“Through the Looking Glass”
I went to a wedding over the past weekend. It was the first wedding I’ve been to since my own and I found myself watching much of everything from the outside. The trip up and the day of exploring the historical sites of Philly were an incredible amount of fun. Jack, our friend Phil, and I had all piled into a car the day before and driven there, as is our fashion.
I was excited to see the couple and a few of other friends that I hadn’t seen Bonnaroo. Jessie and Gina were in wedding mode the whole time and didn’t get to see much of them, nor the maid of honor, Ashley, with whom I had bonded with at the festival. I was really hoping to get to spend time with her and Gina but having been a bride myself a few months ago I understood. The boys had way more fun planned anyway. We poured as many people as we could into our rental and an Uber for a trip into Philadelphia to run the “Rocky Steps” and eat cheesesteaks. We stopped at the Rocky steps, more appropriately known as the Philadelphia Museum of Art where we made sure to snap a quick picture with the bronzed Balboa. A homeless man offered to take the picture and I assumed we were consenting with the idea that in the group of ten of us, at least one of us was going to give him a dollar.
I certainly had no cash on me, never carry the filthy stuff, but I figured we must all be wise to this man’s gambit and someone would fork over the cash. We finished and he gave us his speech about not having a job and this is how he earns his money and we gave our best “sorry we have none” as we walked away. I felt ashamed, powerless, aghast. Why, if we weren’t going to tip then why didn’t we just get somebody else to take the picture? Why didn’t we tell the man ahead of time so he could make the choice to do take the picture because it was a nice thing to do? I began to feel the eyes of the other homeless men around glaring at us. I started to debate the greater social-economic problems that stem from and cause homelessness and tried to find out where we were in the spectrum. Were we the people that helped by not giving them money, thus discouraging them from the practice of begging or are we hurting because here is a man trying to do whatever work he could just to get by, probably had been there since well before day break to claim his spot and we’ve insulted him by not sparing the dollar he expected from us? Should I try to propose a campaign back home to help alleviate the issues of the homeless by essentially hiring them for city and state park work that is typically understaffed and, though low paying, steady and consistent, combined with financial assistance and training to get them back on their feet? Would people resist the idea of bum attendants working in the city’s parks or historical attractions? Would it have to raise taxes? I thought about all of this in the minute it took to walk from the statue to the staircase.
That is how fast and deep my still waters run.
We ran up the infamous stairs and paused for a moment, watching all the other groups as they ran up the stairs and laughed at the novelty of it while getting in the way of the people who actually live there and actually use the stairs for training every day. I sat, observing the scene, casting my gaze out down the steps, across the street, and to the victorious fountain Washington on his horse. I sat, contemplating the American Folly, to think we could escape imperialism and tyranny simply by moving. A couple moved closer, looking out to that noble statue. That’s when I heard him say to her one of the most unintentionally pompous thing that rather accidentally illustrated my point. “You’d think they’d have the statue facing the other way!” I audibly laughed. I wanted to stand up and explain that you do not orient the monument of the conquering general to the people in the palace; you have it facing those approaching. You have it facing the people who spend an hour walking towards it, taking in all the might and glory of this mighty commander, standing triumphant over the defeated lands and people below him. Then I thought about it and he was right, it was pretty funny when you think that those of us in the palace are just stuck staring at a horse’s ass the whole time.
That night was the rehearsal dinner. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was about to freak the fuck out. The night of the first rehearsal dinner was a bit chaotic for me. Here I am in a dark room with a bunch of strangers, I’m hungry, I’m uncomfortable, and there is a table full of food and I don’t know what the rules for the food are. Can I just take a few chips or do we have to wait for the bride? I’m one of the least connected people; surely, I shouldn’t be the first to take food, that would look rude. However, I am starving and maybe everyone is just waiting for someone to be first. To be honest, I didn’t know what any of the rules were. I don’t know what kind of people these are, I don’t know what is up to free discussion and what was taboo. Should I introduce myself or are they just as perfectly happy as I am sticking to my own friend group? I’ve also never been comfortable around real adults, aka other people’s parents. I worry they’re judging me on a myriad of things; mostly I’m worried I’ll make a joke about sex or death or drugs and suddenly being banished for the unwitting offense.
I began to retreat further and further from social interaction the more concerned I became with offending someone. I closed into myself to such a point that the only person I wanted to interact with was Jack, but he was too busy being the life of the party is when the anxiety began to take control. I would do fine enough as long as I kept up with the activity or conversation, but soon as I would get lost in a daydream or distracted away I would realize I have no idea what was going on or how I was involved or what reaction would be appropriate. It was like swimming at the beach, lots of fun and surrounded by friends but go too far out and I would be caught by the rip tide. I would find myself pulled out to sea, desperate and thrashing I would call out to my friends for help but they couldn’t even tell I was gone. Normally in situations of anxiety, I can normally turn to Jack to pull me back in but with him absorbed in groomsmenly duties, I was left all alone. Fear found its foothold. Fear whispered sweet nothings that sent shivers through the weaknesses in my armor. Fear said I was abandoned. Fear said I was left behind, unnecessary. Outcast. Fear said that everyone could see right through me; see me for the fraud I am. Faker. Fear said I have lied and cheated and stolen to get to where I am. Fear said I was ugly, needy, whiny, weak, incapable of defending myself. Fear said I’ve trusted the wrong people and that I am only here until they’ve used up all they wanted from me. Fear said I could not trust a single person in the room. Fear said they were all seeing me as I sat huddled in the corner of the room weeping into a journal and wishing I wasn’t there ruining their good time. Fear stuck its fingers into my vulnerability, my fear of abandonment, and spread the wound until it ripped.
Then it occurred to me that I was just mad I was not the center of attention; that I was using fear to make myself the center of my attention. The notion that it was all in my head look like a knotted old vine hanging into the tiger trap I had just fallen into. I grasped it and held tied as I climbed out. I thought of myself as a little girl, dressed in an adorable party dress, screaming and pulling at Jack’s coat sleeve, upset that no one was paying attention to me. The image got me to laugh; here I am just finding more acceptable ways to have a tantrum as an adult.
I thought about the fact that Jack hadn’t come to check on me; at first this had infuriated me but I kept climbing out of that negativity pit. I thought about it from his point of view. It was not unusual for me to wander off. Usually I can disappear to take care of a bathroom break or trip to the bar without being noticed, I wander off in stores all the time in fact. He probably had noticed me, sitting alone in the dark, undisturbed, pouring into myself in to my writing. He probably could not have been prouder, thinking here we are at the height of party mode and there is his strong, independent wife, struck by the muse, so focused into her creative works. In the past, I’ve bared my teeth at him when he disrupts the flow of an idea and I have told him to try to leave me in peace if he sees me writing. How in the world would he know if I needed him more than ever in that moment?
I decided to get unstuck. I decided to relax and come back to the party. Feeling calmer, I made my way to the bathroom and splashed cool water on my face. The lucky thing about weddings is if you have tears you need to explain no one questions a good “Oh I just love weddings. I’m such an ugly crier. Everything just looks so beautiful!” I made my way back out, started to feel fear try its game again, insulting my dance moves, calling me ugly. These are not the words of the strong; these are the tactics of the desperate. Who cares if I can’t dance, I’m doing what I gotta do to loosen up my spine. Who cares how I look, I no longer need to attract a mate and through Jack I have learned that love means so much more than liking who you have to look at. No these are the last ditch efforts of fear losing a battle for control. So I sucked it up and focused on the moment, focused on connecting with my friends, loosened up and let myself let my guard down. In order to relax and have fun I was going to have to relax and have fun. And like the swimmer who keeps calm when caught by the riptide and swims parallel to the shore until the tide releases her and she makes her way back to the beach to return to smile and laugh with family and friends, I was able to ride out my anxiety and be a part of the party again.
Now I in no way claim to be the master of my mind just yet, in fact at the wedding itself and the during the reception and dinner I felt the cold fingers of Fear creeping into me again. I definitely found myself in a place of feeling angry and frustrated that people were not the way I wanted them. I was feeling abandoned because I couldn’t turn to Jack to satisfy my needs, he still was too busy being a groomsmen. I freaked out when a little girl made a comment that hit the nerve containing my paranoid delusions. I began to project my negative self-talk on to other people, mistaking my own insecurities as theirs. However, every time I refocused my attention on the real moment and stuck with it until the moment passed and then relaxed.
Fool proof? Oh no, a few times it took me to the point of crying before I even realized why I was upset. It took Jack taking me outside and reassuring me that of course he is happy that I am there. It took confessing to Olivia about my anxiety, my fear, my reactions, and for her to relate and tell me her stories of physical manifestations of anxiety, of not being able to breath and shaking to get me to realize I am bigger than this. It takes understanding that this thing that feels huge inside of me is the same small part of everyone else just looking for a way to seem big.
In fact, every day we’ve been back I’ve sort of confessed my anxiety to one person or another. Today I confess to you, dear reader, and I want to tell you that the healing properties of the words “Me Too” are invaluable. I guess that’s what they mean by every day at a time. Even in my moments of panic and expertly controlled sobbing, I was able to keep track of everything, able to observe my reactions and discover what lead me down the dead end paths of fear and self-hate and I remember feeling grateful for the experience. I know that for all the ways people might have seen me behave this weekend, what matters to me is I had a deep, transformative experience and that I am stronger today for having survived yesterday.
Just take it one day at a time, trying to remember, “Perfect is a myth, and the only thing you can be better than is yesterday.”