I was on the phone with a dear friend yesterday and the subject of the various romance cons came up. He asked me how long it was until I fly to England to participate in the UK Meet. I was shocked to realize it’s a mere six weeks away.
What’s more shocking is I’m less afraid than I expected to be at this point in time. I’m honest-to-god looking forward to it.
It’s no secret I have anxiety, which manifests in many ways but never more quickly and more ferociously than in social settings. The very day I signed up for the con, I went to take my ruffians trick-or-treating, thinking it would be the usual family affair it had been in years past, only to unknowingly walk into a costume party with a potluck dinner, for which I wore no costume, nor did I have a dish to contribute. After taking the kids to get their candy on, I got out as soon as I could so no one could see me hyperventilating and near tears, almost too panicked to drive.
I had no idea what I was walking into that night, so it blindsided me, and while I knew everyone at the party, I stood out like a sore thumb without a costume. (Not to mention the small fact that it was among a group of people who were related to my ex, so while we’re amicable, it was still incredibly awkward with people I hadn’t seen in a long time.) I didn’t feel it fair to partake in the food everyone brought when I brought nothing, and so at 9 at night, I drove through a Sonic drive through for a giant ass strawberry limeade (my comfort drink) and a late dinner I could barely stomach. It was hours until I felt reasonable again, and stopped berating myself for being so woefully unprepared.
Why can’t I function normally around people I know?
Why was it so hard to talk to people who told me more than once it was good to see me again?
Why can’t I be like everyone else?
The answer is simple: I have social anxiety.
So what the fuck am I doing going to a con??
Two things in particular trigger my social anxiety: hugs and the possibility of my face being put online.
If someone comes at me with their arms out, suddenly, my heart is in my throat. I know I’m not being threatened, but it feels that way. Several things flit through my mind. 1.) I’m short, so most hugs put me at chest level to others. Women, I’m faceplanted in their boobs. Men, I’m nose-to-armpit. Unless I crane my neck awkwardly, it’s uncomfortable, and I FAIL AT HUGGING. 2.) I can’t breathe. Whether that’s physical or psychological, I don’t know. I have only been diagnosed with asthma in the last year, but who knows how long I’ve had it? 3.) I’m always worried I smell, or that I’m not in my best shape and someone will feel that and judge me. All of these (plus more if my brain is being particularly cruel) make me shaky and nervous, which intensifies the stupidity I feel. There are definitely wrong ways to give a hug. I suck at hugs.
My friend on the phone gives the best hugs ever. Why? Because I feel safe when he hugs me. How would I find that level of safety with someone I’ve just met, or have only talked to online? It’s a question I can’t answer. Which is why hugs scare me. Literally scare me.
My photo being put online is becoming less of a trigger, but still a concern. I see people happily put themselves out there, and even though I like being able to put a face with a name myself, the thought of doing so with my mug makes me freak. Anybody can see it. Set aside my self-criticism, I can’t control who sees me if my face is online. Given my active imagination, I spiral into worry about predators trolling the internets for their next victim and well… I know it’s stupid. But anxiety is not logical.
I am proud to say, however, that in the months since I signed up that Halloween for the UK Meet, I’ve managed tricks to ratchet down the irrational fears. It helps the UK Meet organizers are conscientious of these things, and I will wear a lanyard color coded to let people know without asking whether or not taking my picture is okay (I haven’t decided if I’m going to brave this one yet). And there are badges that can be worn to let people know if it’s okay to hug the wearer. Two awkward conversations handled smoothly with non-verbal cues, and I tell you what, I can actually relax that these things don’t rest on my shoulders. I have also gone over and over with Kate ways to extricate myself from awkward situations should they arise. Having a contingency plan for every scenario makes me feel more in control.
My friend on the phone told me the story of his first romance con as a writer, and he said when he first arrived, he was literally mobbed by people wanting to talk to him. It took him half an hour to reach the registration desk. He’s not as severe as me with anxiety, but even he barely managed to keep from walking out and never looking back.
We had a good laugh. And I realized, as I was talking about the round-table discussion I’m leading with Kate, and how I’m looking forward to the gala dinner and the people I have on my list that I absolutely must say hello to, that I’m not scared right now, six weeks out. My heart isn’t beating hard at the thought. My eyes are dry. My hands are steady.
Could that change in the coming weeks? Sure. But the best part is, I really, honestly think I can do this. If someone asked me last year if I’d really make it, I’d have said the chance was iffy. It’s not the flight, being in another country, or even speaking to a crowd (strangely, I only get as nervous as the average person when giving a speech, go figure) that gets to me. It was knowing my specific triggers not only were possible, but probable, just because that’s what people do at cons. They hug their friends and favorite authors and take pictures with them. The fact that those things are already handled, significantly reducing my chances of panicking, is really giving me some hope. Maybe even enough confidence to challenge one of the triggers. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to put up a photo of me with one or two of my favorite authors, who I’m dying to meet, and say, “Look! I have proof that I met x and they are awesome!”