howie & shelley before anxiety

When I first met Howie I was 19. I was drawn to his quirky, vintage style (thrift store shopping was a shared love), his inventiveness and passion as an artist, and his humor – which in the last 16 years has never failed to make us completely crack up at least once a day. That’s like 6,000 days of laughter – I mean that’s awesome. He was cool smart, like an encyclopedia of cultural knowledge. He was passionate and uncompromising. Here was a guy that both enjoyed the same things I did and expanded my experience into a whole new world of comics and con-culture that I had never been part of.

I was head over heels, except for one thing.

The dark side of that fiery passion meant high emotions when he wasn’t able to accomplish what he wanted, get (deserved) recognition or when something bad happened. Not like throwing a hissy fit. True, deeply felt pain surfaced in moments that should be felt, but then overcome. It was like he couldn’t let go of anything—big or small—that bothered him. This manifested to me (a really positive, optimistic personality) as feeling intensely negative.

I didn’t know what to do.

Was this something that could be mended over time? Did I want to invest that time? Over the next six months, I basically tested him .. horribly … now that I look back on it. I judged him. Pulled away while he pushed closer. Admonished him for silly things. Thought about studying abroad. All while at the same time laughing with him, enjoying hangout time, working on art assignments and having a blast. See what I mean? Really eff’d up. But he hung in there. Some crazy cosmic chemical force was telling him I was the one. You’ll have to ask him why.

For a long time I struggled with the persistent unforgiving, and spontaneous explosive nature of Howie’s mind. He remembers everything, but really focuses on the negative. For example, we’d have a wonderful day in the city and on the way home a random pen flew out of an apartment window and bounced on his head. No injury or anything. But that ruined the night. It was an affront to his being. Suddenly he was a target for some kind of ill-fated forces in the universe.

And to make it harder, he was always super sensitive to any indication of self wrong-doing. Which basically meant I couldn’t talk to him about anything because he immediately blamed himself, which turned to anger at feelings of failure.

It was like walking on egg shells. I had no idea when something I said or did would cause him to flip out or get depressed. It became a game of how much can I change to fit the mold he needed to ensure peace. Completely stupid in hindsight, but when you’re in the moment you can’t always see the bigger picture. I just wanted him to be happy and I wanted to help him, support him, be the positive force he needed. Instead, he swallowed me whole.

This was before we had a name, or a reason, or any kind of real perspective on why he felt the way he did.

I’d say we both hit rock bottom in 2010. I was clearly not able to “save” him, as my altruistic, motherly healer instincts had convinced me I could. He was clearly unable to pull himself out of the darkness. I’d cry myself to sleep at night and really started to wonder why I was sticking around. I wasn’t helping, in fact maybe I was making it worse. And I felt like I’d lost myself. I wasn’t who I wanted to be. I was irritable, depressed and mean. I hated who I’d become.

One night, a comment from one of Howie’s (now ex) co-worker pushed him over the edge. He completely lost his mind. It was really quite scary. It was my breaking point too. I was fed up and not compassionate at all of his horribly broken, sad state. I told him that’s it, you’re seeing someone. He knew how bad it was. He agreed.

That’s when we first discovered anxiety as a mental illness.

The doctor gave Howie’s varied, irrational mental state an identity. And over time, it has changed everything. He learned methods to cope, meditations to get through the bad times, medications to help maintain.

At first there was a drastic improvement. I think maybe Howie was so very relieved to find out it wasn’t all his fault, that there was actually an explanation for why he processed information the way he did, that for the first time a heavy weight had been lifted. It was beautiful.

Now, we’re talking about a mental illness. So the brain actually functions differently, and while the initial period was quite lovely and carefree, it didn’t last forever. Because the truth is, when you have an illness like this, you are always going to have to fight being dragged back into the darkness. Like a cancer of the mind, you’re own consciousness is working against you. I can’t imagine how tiring it is. The few moments of real anxiety I’ve felt were terrifying and literally made me sick to my stomach. I cannot fathom feeling that way most or all of the time.

Since Howie’s diagnosis, I think we’ve managed better. And we’ve managed better together. For me that’s an important distinction. I’ve stopped trying to change him and myself. I’ve stopped worrying about how he’ll react to everything. And while I do still hold back some things because I know it will worry him unnecessarily or cause an overly negative reaction, I don’t hold back when who I am is at stake. I’m honest, open and (mostly) patient. C’mon, everyone has their limits. But I’ve also learned that I don’t have to fix him or intercede with everything. Sometimes I just need to give him some space to get through it. He can come to me when he’s ready or wants help.

No one’s perfect. That’s just the freaking truth. But when you love someone, and they’re you best friend, father to your (pug) children – hey, they totally count – you figure it out. We have THE BEST time together. We’re both total type-As and crazy strong personalities but somehow we’ve found a little balance in the universe. When I’m experiencing something without him I feel like a little piece of me is missing. So to me, he’s worth fighting for. Us is worth fighting for.

No matter how hard his anxiety is pulling him back, he’s always fighting to stay creative and create amazing art.

This year, he’s bravely put his story to paper in Float, his latest project that includes both a graphic novel and accompanying soundtrack. He’s speaking out about anxiety and depression to tell a story that MUST be told. As he’s worked on the book, it’s made new connections with other artists, deepened relationships with friends and family and has even helped him to discover much, much more about his own reactions and ways to better cope. The self-reflection it’s required has not been easy, but it has been a true gift and has helped him immensely. I’m so glad he’s telling his story in this amazing, creative way.

Because now that we know it’s anxiety, we want anyone wandering in the dark trying to find their way out to know it too.

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