How the Westminster Dog Show Helped Me Let Go of My Anxiety and Celebrate (And You Can Too)
by Sheila Hageman
Depression and anxiety are in charge; they never allow me to feel good about myself and they do not permit me to give myself credit for anything. I could win the Nobel Prize and I would still say I didn’t do well enough, that I’d fumbled through the acceptance speech, wore the wrong shoes, shook hands the wrong way. Wrong.
Because of this depression loop in which I often find myself, I cycle through my depression and spiral down deeper and deeper. It’s like every little bit of depression I feel and notice is another reason I’m not good enough and I should give up. I have suffered with suicidal ideations going back all the way to my early teens. The thought of taking my own life is just that—a passing idea— one that I can almost always recognize as transient even when I am feeling particularly dark. In all these thirty years of depression, I have never attempted suicide. But, when I notice myself fixating on death, I plunge deeper into depression— furious at myself for not being able to fight, which just unravels me further into despair and guilt.
Even when I’m not in a deep depression, anxiety can completely ruin my day, or— let’s get real—my entire family’s day. Whether it’s a special occasion like the Daffodil Festival where I totally lost it and yelled and ranted at the crowd that was heaving against us in line, or a seemingly normal, everyday occurrence like a kid’s birthday party or a school function, I physically need to leave to get away from the encroaching noise and stimuli and end the event prematurely for my family. How fun for them!
But I’ve been having a pretty good month, which my therapist needed to point out to me, because I often become so enmeshed in my depression that I don’t even notice when it lifts. My body sat hunched, closed, and tight in the small office as I recounted my experiences with my eyes pressed tightly closed. He also mentioned all the things that I could, and should, feel positive about and celebrate.
It’s a lot like flexing a muscle; if I’m able to recognize and celebrate the ways I’m getting better, it will become easier to see my victories as my self-esteem blossoms. I am hopeful that I will then eventually make it over the hump and spend more time feeling confident and positive rather than hopeless and miserable.
I came up against a bitch (pun intended) of an anxiety test recently—the Westminster Dog Show in New York City. The day-trip would involve some complex logistics because my boys had theater class Saturday morning, but it was doable. We could drive to the city, park in a nearby lot and attend the dog show to meet the breeds and watch the agility trials. What could go wrong for someone who has panic attacks in large crowds at an event regularly attended by 20,000 people?
In my mind, I saw us strolling leisurely down the aisles, browsing the breeds, playing and petting them and enjoying ourselves. I had a few warning flashes in my mind, but I pushed them away, really wanting to make a special day for my family.
The morning started out rough when my six-year-old said he was not going to attend theater class. He had gone the first week and loved it, so now his stubbornness and crying was messing with my perfect day already.
All my cajoling and reminding him how much fun he had didn’t work at all. My husband and I explained that we spent money on the class and also that it was important to follow through with what we start. Then I had to say—one day with no electronics. My husband said one week no electronics. Our disagreement on the appropriate consequence for our son created more tension before we had even left the house.
Then my husband tells me that he has to make crock-pot chicken for a Cub Scouts event the following evening and that this is the only time that he has to run to the grocery store to buy the chicken. Knowing that he’s often much longer than he expects in a grocery store, I asked if he could do it on our way home from the dog show instead, but he insisted that this was the right time and that he wouldn’t be late.
Now he was messing with my perfect day, too. Clearly, a conspiracy.
Part of my anxiety stems around the need to be on time. I physically feel itchy, almost like my skin is too tight on my body, when I have even the smallest sense that we might be late for something. It’s like an urgency for movement gets choked back in frustration, which causes me to feel nauseous. My husband threatening the stability of my well-planned day sent me on edge. He did come back in time, proving my anxiety is often about things in the future that may or may not occur.
With my enthusiastic encouragement, everybody had their coats and shoes on at the proper time and we made it out the door with a bag of snacks. We picked up my other son at theater class and we were off to Manhattan which, coming from Connecticut on the weekend, should only take a little over an hour.
I drove into the city, which is usually OK for me, but as we entered the parkway, in the back of my head, another warning flashed, which said—Oh my God…we are driving to THE. CITY. And there’s going to be a LOT of traffic. Seven hundred thousand cars. Taxis. Ambulances. Can I handle it?
Yes, I said to myself, I can.
As we were getting off the Westside Highway, the traffic amped up and I could feel a fluttering in my chest. At the stoplight, my husband and I scanned the blocks and found the parking lot that had been recommended. We pulled up to the man in the booth and he shook his head—No space left! I am full.
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I watched the people streaming across 12th Avenue to Pier 94 finally realizing other people are going to be at the dog show too.
Luck shined down upon us as a couple walked up to retrieve their car, so, before we backed out, we were granted a parking space. We joined the throng on the sidewalk, walking past the Hustler Club and crossing the street to the madness.
We entered the tented area and pushed into the lines to buy tickets. This line moved smoothly, anxiety decreases, but then it was a fight through the crowd to have our tickets scanned. Anxiety increases.
A security guard had to look in my purse and, to my horror, he actually poked around at the contents, which included a pair of blue underpants in one pocket (yes, I like to have a spare. Anxiety decreases). Swallowing hard and avoiding eye contact with him, we were ushered into the doggie holding area. No huge crowd yet, but, after asking at an info booth where the cats were located, (yes—there were cats at a dog show), we were told to use the elevator, which never appeared where it was supposed to be. Instead, we entered the fray, the great mass of humanity, towards a staircase up to the second floor. It was a massive line just to get to the stairs, which were a rickety hot-mess-looking metal structure seemingly made of K’nex.
A guard ushered us on, single-file, and our shaky, noisy steps rumbled in my ears. My boys expressed nervousness as they looked at it and asked—Is it safe?
Of course, it is, I said as I clearly envisioned the stairs coming apart from their mounting brackets and all of us falling to our deaths in hideous slow-motion. They wouldn’t have stairs that weren’t safe.
I kept looking over my shoulders to make sure the boys were keeping up and not getting upset, while my husband followed behind my daughter and kept us all together. When we made it up the stairs and stepped through the large doors onto the second floor, I could breathe again, but that’s when I saw the crowds of people pushing down the aisles.
We could barely see each dog in its booth and people were pushing everywhere, like they were late for the closing doors of the last subway car. Adults were even pushing the kids. Others just stopped to chat right where people were walking and random people walking their dogs would get their leashes caught on lots of things and there was no clear sense of which direction you should even be walking in.
The kids’ coats were already off and, bless my dear husband, he grabbed them all. My heart pounded as I looked at my husband and we continued to push our way through to the animals.
There was no time to give my anxiety a chance to drive. I saw my boys with trepidation in their little squishy faces—there was no room for it in mine. The only way we were going to see any animals that day would be if we acted like the Roman centurions. I instructed everyone to just push back.
At that exact moment, I remembered that my middle child has a fear of dogs. He didn’t want to touch them, even though these were dogs highly trained—anxiety doesn’t care about facts like that— or facts at all. I pushed through toward the cats and he felt safe to pet them. I looked at my husband and just through our eyes he said…Follow me. Let’s just move…let’s just go to the empty spaces…
I scanned left and right to see which cat or dog had a little open area and then squeezed and wrangled the kids in. My daughter searched for candy and the boys picked up pamphlets. My husband stood back holding the coats and watching over us, which made me feel safe.
I saw my kids trying so hard to get to the animals, to move through the crowds, and while they looked anxious, they didn’t look overwhelmed. I realized I did not want to give into anxiety and upset them.
I can do this. I’ve done it so far.
I didn’t try to take a lot of pictures because it would’ve taken too much effort. I didn’t try to see all the animals. We didn’t try to pet every single dog or cat. When you have anxiety, sometimes trying too much is just, well, too much.
We finally made it to the end of one lane and moved to a large empty space and just sat on the floor where there was nobody for a few minutes. Already, my sons were melting down and hungry and tired, so that was it.
We moved quickly back—my husband hightailing it with the boys and my daughter and I taking it just a wee bit slower. The food line was not moving, so we went downstairs (I didn’t even think about the wobbliness on the way down) and found the agility trials area.
Our kids actually moved forward with the other kids right by the edge as we stood, but then two seats opened and we moved in where we could see our kids. And then as soon as they started coming over and saying they were tired and hungry, we said– Good…that’s it. We’re leaving. We’re done.
My husband wanted to know if I wanted to get our hands stamped so we could come back after eating. I laughed. That’s funny. We left.
I had found a restaurant about four blocks away. The boys complained and the youngest started crying and I felt a wave of overwhelm wash over me. My husband picked up the youngest and we found the restaurant. It was inside a fancy hotel, $$$$, but we went in anyway.
I didn’t let the hostess’s disapproving look at me with my three kids bother me too much. I didn’t care if she didn’t like the fact my family was here, interfering with her sophisticates and their cocktails.
I think the key to why my anxiety never overcame me was that I kept letting go of expectations and demands of perfection. I kept accepting each new piece of intel as it hit me. My husband was a godsend; knowing what I needed and helping me find the empty spaces and helping the boys when they started getting anxious. He did this intuitively, often without words.
I released the need for everything to be perfect, or for it to go the way I expected. I kept letting it go as we went through the day and I kept being as kind to myself as possible. When I was feeling anxious, I didn’t get mad at myself. I didn’t push myself either. I felt my feelings, noticed them and refocused on what I wanted to accomplish: I wanted everyone to have a good day and to keep myself in check.
I knew my triggers. I knew how to avoid them. I didn’t avoid life because of them. I could have chosen not to go to the dog show when I realized how crowded it was going to be, but then I would have lost out, and my family would have, too.
We wouldn’t have seen the animals, but my family also wouldn’t have seen Mommy handling herself. Mommy not freaking out in a crowd.
Start out small if you have to: face a small crowd; look for the gaps; have someone there to help you; don’t try to do it alone. Don’t look for perfection. I wasn’t totally anxiety-free, but I just kept letting it go and moving forward into the unknowable future.
So here I am; sitting up tall in my therapist’s office, eyes bright and open, nodding my head in recognition and agreement that, yes, that I made it through an overwhelmingly huge event at which even people who don’t suffer from anxiety would probably feel intensely claustrophobic and exasperated. I did an awesome job of managing my symptoms as they occurred. I entered the Lion’s Den (dog house?) and strode out unscathed, except for a manageable sense of exhaustion. And that’s all there is to it. No projections or worries into the future: just satisfaction—and celebration—of one good day. Today, I feel myself in charge and composed, my muscles flexing strongly as I, at least temporarily, depose anxiety. I breathe deeply and reflect peacefully.