I get so bored when people talk about anxiety. Any description of the mild, physical experience of emotions kind of irritates me lately, too. The “so-and-so feeling in my throat” type talk. Who cares?
But I spent maybe twenty years obsessed with anxiety. I trembled visibly. That was the main thing I had trouble with. I shook, and I had some neck wobble and facial trembling. It was mortifying. Also, I was in denial about it, always wondering if people could see me shaking. I’d say, “I get nervous,” just to gauge the reaction. Most people, caught on the spot, would lie. “Oh, do you?” All kinds of things grew out of my fear of trembling and having somebody else see it. Drinking, skipping job interviews, showing up for dates drunk, Valium, etc.
The worst thing that ever happened was when I was given an award for a story I wrote. (The Plimpton, from the Paris Review, for “William Wei.”) To me at this time, accepting the award was enormously important, but I couldn’t figure out how I could possibly do it, because of my crippling fear of public speaking. The fear of public speaking started early. I gave a report in the fourth grade. Halfway through it, I just started crying. I thought that the teacher and my classmates would take pity on me if I cried, but my teacher failed me, and the other students laughed about it. In college, I was enrolled in a small Brecht seminar. Five or six of us and a male professor with a long gray braid met once weekly to discuss the plays. A large percentage of our grade was based on a presentation. I prepared carefully for the talk. I managed to get a paragraph in, then I stopped and said, “I’m too nervous to do this.” My professor was gentle. His eyes were tender. He said, “But, I’ve agreed with everything you’ve said.” Another classmate nodded. But I shook my head and said, “I can’t.” Later in life I agreed to give readings, but then got too nervous beforehand, and cried and screamed, and skipped them. It was immature of me, but I felt like I couldn’t get in front of people. The best I can do, to talk about the level of fear, is to compare it to something else. Last summer, when I was pregnant, my husband and I saw two armed gunman run from the site of a murder. Both young men were armed, and had their guns out. I was terrified for my baby. I started to run, but my husband–who has had active shooter training as a part of his job as a college professor–called to me and told me not to run, not to behave as a target. I stopped, and walked away. I noticed at the time that my fear of an armed gunman was not even close to my fear of public speaking.
So, in 2012, when I felt that I had to accept this award in person, I borrowed a few anti-anxiety medications from a few different friends, and drank when I got to the party, and accepted the award, and went promptly into a blackout. I remember accepting the award. I remember that I was unhappy with the introduction that I was given. I think, under ordinary circumstances, I would suppress this kind of churlishness. But I was drunk, so I ran with it. I balanced my award, a delicate ostrich egg, on a rail behind me, as a form of protest. A waitress at the venue asked me if I’d like her to box it up. I agreed, irritably, and noticed shortly thereafter that I was cut off. After that I have three memories: punching myself in the forehead in the restroom to try to sober up, falling down at the after party, and asking my friends why they wanted to go home already at four am.
When I woke up the next morning, I was so humiliated. I emailed people who were at the event, trying to gauge how drunk I appeared to be. My agent skirted the issue. “I was just so proud.” A mentor ignored the email altogether (I imagine him murmuring, “Not going there.”) Most people were just kind of tense and evasive. I really think that they agreed with me. I think that they thought I had blown it in an epic, inconceivable way.
Now I don’t really care, but I still feel a little regretful about one thing. I woke up with the card for a female editor I admire in my purse. I don’t remember speaking to her at all. When I see her in the news, I always feel a little bit sad. But the embarrassment has faded away, because I’m in the Midwest, thinking about other things, like how to remember to start dinner at four or five, if you want to eat at seven. (Habitual tendency is so powerful, seven ‘o’ clock rolls around and I, the stay at home mom, think, “What’ll we eat?”)
Anyway, this trembling, wondering if other people could see me trembling, twitching, feeling embarrassed about twitching stuff faded away when I quit drinking. It went away very slowly, imperceptibly. I’d say it took about two or three years. Then it was gone. I mean, I didn’t tremble when I looked a barista in the eye, or something like that.
Last September, I was seven months pregnant with my son, and it was the night before the first day of classes at the small university where I was teaching a fiction workshop and an introductory class in creative writing. I had never taught sober before. I’d always either taken Valium or had a few drinks, so I was googling articles about how the new modern smart mom drinks while pregnant. I found these articles convincing, and I was definitely headed down the road of telling myself I’d just have one glass this one day.
I came very close, but I had lost a baby with a miscarriage. I knew how it felt to look back and wonder if I had done something wrong–if it was my fault for jogging, or eating a soft-boiled egg. So, I decided it would be better not to drink.
I went into the classroom sober. I had always thought that when I finally did this, my anxiety would magically vanish—that’s what people say. I thought I had all these fears, but the reality would be simple and easy. It wasn’t that way. I walked into the full classroom in a trench coat and a maternity dress. I was shaking all over. I took attendance, passed out the syllabus, and asked one of the nicer looking students to read it for me. She agreed. She looked at me with pity. The other students looked confused, a little irritated. And I never got their respect. They never forgot that first day. But it didn’t really matter.