I didn't always have social anxiety at holiday parties and get-togethers. I used to be one of those people who revels in the holiday spirit with friends, until our family suffered a personal tragedy. Now, when I'm invited to a celebration of all things merry and bright, I can't help but look around and think, "everyone is happy except me."
Since I lost a baby late in pregnancy, the way I feel when I'm around other people has completely changed. Whether it's a dinner party with neighbours, a small family gathering, or the big, annual boating club gala we always attend, my anxiety about the event starts early. I notice a pit forming in my stomach hours, sometimes days, before it's time to leave for the party. I really want to just skip the whole thing, but I tell myself I can handle it, at least for a little bit.
I am thinking about our daughter, and what it would be like if she were here.
"Let's stay for an hour," my husband says gently. He knows how hard it is for me to be in these situations. How I start to feel short of breath, how I get lightheaded, and then dizzy, how I can't focus on what another person is saying during even a simple conversation. My mind is somewhere else. I am thinking about our daughter, and what it would be like if she were here. But there's something else, too: I can't get over my conviction that I'm not the same as everyone else around me.
They are able to have fun. They can laugh, eat, drink, and chat about banal topics like holiday recipes and holiday plans. Meanwhile, I feel empty inside.
How many times have I heard, "I can't imagine what you went through." This comment always makes me feel totally alone, but even more so this time of year. Of course, rationally, I understand I'm not the only person who has experienced loss, but why does it seem as if they can hide it so easily when I can't? I'm pretty sure my devastation is written all over my face.
I remember a time when I was one of the loudest partygoers at any given holiday celebration. I loved telling my favourite seasonal stories to even the largest groups, like the one about how one year, the Christmas tree fell on my dad while he was trying to get it to stand, and instead of helping him out from underneath it, my siblings and I made him lie there so we could get pictures. I'd sip champagne, sample the food, and at least once during the night, look around and feel so lucky and filled with gratitude.
Since that day, my life feels like an out-of-body experience, which is only exaggerated when I do things I did before, but under these completely new set of circumstances.
Now, that person doesn't even seem like it could have been me. Who was that outgoing girl? I'm pretty sure I lost her when I lost my baby, suddenly, without warning, in a more traumatic and awful way than I could have ever imagined. Since that day, my life feels like an out-of-body experience, which is only exaggerated when I do things I did before, but under these completely new set of circumstances. I suspect this is why the holidays can be so hard for so many people. It's the tradition, the familiarity of it, and how none of it feels even vaguely familiar anymore.
My therapist tells me it's OK to be different now. It's OK that I often prefer to keep to myself. It's OK that I'm quieter, and that I don't find as much joy in things as I used to. She says maybe in a few years the holidays won't make me feel quite as sad, but it feels like I might never want to be the centre of attention at a party again.
It took about a year, but I've finally started to believe her and know things will get better. Last holiday season, I could only stay at a party for half an hour. This year, I may want to stay for an hour or longer. It may be a full two hours before I begin to notice how happy and carefree everyone around me seems, before I give my husband that look which means, "I want to go," and we get in the car, and I cry, and he knows why without having to ask.
If you have a friend or family member who has gone through a traumatic, life-changing event, my advice to you is to accept that they may want to leave the holiday party a little early. They may need a bit more space. They may not feel like talking about big holiday sales or slow-cooker recipes. You may notice them staring off in the distance and avoiding big groups. Take it from someone who knows: If they showed up to the party, even for 10 minutes, that may have been a huge act of courage. Hopefully, next year they can stay longer without feeling like they simply can't breathe. In the meantime, just understand them.