Last December, on a beacon tower perched along The Great Wall of China, my boyfriend retrieved a velvet ring box from his daypack and proposed marriage. Delighted and crying, frigid mountain winds slicing across my ungloved left hand, I said “Yes” as a cluster of Vietnamese tourists behind us clapped excitedly and snapped iPhone photos.
Months before our Beijing trip I had half-joked to my now-fiancé about how epic it would be to get engaged on one of the architectural wonders of the world. Then he went and did it, and the moment was more stunning than I’d imagined. Better yet, being cut off from social media thanks to China’s digital censorship allowed us to celebrate privately, a few Skype messages exchanged only between close family and friends. For the next two weeks, we lost ourselves together meandering through the Tiananmen Square crowds, sailing through lush landscapes along the Yangtze River, and ending up dozens of stories high in the Shanghai air, drinking farewell martinis (me) and scotch (him) in a luxury hotel bar where a sequin gowned chanteuse sang at a grand piano. We toasted the pitch-perfect adventure for sparking a thrillingly foreign phase in our relationship, and flew home the following day.
Back in the States, the engagement news began spreading via word of mouth, texts, and Facebook relationship status updates—stopping short of Twitter and Instagram. But as the congratulations and love poured in, unease began bridal marching to the forefront of my mind. As someone with generalized anxiety disorder, tumbleweeds of worry and social angst were nothing new for me. What I never anticipated, however, was how the sensation of my private relationship suddenly put on public display could trigger a joy-sapping spiral of self-consciousness, fear, and panic. What if I can’t pull this whole wedding thing off? What if I’m not worthy of being the center of such sustained attention?
Every well-meaning question—“How’s wedding planning going? Have you gone dress shopping?”—sounded like a pop quiz evaluating my bridal fitness. “How big will it be?” and “Are you changing your last name?” translated to “How many friends do you have?” and “How much do you love him?” Anxiety has an uncanny way of not only reading between lines that aren’t there, but also engaging in imaginary debates: Will it be creative enough? Will guests get bored? Will they wonder why they received a wedding invitation in the first place? Will our DIY budget be too apparent? Will it look trashy, not classy? Which is more popular: cake or pie?
Quickly, my starring role switched from blushing bride to harried event manager, attempting to anticipate and manage everyone’s expectations but my own. Pinterest decor boards proved exhausting rather than inspirational. Ceremony discussions with my fiancé crumbled into chaos. Bridal magazines induced nervous nausea. How could I ever measure up to such blissful standards, I’d think, as the anxiety whirlpool whipped my mind into a frenzy. This was the proof, the inner critic would whisper, that my happiness is nothing more than a stopover to personal disaster.
In other words, no, this engagement hasn’t been the happiest time of my life. And what makes that even harder is how taboo it is to admit. I’m supposed to be over the moon and aching to talk about it always, much like we tend to treat pregnant women as jolly Buddhas whose bellies are ours for the petting. If instead I acknowledge the mental health war I’ve been waging, I run the risk of people assuming the problem lies with relationship flaws, not my brain wiring, past unresolved issues, or a backlog of career-related stress. Not to mention the conversational discomfort such talk can trigger. So for that reason, I’ve typically nodded and smiled as best I could.
It’s often reminded me of an episode of Sex & the City—where the main character, Carrie, goes shopping, and ends up in a bridal boutique trying on unflattering gowns for a laugh. Then upon seeing herself engulfed in white satin, a panic attack strikes, signaling to the viewers that Carrie’s future with her woodworker boyfriend is doomed.
Indeed, TV and film love portraying negative mental health episodes as shorthand for relationships hitting the skids. But in reality, depression doesn’t give a shit about our romantic milestones, or the authenticity of our commitment. Even true love can’t troubleshoot downward spirals and brief collapses that come along with recurrent anxiety. Counter to our preferred nuptial narratives, the two sometimes—and probably far more often that polite company will acknowledge—coexist.
And here’s the radical notion that’s offered immeasurable comfort: that’s okay. That I come with complications doesn’t mean I’m defective or broken inventory. That predisposed panic surfaced in correlation with a major life transition doesn’t cancel out my care and value to my forthcoming marriage. That it’s been an anxious engagement doesn’t suggest I should call the whole thing off.
In the past six months I’ve spent as much time (okay, more) in therapy unpacking the layers of this unwieldy mental load and learning how to better manage it and care for myself, as I have pouring over seating charts and centerpieces. And in the process, my sometimes weepy approach to wedding planning has shifted to envisioning a grand celebration of the earnest effort that’s gotten us this far, from the mountains of northeastern China and back. Or put another way, rather than drowning in the tidal wave, I’m learning to swim with the current for the very first time.
When I put on the custom confection I’ll wear on my wedding day, like Carrie Bradshaw, I fell short of breath. The pure joy that I felt on The Great Wall washed over me again after months of being muffled by my unhinged mind. And in that moment, I could see where all my concerted flailing and doggy-paddling was ultimately leading: not out to the depths alone, but toward my fiancé’s outstretched arms, ready to guide me safely to shore.