A few weeks in the run up the anxiety was slowly creeping in, but I was also a little excited for it. This was an alien feeling as any party, especially one I attend alone with mostly strangers, is an exhausting struggle to free myself from my negative thoughts. I rarely enjoy group social events.
The spark of excitement in the gathering cloud of anticipation is because this represents a new start. This new job, and these new people, are my chance to forge new relationships and find a sense of community that I’ve become acutely aware is lacking in my life.
And so far all the new people have been warm and welcoming. For once I go into a social situation feeling about as safe as it is possible, in the knowledge that there are four or five people I should be able to make conversation with.
But even with the feeling of relatively solid ground under my feet, I was going to have to be alert to my internal sabotage, and I spent the weeks before carefully considering my approach.
I could have worked from home in the day, and just made my way into town for the party at 6pm. But I decided that going into the office would give me more face time with colleagues before we headed to the bar at 6 pm, which I’d hoped would increase relationship-building time and my comfort level. Especially with those team members who usually worked at home, and I had never met in person. If I could also go to the venue with someone that would also negate anxiety over arriving alone, not knowing where to sit and other silly logistical details.
People = Noise = Overload
What I had neglected to factor in was that there would be approximately four times more people in the office than I was used to. And that the majority of those people would be excited and extra chatty over the novelty of the occasion. While in theory that is quite lovely – that sense of community in action – in reality, there is a cacophony of background noise that my introverted brain has never enjoyed, but is especially sensitive to after three years of working from home.
By 3 pm, following a long lunch with just my 5 team members out at a slightly quieter restaurant, I was back at my desk staring at my computer screen feeling like the world was closing in on me. My head is tight, an oppressive buzzing is somehow also throbbing in my ears, and my vision is tunnelling yet I also feel like a raw nerve, exposed and sensitive to every little thing around me.
I know this feeling.
The last time I was on this precipice was my friend’s July 2021 wedding. It was a beautiful joyous occasion, and I still get emotional recalling her walking down the aisle with not a dry eye in the house. However, it was also the first large social occasion I had been to in many years, and the first time I’d seen my group of friends in person for over a year.
I love my friends, we’ve known each other for 17 years, but all the Zoom group calls over the pandemic turned out to be terrible for my social anxiety and I still had some paranoid thought patterns to shake off.
By the time the sit-down meal rolled around, it had already been an overwhelming day of navigating both strangers and friends. It was the dining room that tipped me over the edge. It was so loud it felt suffocating. Every clink of a glass, fork on a plate and burst of laughter was like a knife into my brain. I couldn’t focus on anything other than how unbearably uncomfortable I was.
I can still clearly recall feeling my switch flip. I wasn’t present with my friends any more. I was pulled under in the flood of negative thoughts.
I had a desperate need to find a quiet space to gather myself, but even fifteen minutes in the peace of the ladies’ toilets didn’t help. It was too late, the current had me. I was sharing a room with a friend so I couldn’t even just leave and go to bed early without it being A Thing I had to explain and I didn’t have the bandwidth to do that without bursting into tears.
The rest of the evening I was withdrawn and spiky. Suddenly every gesture or kind word for someone else became twisted into a personal attack on me. I could see nothing but darkness in the people having fun around me.
I knew that what my brain was telling me was wrong, I knew that it was my anxiety triggering a depressive episode. But I was powerless to stop it. In the middle of all my friends, I felt so fucking lonely.
I did not want that to happen before my first Christmas Party!
This time I could hear the see the warning lights, I could hear the claxons and I did have the option to get myself out the danger zone. I could just ask to go home for the remaining few hours of the day and reset myself. I might actually get some work done too!
So after half an hour of agonising, I made what felt like an impressive grown-up decision. I asked for what I needed. And it was not a Big Deal. My boss said it was no problem, and he’d see me later.
Walking out into the cool, quiet air outside the office was immediate relief. The stillness of my home, with just my partner and the cats that greet me, was bliss.
I got about three hours of my own space before I delivered myself back to the thick of it. I won’t say that the Christmas Party itself was smooth sailing (buffet-style food with no dining space is a bit of a minefield), but it was fine. I made conversation and it was mildly awkward as new people are, but overall pleasant.
The recharge had bolstered my defences and I was able to push back the worst negative thoughts that came knocking.
I got myself out of there once I felt some starting to slip through, but by that time it was a reasonable 9:40 pm and it had been a long, long day and I was thoroughly exhausted.
I am proud of myself for changing my plan for the day when I realised I’d made a miscalculation. I am getting better at understanding and managing my mental health!
The Christmas Party was definitely a milestone, and I am hopeful that next year it’ll be a little easier. But I might not go into the office to work for the day beforehand!