My husband writes for the Local Weekly and is tasked to go review cocktails at fancy restaurants. And he wants me to come. It sounds horrible; going to some hipster eatery, where I will have to look at people, talk to people, and let those people look at and talk to me. Unbearable.
I have Social Anxiety. It’s tiring. There are so many rules about where I can go. The grocery store is a safe place. So are some coffee houses. The dog park is okay. Everywhere else is dicey. Enemy territory. A Thing To Avoid At All Cost.
Anxiety is not interested in being displaced by healthy habits. It hangs on even as I learn to manage all my other mood disorders. It rarely blows up into a full-fledged panic attack anymore; instead it strikes with small, daily sabotages. Like now. I want to go hide in a computer game, or binge watch “Justified” all night. I want to do anything that will numb and distract, anything that is NOT going downtown with my husband for drinks.
“One of the drinks is a cocktail for two. Don’t make me drink a cocktail for two all by myself.”
Sigh. It feels like utter shit how many times I tell this man “no”. I need to just say yes. Say yes, and fake it until I make it. So I agree to go, “-as long as we are in and out as fast as possible.”
Restaurant No. 1, 5 p.m.
I open the door and it’s exactly what I feared. Wood pallets and exposed plumbing. Tools as art and distressed farm tables. Bearded twentysomethings in plaid serving “Small Bites” with locally sourced vegetables. People that just know they belong. Knots form in my gut. My head buzzes and my face flushes with heat. When I pull my chair out to sit, it screeches across the floor and a girl at the bar scowls. I feel like I’m going to faint.
The physical symptoms of Anxiety are overwhelming. My body reacts like it is in danger, so my pituitary starts dumping all kinds of hormones and endorphins into my system, telling me to run. Which means I must learn to NOT trust my gut instincts.
“Be open. Be curious,” I tell myself. It is the latest of many sayings I collect to combat the distress signals. The goal is to cajole myself into tolerating the situation. If I can still my brain for one moment, all those endorphins will flip the switch. Anxiety, excitement- same thing. I wait, and it happens: everyone around me are no longer scary judging machines. They’re just people. And who cares what people think?
“Thank you for talking me into this.” I smile at my husband. The waiter brings us two Nitro Coffees, and we sip. It tastes like beer and espresso and silly fun.
Restaurant No. 2, 6 p.m.
“I don’t want to go in. You should just take me home.” I’m trying to bargain with him. We drove past the restaurant and it’s packed. Long, family styled tables crowded with college students and baby boomers. I’m pretty sure hell looks similar. We park and walk toward the door.
“No way we get a table,” I point out.
“Let’s sit at the bar.” He is obviously ignoring my stress signals. Once this tactic would have caused me to attack until he relented and took me home. This time, I just drag my feet like a toddler toward the bar, hoping that escape will present itself.
Once seated, we order and my heart stops its gallop. Anxiety is anticipatory, and if I can get to the situation, I can usually convince myself that I will survive it. Anxiety is also self- absorbed, self– indulgent. An incessant spotlight on itself. I need to engage outward, outside of myself when I am like this, in order to feel better. So I relax. Look around. Smile. Then the bartender tells us they are out of their signature cocktail. I shoot out of my seat, gratified. It’s like Christmas. We can leave!!!
I pat my husband’s shoulder. “Too bad, you’ll have to come back tomorrow. Alone.”
“There’s still one more place,” he reminds me.
Restaurant No. 3, 8 p.m.
10 minutes have passed, and I still can’t get out of the car. 10 more go by. I’m frozen to my seat. We pass the time pleasantly, both of us willing to act like what’s happening is normal. I guess it is normal for us. It’s important not to escalate it. So we talk. We wait it out.
I had one of my many collected sayings custom-made into a bracelet that I wear to help manage anxiety. It’s an effective way to remind me of the things easy to forget when I am spinning in the middle of an anxious whirlwind. After almost an hour of sitting in the foggy car, I finally think to read it:
“Avoiding unhappiness is not the path to happiness.”
It’s true- and I know it’s true- even if the odd wires in my brain want to protect me from every bit of discomfort. I picture a turtle, safe in its shell. Not getting anywhere. Is that really who I want to be?
“Let’s go!” I say before I can talk myself out of it.
Inside, it’s fancy and full of warm hues. Couples are having late dinners while singles chat at the bar. The requisite bearded twentysomething brings us a cocktail for two: The Smoking Jacket. We toast, and sip. The drink is delicious. And I feel proud, sitting there, enjoying myself amongst all the strangers- who are just people amongst strangers, themselves.
“How many of these moments have I missed?” I wonder aloud.
I think maybe that it doesn’t matter. I think maybe it’s time for a new bracelet. It will say something simple, cliché, and unfeigned…. something like:
“Forget the past; save the future!”