Holiday Anxiety, Regular Anxiety, Anxiety and Alcohol

Holiday anxiety! Who’s with me? I’m not sure what part of my past has given me these feelings surrounding Christmas, but I definitely have them. It was only last christmas, in the car with my family on the way to my grandma’s house, that I identified these feelings as anxiety. At 33! I was sober, having  kicked a 12 year wine habit, a mad worrier, sufferer of a chronic skin disorder and eye twitch, and somehow I had never thought of myself as an anxious person. But that day in the car, I was so worried about how everything was going to go, and freaking out because we were late, and clawing at my face to keep my eye from twitching. And I thought to myself- this is anxiety. It somehow made it feel better just to have given it a name. It was like something had lifted off of me. I knew what I was dealing with, and I could figure out how to make it better.

I am here in your ear just in case some of you are wondering what the hell is wrong with you. If you are buying more and more stuff for people, or trying to make the holiday perfect for everyone. If you can’t figure out how to drink enough to get through the days. If you pick or twitch or pull your hair out. If you work all the time, or haven’t showered in a week or can’t put your phone down for 1 minute without picking it back up. If you can’t go to the holiday party or if you do go and drink so much that you can’t remember it. If you need a “home safe” text from everyone or double, triple check your locks. If you make excuses for not going out and then drink at home by yourself. If you get high first thing in the morning. If you are putting up with a terrible situation at work or at home because you don’t think you can do better. You are not crazy, you can stop with the crazy self talk. What if you gave these feelings a name? What if that name was anxiety? Could you then start to look for a solution? It sure worked for me.

Removing alcohol from the situation was the best thing I ever could have done for my anxiety. It did not solve the problem, not one bit, but it made me aware of what I was dealing with, and made me able to track patterns of behavior in myself. In this way, I could tell what was triggering it and when I felt better and worse. There is really nothing like waking up each day and clearly remembering what you felt the day before. It opens up possibilities for self knowledge and behavior change that could never have existed before.

Drinking is both a symptom and a treatment. But things that are both are neither. Right? I could never get a clear picture about the why of my drinking when I was drinking. I knew that it wasn’t right, and I knew that the only way it was going to work was to stop, but I didn’t know why it was so difficult. And I couldn’t quite pinpoint when it had all started. Looking back, I can see the anxiety. I have had it all of my life, I have spent my life worried about things. As a teenager I smoked pot, and that just made it worse. Discovering wine and other beverages was a revelation. I had an instant cure for my worry. I could preempt the worry. It gave me a persona, it gave me the courage to wear the things that I wanted and do and say things without fear of what others thought. It numbed out the fear of social interaction, it made me able to be in huge crowds and behave on the wild side, like I had always observed the cool people doing but never done myself. More than anything, though, it gave me something to do. If I was at home watching tv, cooking dinner, or getting ready, there was wine. Let’s meet for a drink. Sitting at the bar after work, going to the bar to meet people, going to people’s houses. Something to do, something to hold. Dulled nervous energy, provided a distraction and a reason to be places, helped ease conversation in social situations. What’s not to love?

The cycle of it, though, it feeds back into itself. The anxiety of going to the party is masked but the anxiety of the next morning when you are wondering what you did or how you got home is bad. And now you have that to deal with. Surely that morning anxiety is worse? Surely that will keep you from doing the same thing over and over and over and over but it doesn’t. It feeds itself. If you are drinking to calm anxiety and drinking is causing anxiety then you are in a cycle that is going down down down. How long can you keep it up? Maybe that’s the wrong question. How long do you want to live this way? This is your one beautiful life. Is this how it goes for you?

Having the clarity to look back at my whole life and see anxiety is fascinating. I can see the answers to so many questions that I had along the way. I can see the decisions that I made, I can see the fear that I lived in. The opportunity that I have now is not to cure myself of anxiety. You do not cure yourself of anxiety. You get to figure out what kind of person you are and then live a life that aligns with you. I get anxiety about situations that I do not want to be in, about doing things that are outside of my value system, about dealing with people who are acting in ways that I don’t agree with. I no longer numb out my feelings in order to deal with these things, I work to live in a way that no longer brings me in contact with them. I choose activities and jobs and friends and movies and holiday celebrations that bring me joy. I don’t try to fit inside someone else's idea of a good time. I tried that, it didn’t work for me. Step number one, figure out what sort of things you really like to do, without taking anyone else into account. They have to figure it out for themselves, you just do you. Step number two, do those things. Say no to the other things. You aren’t missing out, although you may feel that way at first.

Step number three is a surprise. You won’t know what it is until you have done one and two and freed up enough of your brain space to really get going on what you want out of life. My step three was to start my own business. In the back of my mind I am still always afraid of what people will think of me, that they will make fun of me, that they will think I am wrong and dumb. But these days I do it anyway. I am doing me, and I no longer have the option to go back. Freedom is like that.

Laura Mcwilliams