Runaway Wedding Guest: When Social Anxiety Attacks
A few months after we started dating, Andy took me to a wedding. A dozen or so people there were friends of his I’d met before, but I didn’t know anyone well. Andy was officiating, so I was kind of on my own before and during the ceremony. And it felt all right. I was the new girl. That’s just how it is when you start dating someone; feeling out of place in their group of friends is normal.
What’s not normal is how out of place I felt at this month’s wedding for another couple in the same circle of friends who I have now known for nearly 4 years.
It started out okay
I’ve attended dozens of get-togethers with this group of people – parties, showers, weddings, you name it. But at the wedding just a couple of weeks ago, much of the time I felt so uncomfortable that it took everything in me to stay.
It started out okay, as Andy and I milled around chatting with people before the ceremony.
We talked about writing and artwork, next month’s wedding and babies, treasure hunting and the real treasure – Andy’s new autoimmune treatment.
Through it all, I was just my usual anxious self – asking too many questions, struggling with anything more to say than “Good, ya know, the usual,” and wondering if everyone else could smell that I’d used too much hairspray.
I could also feel myself fading, wondering how much longer I could keep this up.
The truth is, I’d felt down all day – a predictable sort of depression, I guess, that tends to come at the tail-end of a high-anxiety string of weeks like I’ve had the past couple of months. The day of the wedding, it took everything in me to shower, dress, and leave the house with a smile.
It was a welcome relief when we were told to take our seats. The ceremony was lovely and I was in the safest place in the world – beside Andy, his arm around me.
Once the ceremony was over, I was pleasantly surprised to be ushered into the dining room, another welcome relief as I thought we were going to get right to it: the food.
Except Andy and I were the only ones seated at our table.
And thus began the unraveling of me.
I couldn’t bring myself to get back up
At first it was nice, just the two of us chatting at the table. But as I looked around at everyone still milling around I realized, oh, we’re not quite to this part yet. Most people aren’t sitting yet because there was more socializing to be done.
And I just couldn’t.
Adrenaline got me through the first half of the event, but once I sat down at our table, I couldn’t bring myself to get back up. I didn’t tell Andy this, but maybe he knew. He stood back up to chat with his friends, but he stayed close.
This was a bittersweet moment for me. As much as I wished he were sitting beside me, I was happy to see Andy up and about having fun, one of too few social occasions he’s been able to enjoy since he got sick.
So I sucked it up and did my best to say hello to people from my seat, even going out of my way to stop people whom I hadn’t seen all night as they passed by our table. I even managed to stand up to hug and congratulate the bride and groom when they made their way around the room.
When people finally started taking their seats for dinner, a couple who we’re close to – in fact, the same couple whose wedding Andy officiated – tried sitting across from Andy and me but another couple had already saved those seats. I was bummed, but I couldn’t even bring myself to get up and move to available seats closer to the ones our friends ended up taking.
The thing of it was, I felt so detached from everyone that I doubted my ability to carry on dinner conversation with people I talk to all the time. They know about my social anxiety and would have understood if I’d explained how I was feeling. But when I’m in it, that last thing I want to do is call attention to it. I just want to disappear.
I was grateful to have food to shove in my mouth
I pretty much white-knuckled it until dinner was served. Only, it wasn’t served. It was buffet.
That’s right. I had to stand up, walk through the crowd, and stand in line. Fortunately, I found myself standing with a woman who is one of the easiest people to talk to I know. She also subscribes to the newsletter where I talk a lot about my social anxiety, so if I seemed weird in that moment, I knew it wouldn’t seem weird to her.
Back at the table, I was grateful to have food to shove in my mouth. I didn’t have to worry about talking to anyone on my left – I was at the end of the table; there was no one there. Andy was on my right, but he was catching up with the friend next to him. And across from me was a couple I barely knew who were pretty immersed in one another anyway.
But instead of feeling relieved that I could sit in silence, I only felt more self-conscious.
I accidentally made eye-contact with a woman I didn’t know half way down and across the table from me who wasn’t talking to anyone either. On a better day I would have struck up a conversation with her. Instead, I did my best to smile with food in my mouth and stared back down at my plate.
As dinner was wrapping up, Andy said he was stepping outside to have a cigarette. I wanted to go with him because I hated the thought of being left alone but didn’t want to ask, as it seemed like a guy thing, and I didn’t want to be any needier than I already felt.
Thankfully, it occurred to me to ask Andy for his phone (I’d left mine at home) so I could at least do the socially acceptable anti-social thing while he was gone. Only using his phone turned out to be more anxiety-inducing than relieving, as it didn’t have the apps I use and it stressed me out more trying to find the news I wanted or navigate social media without them. I stuck with it, but failed to get lost in it and just grew increasingly self-conscious.
No hiding in the bathroom for me
I didn’t feel like I could sit there another minute so, as much as I dreaded the prospect of running into someone on the way, I decided to go to the bathroom. I bee-lined it there, avoiding looking at faces for fear I would recognize someone I’d have to talk to. In the end, that didn’t work, but for the best possible reason.
As I turned the corner for the bathroom, I ran into Andy who was just walking back inside. I gave him his phone and he gave me a kiss. I told him I’d seen a cookie cart he should check out on his way back to the table. (We’re trying gluten-free, but it was a cheat night.)
I locked myself in the bathroom and breathed a sigh of relief…interrupted almost immediately by a jiggling of the door handle. Someone was waiting; I had to hurry. No hiding in the bathroom for me.
Getting back to the table was easier than leaving it. One, because I was preoccupied with the plate of cookies I was carrying. And two, I knew Andy would be at the table when I got back. Only he wasn’t. I spotted him easily enough, talking to people not too far away. But as much as I wanted to be with him, I couldn’t bring myself to join.
What if I had to speak? (Of course, I would have to speak.) What if I embarrassed myself? (Of course, I would embarrass myself.) What if I ran away screaming? (Of course, I would run away screaming.)
So I decided the best course of action was to sit down and eat my cookies.
At one point I saw Andy talking to a couple we know who I hadn’t spoken to all night. I felt I should go over and say hello but I just couldn’t. I was too afraid of what might happen when I got there. Hell, I was afraid of what might happen just continuing to breathe.
“Pretty fuckin’ shitty”
By the time Andy sat back down for the speeches, I was having trouble even talking to him. He asked how I was and I responded with an “Okay” that probably sounded more like “Pretty fuckin’ shitty.”
“Are you ready to leave soon?” he asked, to which I responded something like my standard, “If you are.”
The speeches were funny and touching but not nearly enough to pull me out of my head. Because I knew all too well what came next – getting up from the tables and doing one of two things, neither of which I could bear: talking or dancing.
Only then did I realize I what was happening to me – I was having an anxiety attack.
I’m used to high anxiety, but don’t usually classify what I’m experiencing as an anxiety attack because I don’t have the physical symptoms to go along with everything else. In this case, though, I felt pressure on my chest, my heart was racing, and it was hard to breathe. On top of that, I had the sense something bad was going to happen (even if was me doing it) and I was desperate to get out of there before it did.
Just when I thought I might implode if I had to be there a moment longer, Andy asked, “Do you want to start saying our goodbyes?”
On a normal night, finding and saying goodbye to a dozen or so people is the easiest part for me. It means hugs, short chats, and the light at the end of the tunnel – going home.
On this night, though, saying our goodbyes felt like a death sentence.
“I don’t think I can do the goodbyes tonight,” I said.
“No problem,” Andy said, or something equally wonderful.
He gave me some cash and the valet ticket and I made the final trek to the car, leaving him behind to say our goodbyes for us.
Desperate to get out of there
I did my best to avoid faces as I made my way through the crowd, but found myself making eye contact with another friend of ours who I’d seen over the course of the evening but hadn’t spoken to yet. We were too far away to talk, and we both seemed in a hurry, so I smiled, waved, and carried on.
The only problem was I didn’t wait to see him acknowledge my smile or wave which, in hindsight, I realized may have been so subtle and rushed that they were undetectable.
What if he thought I just looked at him without any acknowledgment at all? What’s worse is we were both headed in the same direction. So when I realized I was going the wrong way, I stopped short and sensed that I made him nearly spill his drinks. But I was so desperate to get out of there that I couldn’t even turn around to apologize.
Once outside, I had to make it past a couple of other women I know who thankfully were so engaged in conversation that I managed to pass unnoticed (at least that’s what I told myself).
I handed my ticket to the valet and breathed a sigh of relief. I was home free.
The night’s saving grace
A friend of ours was walking my way.
“Are you leaving?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. And he stopped for a hug. Only he ended up staying for a lot more than that – he stayed to talk. And there it was, my worst fear realized. Only…it wasn’t.
In the moment, and as it unfolded, this conversation turned out to be the night’s saving grace.
It was just the two of us talking, in the middle of an empty street. It was easy to breathe. It was easy to focus. It was easy to listen and respond thoughtfully.
I remembered I could have an intelligent conversation.
I remembered I like talking to people.
I remembered that, no matter how anxious I feel in any given moment, it always gets better. Not all the way and not all at once, but enough to remember the real me underneath.