Q: I’m getting married to my best friend, and I couldn’t be happier. We’ve been together for over five years, and during this time we got our university degrees, kick-started our careers, moved in together, and have gone on the most wonderful trips.
Despite all this, I have the most terrible anxiety. I have agoraphobia, which prevents me from being in places where I cannot easily escape. Being in such places triggers terrible panic attacks. Which are nearly just as terrible as the anticipation of a panic attack. Which brings us to our problem: the wedding ceremony. Standing in front of a relatively large group of friends and family (approximately 160) is absolutely daunting to me. Walking down the aisle and then having all eyes on me, even for a short ceremony, is a major source of anxiety.
We have a lot of people coming from out of town. I’m Italian, so there are many people in my family that are attached to tradition, meaning a Church ceremony. This is not something that would work for us. If I had it my way, I would get married outside with only immediate family and our wedding party before our reception. On a scale of one to rude-as-hell, how bad would it be to have a small, intimate ceremony, and only invite the majority of our guests to the reception? By doing this, I would rid myself of all the anxiety attached to a wedding ceremony. I don’t want to hurt anyone by not inviting them to the ceremony, which many people see as the most important part. But if we had that large ceremony that is expected from my extended family, I’m afraid it would haunt me all throughout the planning process and sufficiently ruin my day-of preparations, all because I would be freaking out about the ceremony. I’m very conscious of what my guests will think, and I am trying to make everyone happy, but I’m convinced that compromising so much to the extent that I’m vomiting from anxiety the morning of my wedding doesn’t seem fair to me.
I don’t foresee any problems for me for our reception, during which I can excuse myself if my panic sneaks up on me. I’m excited for our wedding in all other respects: our venue is beautiful, we have an amazing wedding party, our parents are supportive, and ultimately I’m super excited to spend the rest of my life with my man. I don’t want my panic disorder to ruin my wedding. Any advice on how I can manage this would be appreciated!
A: Hello! Hi! Alessandra!
For the next few minutes let’s be best friends, because I am here to answer your questions. I just so happen to be a wedding expert who also has a panic disorder. And I really have been there, done that, gotten all of the t-shirts: I’ve done all the medication options, I’ve done cognitive behavioral therapy, I’ve done regular therapy, I’ve taken courses—hell, I’ve had hypnosis (we’ll come back to that). In short, while I am in no way a doctor and can in no way provide you medical advice, I’ve been around, and GIRLFRIEND, LET’S TALK.
First. You have agoraphobia. You can’t get married in front of 160 people, full stop. This is meant to be a wedding, not some sort of torture situation. Personally, I have a panic disorder related to flying, and if you told me I had to have my wedding mid-flight on an airplane, I wouldn’t get married. Because LITERALLY WHY? I mean, my heart started racing as I typed that sentence, so clearly it would be the world’s worst idea. Why would I sign up for something that sounds like the worst experience of my life, when I could just go down to the courtroom and sign some documents?
While we’re validating here, let me co-sign on the fact that the anticipation of a panic attack is almost as bad as the part where your body is convinced you are about to die. Your heart is pounding a mile a minute, you’re sheeting cold sweat, and you’re shaking, dizzy, and barely able to talk. Some mental illnesses are less physical than others. (I’ve also grappled with depression my whole adult life, and as horrible as it is, it’s not going to put me in a hospital because my heart rate is dangerously high.) But you’ve been blessed with the kind of mental illness that would likely cause you to shake, covered with cold sweat and leftover puke, while you somehow try to say your vows.
So first, NO. You are not going to have a wedding that’s going to trigger your disorder. Not just no, but no thank you.
Second, is it rude to have a private ceremony and then a big reception? Not in the slightest. On a scale of one to rude-as-hell, it clocks in at a zero, for being zero percent anyone’s business. In fact, here is a wedding where they did exactly the same thing, and how lovely does it look? Which means you can have a private ceremony and you don’t need to make a single excuse for doing so. Your guests got invited to a great party, and they can attend or not, as the spirit moves them.
If it does come up with your extended family, you should feel free to be totally honest. Agoraphobia is a disease (#mentalhealthawareness and all that), so if someone asks and you feel comfortable giving an honest answer, tell them you have a panic disorder. Tell them that getting married in a large church ceremony would give you a panic attack. It’s not your responsibility to educate folks, but if someone is close to you and you feel like sharing that information with them, it might help them understand you and your condition just a little bit more.
And finally, you need to have a plan for your reception. I’m really happy to hear that you don’t think it will be super triggering—and I suspect you have a pretty good handle on that. But it sounds like you know it won’t be anxiety free, so you should come up with a plan with your partner and loved ones to manage things the best you can. Are toasts going to make you panic? Cut them. Is a first dance with everyone watching going to be a bad scene? Get rid of it. Do you know that people may ask you to do things (kiss on cue, throw the bouquet, etc.) that won’t work for you? Have some loved ones in charge of putting the kibosh on any such requests. And if you need to have medication on hand, and make sure you have it, you should… say… not drink if you know you might need to take it. (IE: Ativan + Booze = Oh Nope.)
Since I’m here, I thought I’d offer you one final slightly bonkers-sounding suggestion (as long as we both understand I am Not A Mental Health Professional). Since you have plenty of time leading up to your wedding, you might want to try hypnosis. As I mentioned above, I have tried literally everything that there is to try in to deal with a panic disorder. And sadly, nothing has been a magic bullet, since no one will agree to just make me unconscious during a flight (WHY IS THAT TOO MUCH TO ASK?). But of everything I’ve done, I’ve found hypnosis to be the most helpful. I googled around to find a well reviewed hypnotherapist in my area, and then agreed to four sessions in a row. I’ve since gone in for touch up sessions before flights. And while flying isn’t perfect, it is night and day from what it was. So if you can find someone, and afford a few sessions, doing some hypnosis particularly around your wedding reception might make the whole experience a little easier and a lot more joyful. I mean, it’s worth a shot, right? (Answer: only you know for sure.)
If anyone gives you even a second of shit about your panic disorder and your wedding plans, you send them to me. Because NOPE. They don’t have to live with a panic disorder, so they don’t get a say.