actions, and not the reactions or choices of others, has helped minimise the vortex of my depression.
I know my anxiety will never go away — those thought patterns and tendencies will always be there — but freeing myself from the weight of perfection prevents me from falling deeper into its spiral. And right now, that’s good enough for me.
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