I don’t like looking at my wedding photos. There, I said it. It’s not that they aren’t beautiful, objectively they are. Rather, it’s that the story they tell is incomplete. They show a bride in a perfect white dress and a wide smile surrounded by meticulous DIY details in a chic Brooklyn loft. What they don’t show is the battle waging inside her head, the sweat on her palms, and the tight panic in her chest. Looking at the photos brings me right back to that feeling. Despite appearances, the painful memories too often overshadow the happy memories of that day.
I was 9-years-old when I had my first anxiety attack. Having recently transferred to a new school mid-year, I was being teased mercilessly by my classmates for my penchant for reading and pre-pubescent pudge. Desperate for a friend, I approached a girl on the playground and asked to join in whatever game she was orchestrating. She denied me instantly. I was mortified and spent the rest of the day playing the interaction over and over in my mind, wondering what I could have said differently to make her like me. In my room that night, I worked myself into a choking panic and my parents looked at each other with concern and disbelief as I sobbed on my floor. I became anxious at even the thought of recess and avoided it at all costs for the rest of the year.
As I grew into young adulthood, so too did my anxieties mature. The cyclical, anxious, self-critical thoughts were persistent and even though I made some strong and beautiful friendships over the years, I lived in fear that I was always just one wrong move away from losing it all. I became hyper-organized and needed to know that everything around me was under control before I could feel remotely at ease. I held myself to unrealistically high standards, socially and academically. I constantly compared my experiences, my body, and my possessions with those of the people around me and lived every day with an underlying feeling of inadequacy. Thoughts like these weren’t talked about, though, so I assumed that everyone around me had them, too, that they were just a part of growing up.
At 18 I moved away from home for college and early in my freshman year, I met Chris. He was a junior in my a cappella group, tall and cute with a raspy singing voice and an impressive knowledge of Bob Dylan trivia. Within months, we were deeply in love and I shared with him anxieties and insecurities that I’d never talked about before. He helped me edit my papers when I worried they weren’t good enough to submit and in exchange I made him French toast for breakfast on Sundays. It was terrible but he ate it with a smile anyway, and all of a sudden being perfect didn’t seem as important as having fun together. When my mind was racing and I couldn’t sleep, he read aloud to me from whatever book was on the nightstand until I dozed off. I felt free around him, cared for, supported, and whole. After graduating and settling into our respective career paths, just shy of eight years after our first date, Chris asked me to marry him.
I was never a girl that fantasized about her dream wedding, but I did know I wanted to have one. The opportunity to have all the people we love in one place and to share our excitement with all of them was just too special to pass up. I stuffed my anxiety down by budgeting and making a million lists. Everything accounted for, everything under control. Chris, the consummate cheerleader and helper, diligently took care of any task I delegated to him. We happily spent our nights and weekends crafting details and planning our music choices. And when my anxiety creeped in, Chris would remind me of why we were doing it all, that the most important thing was our love for each other and that we were building a day to celebrate it. Overall, throughout that year of planning, our excitement outweighed my anxiety and I was sure that all our work would result in the best day ever, just like everyone said it would.
When it finally arrived, though, things got tough. Snags and drama seemed to be emerging from around every corner. The coordinator we’d hired for the day, who had repeatedly let us down in small ways for weeks, started the day with a series of frantic questions that poked holes in my excitement that anxious thoughts could slip through. We were running behind schedule and our vendors didn’t know where to go, and when we arrived at the wedding venue for photos things were barely set up. I could sense the void of control and, as much as I tried to resist it, I couldn’t help but feel the need to fill that void myself. My anxiety suddenly fogged everything and made me distrust that anything would go as planned. I worried about whether people were having fun, I was hyper aware of anything that was out of line, and I was uncomfortable being the center of attention in that state. Then, of course, I was concerned about the fact that I was so anxious when this was supposed to be the best day of my life. And the cycle continued.
It’s not that I didn’t have fun, once things got rolling, I was able to let go here and there. I loved the ceremony, delivered by a close friend of ours, and thinking about our first dance still gets me teary. Our friends and family made us feel so loved and I know how fortunate we were to have had a wedding at all. It really was beautiful and special in so many ways. But when I woke up the next morning, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of failure for not having felt the euphoria everyone told me I would. In the months following, I mourned the loss of the day I thought I was supposed to have. It became much easier to dwell on the small things that went wrong – the photos we didn’t get or the place cards that weren’t right – rather than the many other things that were wonderful.
Your wedding day is built up to be the best day of your life, a day when you’re swept up entirely in love and happiness. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I had assumed that I would be too blissed out to be affected by any mishaps that arose. But in essence that meant assuming that I’d be an entirely different person for one day of my life. Even if it was my wedding day, I should have known I’d still be anxious, that I’d still need to feel that things were in control. In fact, I should have known that I’d feel those things more intensely, not that they’d magically go away. I don’t doubt that many brides do feel that positively about their weddings and I’m earnestly happy for them. But I was never bound to be one of them.
Until only recently, I was deeply embarrassed that I had these feelings about my wedding. I feared that I’d sound spoiled or ungrateful. I was also afraid that the truth would give the impression that there was something wrong with my relationship, or that I had mixed feelings about the wedding because I had mixed feelings about the person I married. But really that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I love Chris more every day. Though he didn’t experience our wedding in the same way (he had an amazing time), he has worked hard to try to understand my feelings and help me through them. I’m thankful and touched that it was so great for him, though, so I’ve tried to be careful not to let my anxiety taint his memories. I appreciate that he is the carrier of a happier narrative of the day.
Even still, I find it difficult to look at our photos. Attending or seeing photos of other weddings is equally upsetting, it’s all too easy to focus on the things that appear to be going well and compare them to the things that trouble me about my own. But I try to keep in mind the multitude of ups and downs that go on behind closed doors. Do I regret having a wedding? No. I’m touched that we were able to share our love with those most important to us. Plus, I know myself and my anxiety well enough to know that if we’d gotten married at City Hall I would have found some other way to be anxious about my choice and envious of other people’s experiences. In the end, this isn’t about the wedding. It’s about the power of anxiety to overwhelm even the happiest of moments.
I’m looking forward to the day that weddings don’t trigger these negative feelings for me. It’s slowly getting easier over time. Mindful meditation and yoga have helped, as have therapy and anxiety medication. Until now, I’ve felt the need to embellish my story of our wedding, to say that it really was the best day of my life because that’s what everyone wants and expects to hear. But I’ve come to realize that fighting the truth is much harder than forgiving and accepting it. So my wedding day wasn’t what I expected it to be, but in the end it was only one day of a lifetime spent with someone I deeply love. I hope I can reach a point when looking back at wedding photos brings me joy. For now, I’m finding joy in all that’s come for Chris and me since the wedding, and in looking ahead to what’s next.