Diagnosis: Bridal Neurosis
The first thing to greet my morning consciousness was the loud list of tasks yet undone. The second, the awareness that I could not turn my head. It was the Wednesday before my wedding and anxiety had been wrinkling my brow and wreaking havoc on my GI tract for weeks already. But overnight it had made a hard, gnarled home behind my heart, transforming my neck muscles into tense, taut cables, incapable of movement.
We were preparing for a 35-guest, family-only ceremony on our farm, followed by dinner and a few toasts. "No big deal!" my chipper inner-yoga teacher chirped. But the rest of me wasn't buying it. “This isn’t A big deal, it’s THE big deal,” it responded. I had been fantasizing about my own wedding day for, well, my whole entire life. And a lifetime’s worth of projections and expectations surged to the surface when it came time to manifest this long-anticipated event.
Even with my progressive upbringing, and my self-identifying as a feminist since third grade, cultural associations between the worth of a woman and her wedding day had gotten into my psyche. All the princess stories and the Shakespeare comedies ended in a wedding. For the female characters, happily-ever-after was preceded by selection by some prince. And the prince only chose the most extra special lady in the land. The fair and gentle one who keeps her head down and works hard and expects nothing. The dainty one who fits the precious shoe. The sleeping one who can’t do anything but lie there and look pretty. He chooses. She is chosen. What did this wedding say about my choice? My agency? What if I wasn’t rare and special enough to get a happy ending? What if I got un-chosen at the last moment?
All the weddings I had attended in real life felt like fairy tales too, the bride and groom exuding an glow of perfection, their relatives fawning and praising. This is why I used to bicker with Kyle at every wedding we attended—the aura around the wedding couple seemed so shiny and coherent that my own relationship felt shabby and broken in comparison. And now here I was, proporting towards bridal perfection. What the hell.
The Wednesday before my wedding was a day of transit for my entire non-New York family, who were all en route from distant states when I woke up that morning, restricted by fear. It occurred to me that the last time that everyone from my mom’s and dad’s side of the family paused their daily life, packed their bags, and made the effort to gather themselves around me was my high school graduation, nearly 20 years ago. Four years after that, my family had been making arrangements to gather again for my college graduation, when I had to admit some bad news: I hadn't been able to put together my senior philosophy thesis in time. I wouldn't be graduating.
They canceled their travel plans and I slunk away from the life that had always defined me, the life that, until now, I had been quite good at—the life of school. No hats thrown. No stage walked. No glasses clinked. I finished the thesis two years later and I did go to graduation and collect a diploma. But I went alone. As I made my way back up the hill, through throngs of hugs and bouquets and grinning tableaus, so proud for the camera, I was still in mourning for a day that hadn’t been. I made my way back to the train station, back to my crappy job in the City, feeling utterly untransformed.
I had a clue then about why this anxiety seemed so intense. I was obsessing about every detail of the wedding, but it wasn’t just that I wanted the day to be perfect and for me to look perfect and act perfect—which I did. I was afraid that it wouldn’t happen at all.
As I traced my finger along the contours of this old, painful memory, I touched on the deeper connection: the only other time in my life that anxiety had crashed in so violently. It was senior year of college, while I was trying to write that philosophy thesis. Though I had written lots of papers and they all turned out fine, I sabotaged this one by loading it up with ridiculous expectations. In my mind, this was not just another school assignment. It was to be the reliquary for all of my intelligence and style and poeticism and work ethic. It had to be special, exceptional, magnificent. For it was the outer reflection of my inner worth and I needed to be special to get my happily-ever-after. I created a pressure around this project that was too strong to meet. In that instance, I beat me.
Here I was, doing the same thing all these years later. Demanding that my wedding day be the most special, exceptional, magnificent of all weddings. And I was fearing the same outcome: a cancellation; a collective, quiet disappointment spreading through my whole family, originating in my own failure; a falling back into my true status as quite imperfect, ordinary (or less), not much to be celebrated at all.
In the fairy tale version of this confession story, I recognize that I am projecting too much onto my wedding day--”Silly me!” The knots in my shoulders instantly disappear, I realize that all that really matters is spending time with my loved ones, every little detail falls into place, the wedding is perfect and I am calm, present and self-possessed for the rest of the weekend.
In the real version, I was angry and afraid the morning of the wedding, manic and trembling in the afternoon, and in the evening, directly after the ceremony, I calmed myself with too much wine, blurring my interactions and shadening my memories of toasts and dinner. And it was actually a full week after the wedding before I stopped being overwhelmed by anxiety and depression, rushing through my system in alternating waves.
I was not, at any point in the process, a perfect version of myself. I was a very real and human version of myself. I was me. AND This particular me got to marry a truly exceptional and wonderful man, to be surrounded by and celebrated by a doubly fantastic family—the one I was born into and this new one, Kyle’s. A family who accepts me and respects me and deeply values me, exactly as I am. Imaginary brides don’t get married. Only real ones get the honor.
I have learned that I have a pattern of heaping huge expectations onto circumstances that could never possibly bear the load. In the leaning forward toward the major life event, I tense up with anticipation. And once it has passed, I find myself still obsessed with its image in the rearview, allowing regret and negative post-analysis to consume me. The moment itself? The thing that I obsessed over so utterly? If it happens at all, it speeds and blurs, the sweetness of the now nearly missed altogether.
I do this with projects and places and people too—demanding them to fit into the tight shapes I’ve drawn for them. It is exhausting to push for an idealized version that exists only in my mind, while all of reality is doing something else. And in the end it only leads to feelings of confusion and disappointment, regret and despair.
The cleft that grows between expectations and reality is an ideal space for fear to establish itself and thrive. The loftier my mind's projections of perfection, the deeper the shadows for that fear to hide, gather forces, and work-up its wacky weather patterns. The anxiety and depression that haunted me in the months leading up to my wedding, and in the week that followed, were the brutal storms that rose out of this valley.
As I write those storms have passed. Not because I finally scaled the peak of perfection, but because I acknowledged that I never would or could. I turned away from that project and began pivoting toward what is true and real, what is actually happening. Turns out that the truth has its own crest, more surprising and magnificent and special than my own mind could have generated. This is where I choose to live at the moment.
From this vantage I see that the whole thing was, in its own way, very much like a fairy tale--with all manner of creatures conspiring and collaborating to make magic on my behalf. Thursday morning, before the screaming list of tasks could assert itself, I heard my mom bustling around downstairs; knowing it was the sound of her attacking those to-dos, I breathed deep breaths. Over the next couple of days the place was alive with able angels who made the whole thing happen. One of my cousins transformed the property with fabric, lights and a hundred roses made by hand, while another cousin and an aunt weeded the better part of 2 acres. Uncles and brothers set up tents and lights, sisters-in-law crafted and decorated. My 3-year-old nephew and Kyle’s 3-year-old nephew met for the first time and immediately started wrestling/hugging and calling one another “my best friend.”
The wildflowers, which we had seeded 3 months earlier, decided this was the week to rise through the soil and bless the hills with color. The fledgling swallows, who had been nest-bound above the doorway for weeks, growing an ever-grosser white and pink mountain of bird shit on our doormat, decided this was the week to fly—to soar and explore and spread their refuse elsewhere! Victory! The no-see-ums, the gnarliest of the biting insects in our area ended their 2-3 month season just days before the wedding and the mosquitos hadn’t arrived yet. And on the day of the actual wedding was sunny and clear in the high 70’s.
The story, real yet resplendent: It is the evening of my wedding. I am up in my room with my sisters, all three of us standing on my bed, huddled together intently for the best view of the processional unfolding below. The deep grace of Bach’s 4th cello suite weaves its way through the screen and holds us together. This thing that I had held in my head for so long, it is happening, all on its own, on my lawn, pushed by some apparently unstoppable rhythm. My family and Kyle’s family walk in meaningful pairs--his father and my mother, my grandmother and his godmother--to a circle in the field. Then the little kids explode forth, running, waddling or held in arms, throwing wildflower seeds all around them. My sisters hug me, check my hair and make their promenade. My brothers follow them with a gentle protectiveness and take their positions in the ring. And then it is my turn. I walk alone, slowly, amazedly, proudly, bare feet feeling home with every step. The members of my family past and future are all present, attentive, holding space for my arrival, gazing at me with love. It is finally my time to walk.