Around two years ago. Sitting in a pub. With a good friend. In front of me on the table a plate with a half-eaten lamb steak and a small pile of chips. The remains of a pint of beer.
It was a lovely evening. A pleasant pub. My kind of food. My friend and I had spent a relaxed day together at his place. A bit of lunch, an afternoon catching up on news, chatting. And then we’d decided to walk the 15 minutes up the road to the local pub for supper. We’d ordered beers, decided on food, waited for it to arrive, and while we waited, seated opposite each other at the wooden table, we’d watched as other people around us received their meals. Our food arrived. We ate. We continued to chat.
And then, out of nowhere, I suddenly, and inexplicably, felt really really ill.
I didn’t know whether I was going to pass out cold or to be sick or maybe both or what. But I felt absolutely dreadful. I stopped eating instantly, then felt myself flush hot all over, and apologised to my friend, explaining that I was having a panic attack and I was really really sorry about it and that these weird panic attacks had been happening all my life and that was just the way it was. And I was somewhat annoyed with myself for getting into such a state on what was a lovely evening with a friend I like spending time with.
He was cool. He already knew I had mental health issues and assured me that it was OK and he was fine with it. No problem. No big deal. I seem to have been lucky with most of my friends in that they generally seem pretty chilled about most of my oddities. I calmed down a bit, focusing on my breath as I’d learnt to in mindfulness classes, and allowed my leg to jiggle under the table, as it almost always does in such situations unless I make a big effort to stop it. His being relaxed about my state of panic, and my focusing on breathing, meant that I recovered sufficiently to stay in my seat while he finished his meal and I apologised profusely for leaving half the food he’d just bought me. I sat and sipped my beer, hoping that the alcohol might assist with the calming process.
We then left the pub and walked the 15 minutes back through the cold evening to his place. He offered me a glass of wine. I took a few sips and knew that I wouldn’t be able to manage any more. All I could do at that stage was rather feebly say that I needed to go to bed.
I spent the first half of the night lying in bed, feeling a real need to shake, but knowing that I felt so ill that I should try to lie still, to focus on my breathing, and to keep calm. I eventually drifted off to sleep, and woke the next morning feeling drained, but basically well again.
This sort of thing had been happening in restaurants and pubs for years. I cannot even begin to count the number of times I’ve ended up sitting on pavements outside restaurants, having had yet another of these mysterious panic attacks, desperately trying to keep it together for as long as socially necessary, then going home, ending up sick, or unable to focus on anything, lying silently in bed just waiting to feel better. I have always assumed that’s a normal part of going out for a meal and, I think, been vaguely surprised when I’ve encountered people who go out for dinner and don’t collapse afterwards!
It’s also happened rather frequently after dinners in College. From time to time I dine on High Table at my old College in Oxford. It’s a very pleasant evening, with interesting people, good food, and sometimes dessert with port in the Senior Common Room after dinner. I like these evenings very much. But I have frequently needed to leave the Common Room and walk round the quad for a bit to get fresh air and calm down. I’ve had moments, almost mid-sentence, in conversations with small groups of people where I’ve had to use every ounce of energy I possess not to end up collapsed in a heap on the floor. I’ve sometimes gone and stood outside the door and spun round in circles on one foot, which somehow has helped, and I’ve even fallen fast asleep on the sofas – I have a photo somewhere that another friend took one evening when I completely crashed out while everyone else was still enjoying after dinner drinks. I’ve also had nights in bed afterwards feeling, as I did after the visit to the pub, inexplicably absolutely terrible.
I was prompted, once more, by the incident in the pub with my friend, to do some experimenting to see whether I could find out what was actually going on. I observed that these incidents happened with greatest frequency after trips to the pub and dinners in College. I tried to think what was different about these occasions from the times I had similar dinners at home. The only things I could come up with were the different drinks. At home I drank wine. Out of the house I also drank beer and port.
My theory was that I was having some sort of bad reaction to something in dark beer or port. Maybe an allergy? So I went to the supermarket and bought a selection of the darkest, roughest beers, and a bottle of port. I then went home and for several nights sat in front of the telly with a few beers. Absolutely fine. Then I did the port. Also absolutely fine. Together with a bottle of wine in the middle for good measure and a whisky chaser. Also absolutely fine. Maybe a bit sleepy after the last experiment, but nothing approaching the state of panic and illness I got when I was out.
So no beer allergy. No port allergy. It wasn’t the drink. I started to cut down the amount I ate while out, but that didn’t really help either. Eventually I gave up again and these strange and debilitating episodes of illness just continued to be another of the “unsolved mysteries” that have characterised my life through the years.
Until recently. Until I learnt about overstimulation. Until I realised just how much energy it took to talk to people while in an environment full of other people. Until I found out that looking at the eyes of the people I was talking to was draining my batteries at a rapid rate. Until I realized that there were vast amounts of improvised conversation involved. Until I discovered that when I reached that level of tiredness I needed to shut down and stop talking. I needed to be alone. Until I tried to talk during some of the times I spent lying silently in bed after these incidents and realised that the words were gone or at the very least, difficult to produce. Until I learnt that lying still was the absolute worst thing I could do at these times and I needed to allow myself to rock, to flap my hands, to bash some part of myself repeatedly against a cushion.
And the mystery of the sudden inexplicable illnesses was solved. That was how I felt immediately prior to going into shutdown. The effort of continuing to behave in an appropriately social way when my system was completely overloaded was what caused the illness.
And as I investigated still further it became apparent that this wasn’t just about the pub. It had been going on all my life, right back into childhood. As soon as I knew what I was looking for it became so easy to see that I was amazed nobody had spotted it earlier!
The mystery of the sudden illness finally solved! And, happily, no need to eschew the pleasures of a pint of beer or a glass of port! I’ll need to develop other strategies to deal with social and sensory overload, and I’ll need to do experiments, save energy, be gentler on myself, but the problem, like many of the problems I’ve had throughout my life, will almost certainly be easier to cope with now that I know what it is!