The minister is droning on; I have no idea what he’s saying. (I am not, as they say, present in the moment.) I’m praying for him to hurry up so I can escape this torment.
He pauses and looks down at my betrothed and me. Seeing me – the sheen of sweat, the panic in my eyes – he is alarmed. “Are you OK?” he mouths silently. Helplessly, I nod that I am. (Because what would he do if I said that I wasn’t? Clear the church? The mortification would be unbearable.)
As the minister resumes his sermon, here are three things I am actively fighting: the shaking of my limbs; the urge to vomit; and unconsciousness. And I am thinking: Get me out of here. Why? Because there are nearly 300 people – friends and family and colleagues – watching us get married, and I am about to collapse. I have lost control of my body.
This is supposed to be one of the happiest, most significant moments of my life, and I am miserable. I worry I will not survive.
Mercifully, the ceremony ends. Drenched in sweat, I walk down the aisle, clinging gratefully to my new wife, and when we get outside the church, the acute physical symptoms recede. I’m not going to have convulsions. I’m not going to pass out.
But as I stand in the reception line, and then drink and dance at the reception, I’m pantomiming happiness. I’m smiling for the camera, shaking hands – and wanting to die. I have failed at one of the most elemental of male jobs: getting married. How have I managed to cock this up, too? For the next 72 hours, I endure a brutal, self-lacerating despair.
My wedding was not the first time I’d broken down, nor was it the last. At the birth of our first child, the nurses had to briefly stop ministering to my wife, who was in the throes of labour, to attend to me as I turned pale and keeled over.
I’ve frozen, mortifyingly, onstage at public lectures and presentations, and on several occasions I have been compelled to run off stage. I’ve abandoned dates, walked out of exams, and had breakdowns during job interviews, on flights, train trips and car rides, and simply walking down the street.
On ordinary days, doing ordinary things – reading a book, lying in bed, talking on the phone, sitting in a meeting, playing tennis – I have thousands of times been stricken by a pervasive sense of existential dread and been beset by nausea, vertigo, shaking, and a panoply of other physical symptoms. In these instances, I have sometimes been convinced that death, or something somehow worse, was imminent.
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