My sister proposed that we attend a Gavin DeGraw concert at the Buckhead Theatre. My first thought was that I would rather be locked in a room with a velociraptor. My second thought was:
Hey wait. Caitlin deals with more anxiety than I do, and she’s suggesting going to a concert. Maybe we can have a good time if we go together.
My third thought was, oh hell, what did I just agree to?
Cait bought the tickets, and I sprang for dinner. We went to the recently opened Buckhead location of the Iberian Pig, one of my all-time favorite restaurants. Phenomenal meat and cheese plates (yes, I know the term is charcuterie board but it is more fun to deconstruct those fancy words), high-quality tapas, and a wonderful selection of adult beverages.
Adult beverages? Gordon, since when do you drink on a Tuesday evening?
I’ve written about abstaining from alcohol while traveling, and even long periods of not consuming alcohol so that I did not depress my system more than it was already. This evening, I needed more than just my anti-anxiety meds - I needed to take advantage of the anxiety reducing benefits of a glass of wine; as George Bernard Shaw quipped: “Alcohol is the anesthesia by which we endure the operation of life.”
Used as a scalpel, alcohol is a remarkably effective tool for someone like myself who has no substance addictions and who needs to lower their genetically high level of fear around crowds, loud noises, and bright lights.
I ordered a sweet Malbec and savored it, while Caitlin and I griped about the ridiculousness of being adults, travel plans to Italy for her wedding next summer, and our love of dogs.
Not much of a drinker, my tolerance is understandably low. It only took one glass of wine before I felt my thoughts slow and my speech flow. I was relaxed as I was going to be. It was time to rock.
This was my first concert in a decade. Since my sister had been to plenty I followed her lead. We stayed in the back of the theatre. Where there were fewer people and clear paths to multiple points of egress. As we waited for Gavin to take the stage, I prepared myself with a simple breathing exercise:
Inhale for a count of 4.
Hold my breath for a count of 4.
Exhale slowly for a count of 6.
Hold empty for a count of 4.
Staying attuned to the earliest signs of fear in my body: tingling sensations running down my forearms, short breaths, and a tight chest were vital to whether or not I was going to have a fun experience.
Then, BLAM! Bright lights right to the face. That was my biggest concern. Not the crowds, not the noise, not the confined space - I was fearful of the bright lights.
To my shock, I was not immediately catapulted into a fight-or-flight response. Cait and I were dancing to the music, singing along, and enjoying a fabulous show. Then, as I do in most situations, I stepped outside of myself and examined what I was experiencing.
The lights were not a problem because they were in sync with the music. The people were not a problem because they were in sync with Gavin’s performance. My anxiety was not a problem because I was in sync with my environment.
It was such a cool realization to notice that bright, strobing lights put into the same rhythm as everything else in the room did not trigger my natural fear response. Then I thought back to each time a panic attack hit me when bright lights were involved. Each time I could think of the lights did not match with my expectations for the environment.
A flickering bulb over the table where I work, or the rapidly flashing light of a busted turn signal at night have signaled to my mind that something is amiss, and that it would be a good idea to activate my stress response.
Astonishingly, I only left the concert hall at the halfway mark. Not because of a panic attack, but because I was hot! Cait and I stayed for the entire concert, and then made our way to the exit after the final song. We congratulated one another:
Who beat anxiety? We beat anxiety!
Who’s ready to sleep? We’re ready to sleep!
We hugged, said we loved each other, and then made our way home. Tools involved in a successful outing with no panic attack:
A wise and limited use of alcohol
Line of sight to the nearest exit
This is how I live with anxiety and an overactive stress response. I write about the experience to show those who live with similar ailments that it is possible to live well with mental illness. You may feel you suffer, and while I cannot make that feeling go away for you, I can demonstrate that one can learn to work around this panicky SOB that wants to rob us of our enjoyment of life.
If you have similar experiences with anxiety - you are not alone. I wish you strength, courage, and a continued upward journey.