On Friday I helped a friend cater an event at a local brewery.
For reasons I am still sussing out when we arrived I had a full blown anxiety attack. The first serious and debilitating one I’ve had in a very long, long time. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t remember what people ordered. I couldn’t hold onto things. I couldn’t look people in the eye.
I couldn’t stop sweating. For nearly three hours my heart rate bounced between 80 to 140/bpm. Which probably was exacerbated by the 1,000 degree fahrenheit wood burning oven we were baking pizzas in, and the nearly 90% humidity.
This brewery sits in the heart of a community where my X’s kids go to school, play hockey, and generally live a few days a week.
I spent a lot of time in the community and although I am not close to anyone there, my X has social and education ties to the community.
I know some of these people. Some of them know me.
There are a few other things I know.
I know my X actively told hockey parents about my infidelity, secret-keeping, and escalating series of lies and a bunch of stories she imagined. I know this because one of the parents, Pony, is my best friends sister. Pony of course, told her sister what my X told her…and then Pony confronted me at a dinner party about what a horrible monster I am.
Gotta love ill-informed people pretending to be informed and helpful. Everyone wants to be part of the story.
Nonetheless, there were several other hockey parents and kids there, and we occasionally acknowledged each other as I delivered pizzas to tables and took orders.
Here is the impact: regardless if true, I FELT like I was the source of whispered gossip and judgement that night. At least that was the story I imagined.
Because of the story, I felt small and I felt like a failure. And because of what I felt I wanted to hide from the feelings and people.
And here is the thing, I have no idea if the story I imagined was true, but it felt true. And even if the story I imagined was 100% accurate, nothing I did or didn’t do would have made a difference. People are just gonna people.
From the moment I backed the trailer into the spot until we finished I felt a constant compulsion to flee. Instead I self-talked my way through the night and focused on breathing.
I reminded myself over and over that not everyday can be the best day.
I know how I feel is not a directive. I even know how I feel isn’t usually true about the situation. Nonetheless, my feelings, and the thoughts about those feelings, drove me towards fleeing and hiding.
However, I showed up and worked the whole night anyway. Feelings are data, not directives.
Two years ago I wouldn’t have been able to do that and I would have been a ball in the back of the truck probably crying or in the woods breaking things. Two years ago that is my default position: turn hard feelings inward and punish myself for not trying hard enough, being good enough, and not caring enough.
That isn’t weak.
Anyone can scream, break things, externalize their pain, blame others, and act out. Instead the opposite of that is carrying that energy inside for a while and discover a different kind of strength…rigid, heavy, cancer causing, heart attack making, early death by suicide strength.
…but still a strength until there is enough pressure, and like steel, it shatters inside of you.
That is why cranky people live longer: they push the people around them to an early grave.
What I know now is Anxiety and Shame are making up stories about my neurological state. They don’t represent the reality of the situation. Instead they represent what I imagine is the reality of the situation. I know this about anxiety and shame now and I didn’t before.
Frankly, I’m not sure what comes first, Anxiety or Shame, but they blend into a dangerous emotional cocktail. Their combined goal is to protect me from further abuse and wounding. Their goal is to convince me to hide from abuse based on past traumas weaved into stories projected forward.
I will not hide. As such, I showed up like I have from the beginning anyway. I will continue to show up. I will not be run off by people that refuse to confront their own Ugly. I will not run off because of stories I imagine. I will own only what is true, not what others imagine is true.
At the end of the night, I discovered the other lesson.
As I said, when I arrived on site I was almost immediately hit with feelings of being uncomfortable followed by feelings of anxiety and a sense of shame. My mind imagined my discomfort was related to the community, the people, the location, and my betrayal, secrets, and escalating series of lies.
However, when everything was packed and we were eating a little pizza I realized it is equally likely my blood sugar was off, the heat was bothering me, and I was dehydrated. Perhaps it simply was a “undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.”
I felt better after I ate and drank some water.
Any of these physical factors alone set off all kinds of autonomic biological responses triggering sensations and has nothing to do with any other external stimuli. I realized I made a decision to believe how I was feeling was related to people, places, and things outside of me. I chose to believe what I was experiencing was about other people.
However, I’ve been taught by life admitting and owning my feelings isn’t enough. What I am feeling needs an explanation, a reason, or a cause. My brain simply accommodates based on the stories it knows. I imagine it, so it must be true. As Dr. Tara Brach writes, “The mind secretes thoughts like the body secretes enzymes.” The stories it secreted don’t even have to based in reality.
Many of my thoughts are also autonomic as it sorts between friend, foe, fuck, or food. This is why concentration requires so much energy. The mind acts as a sponge, but to get anything meaningful from the the mind requires the application of a conscious squeeze or a good night’s rest to let it drain. My mind was absorbing all kinds of sensations and the pressure of the moment created a slurry of self-defeating stories and anxiety and shame fueled feelings.
The reality is the problem is rarely what I think is the problem and the solution is almost never the solution. Every solution I have ever imagined to this fucketty and shitheadery is based on what I already know. What good has that served me if I want something more meaningful for myself and the people I love?
This experience was an excellent reminder, that I won’t hide even if it feels like showing up will destroy me.
Taken together, maybe the lesson is don’t believe everything I imagine and drink more water.