The Time I Had a Panic Attack at a Wedding (Without Anyone Realizing)
I was running late. I don’t remember the exact details of why I was late, and they remain an ever elusive blur, but I remember checking my watch while getting my hair done. I had 10 minutes to finish getting ready, and I wasn’t even halfway there. My dress lay un-ironed on my bed, makeup products strewn across it haphazardly. It would take me at least 40 minutes to get ready, which would mean I would be half an hour late. I checked my watch again, smiling nervously at my hairdresser. My mind raced. How did this happen? I counted minutes, backtracking the events of my day, searching for the mistake. Why did this always happen to me? I began feeling lightheaded but brushed it off. I was probably just hungry — being late meant I hadn’t eaten dinner yet, which would be served at the reception.
I raced out of the hairdressers and put on my dress, zipping it up with shaky hands. They began to get clammy, and I wiped them on my dress. “It must be the heat, it’s just hot in here,” I thought to myself. I put on my makeup with great difficulty, the tremors spreading up my arms making the meticulous work of drawing on eyeliner a challenge. I did it nevertheless, checking my watch every few minutes. I was already late, but each time I watched the minute hand move, my heart hammered even harder in my chest. Forty minutes late. What would people think? I strapped on my heels. 43. My mom was driving me there, and she wasn’t ready yet. 44. I knocked on her room door, reminding her for the 10th time that we were late.
Finally, we were in the car. 49. We reached the venue. 63. By the time we had reached, my mom and I had gotten into an argument about why we were late and whether she could have gotten ready sooner. I felt faint and dizzy. “Must be the low blood sugar,” I thought. I was an hour late and hadn’t eaten yet. I stumbled out of the car and slipped into the ladies’ room, smoothing out my curls and touching up my lipstick. My heart was racing so fast, it felt like a robotic hum in my chest. “Must be the excitement and the stress all rolled up into one,” I thought.
I walked into the reception hall, spotting a table of friends and acquaintances sitting together. One of them waved, and I walked over briskly, smiling and waving back. I said hello, my voice a pitch higher than usual. I babbled on about how busy my day had been, how lovely everyone looked and how beautiful the venue was. I bent down to hug one of the seated friends, gripping the back of her chair as I felt my knees weaken. My knuckles turned white. She grinned and told the girl next to her how characteristic it was of me to be “bubbly, excited and full of energy.” I was full of energy all right. Nervous energy.
I stumbled around the room meeting people and making small talk, feeling like an untethered balloon. I couldn’t sit still or stand in one place for more than a few seconds. The lights were bright. I looked at my watch. 75. I felt disoriented and suddenly overheated. Why was I still counting? It struck me that I had a plate of food in front of me and I hadn’t eaten a bite yet. I didn’t remember being served or what I chose. I blinked, confused. 80. I suddenly felt cold. I held a shaking fork up to my lips and felt it drop.
Months later, I looked back and realized I was having a panic attack at that wedding, and I didn’t know it. People met me, told me how lovely I looked and how nice it was to see me. I laughed and talked so they wouldn’t see the turbulent emotions I felt inside. I told myself it was hunger, low blood sugar, excitement. Nobody else seemed outwardly perturbed or distressed, so I mirrored their calm and tried to hide it not just from everyone else but from myself. I realized later that being late made me anxious, and on that day it built up and turned into a panic attack.
To others, I looked excited and eager to mingle. Sociable, chatty. I had on a fancy dress and expensive shoes. They didn’t see the shaking hands, the sweaty palms, the weak knees. They couldn’t see the disorientation hidden by fake smiles and small talk. They couldn’t hear my racing heart and ragged breaths or the battle I was fighting with my thoughts. On the outside, I looked like I was enjoying myself. On the inside, my mind was spinning out of control. I buzzed around the room, exuding nervous energy people mistook for confidence.
I see now that I might have been too scared to acknowledge what was happening. I’m not scared anymore because I realized I’m not alone. I still get anxious, especially if I’m late to an interview or big meeting, but now I try to pay attention to the feeling and notice it building up. Each time I notice it and acknowledge it, I feel it lessen, and that is something I don’t want to hide.
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Thinkstock photo by Hill Street Studios