Yesterday I woke up at 5:35 AM, leaving plenty of time before work to shower, let my curls air dry, and make sure my dog did her business. I was getting ready for this small networking event for a week or so and I wanted to make sure I looked fresh by the end of the day even in the extreme humidity.
By the afternoon I was feeling anxious. I got an iced coffee, working against my better judgement, and noticed my scattering thoughts and general sense of doom. I wrote a blog post on break at work, felt a little better, did some research on the people going to the event and triple checked the address.
4:50 PM I touched up my makeup in the bathroom and put my contacts in. I blotted my face and meticulously dusted powder on my sweaty forehead and added an extra layer of mascara and lipstick. I started to feel even more on edge.
5:15 PM I was already nearby my destination and sat down in the park. The event didn’t start for another 2 hours and the lazy summer atmosphere of ice-cream-eating tourists and people walking their dogs did little to soothe my nerves. I started to feel hot. The podcast playing in my ears began to sound like gibberish as I stared at a pair of squirrels scurrying down up a tree. My sweaty palms gripped my phone and pulled my handbag closer on my lap.
My breath quickened and I started to feel like I was floating. My heart was beating like a mouse’s but somehow my mind still seemed oddly blank. I wasn’t thinking rationally about the event I was supposedly waiting for, I just felt lost in a sea of uncomfortable sensations. I stopped the podcast and sent a text to my girlfriend. I told her I felt panicked. She told me to try to relax and that maybe this was just my body’s way of telling me I shouldn’t go. I wasn’t sure.
I gathered my strength and shakily got to my feet. I walked the short 5 minutes to the venue and stared inside. It was another hour and a half still before the event started. I saw my reflection in the window. The sweat on my forehead seemed magnified and my growing mass of, curl-turned-frizz, shoulder length hair started to feel like an uncomfortable wool sweater on my head. I looked at the people eating bar food and talking. My knees felt like jell-o. Maybe I could walk around for a few more minutes and go inside. I could sit at the bar alone, right? That’s not weird, right?
I walked up a block and saw Trader Joe’s was there. Fuck it. I needed frozen dinners for the week and I rarely got to shop there anymore since starting to work uptown. Once I had made the concrete decision to bail the relief was instant. I turned my podcast back on and filled my basket with enough frozen saag paneer to last me at least until next payday.
Once I got on the train with my heavy bags I noticed it was 7. The event was starting. I felt drenched in sweat and tied my hair up. Maybe this was better? I still did something productive, right? Besides, I looked like garbage so I wouldn’t want to make career connections looking like this. Rationalization at its finest.
The act of waiting is what kills me. Had I been able to immediately head to the bar I might have been able to stomach “socializing” for at least a few minutes. Something about my body having that moment of rest after a full day of high alert seemed to shut me down entirely. Once I got home I felt weak, almost faint, even in the comfort of my apartment. My muscles felt like I had just gotten done with an intense workout. It’s remarkable the toll that mental energy puts on the body. Even with this realization the creeping voice in my head telling me I was a loser for giving up started to pick at my mind.
It’s a hopeless state of being when your subconscious totally shuts down your body. I can’t imagine how awful true panic attacks feel, the kind where you can’t even stand or feel like you’re having a heart attack. It’s situations like this that make me question my progress in my mental health. I suppose that I don’t have much to compare these uncomfortable feelings to since before I simply avoided any situation where my anxiety might be triggered. Now I have enough confidence to try and face those fearful situations…but I’m not at the finish line yet.
I can’t help but be hard on myself when it comes to progressing in my career. I’m told that I’m part of the “hustle generation.” I’m told that I’m supposed to be innately good at connecting and Tweeting my way to the top. Most social interactions whether in person or online still cause me enough discomfort to want to avoid them entirely. Most of the time I try and find any way possible to sell myself in writing instead of in person. Sometime that works, sometimes it’s not enough. There will always be seemingly benign distractions I can engage in to avoid tackling difficult issues, but I know these actions are like putting a band-aid on a years old festering wound.
It’s hard to describe or even admit to myself that I have this visceral psychical reaction to mental stress when so many people view anxiety and other disorders like it as character flaws rather than serious illnesses. Today, as I eat my newly purchased wasabi trail mix at my desk, my mind is calmer. I’m in a familiar in this controlled environment…at a job I don’t particularity love but one that is comfortable. I can’t help but feel like a failure. Who knows, maybe I would have made some great connection last night, or maybe not. Here I am breaking down the nuances of my own socially-induced panic using a seemingly endless supply of words, the same words I could have used last night to sell myself to potential employers. I can think of plenty of reasons why I need to work on this part of myself to succeed but I’m allowing myself to take some small comfort in the fact that I’m confident enough to express myself in at least one way. Maybe I didn’t get to hand out business cards and fake laugh at other people’s jokes over a glass of overpriced Pinot Grigio…but I bought some groceries and wrote this post. I’m still working on accepting that these tiny steps are good enough for now.