Over the weekend, I was at GenreCon: a three day learning and networking event for genre writers held in Brisbane. It was an amazing chance to meet new people and learn new things, and I’d wholeheartedly recommend it. If you’re good at the whole talking to new people thing, then events like these are fun and easy to navigate.
If you’re like me, though, holy hell.
So rather than singing the GenreCon praises (I’ve done it on social media and in a Scenestr article if you’re in the mood for that sort of thing), I thought I’d talk about the more serious side of cons: getting through them without hiding in the bathrooms between panels.
Not all writers and creative types deal with anxiety, depression, or mental illness, but some do. And signing up to voluntarily spend time in a crowd of strangers can cause a painful mix of excitement and blind panic of the sort where you can’t decide if it’d be worse to have no one talk to you, or to actually have people want to talk to you.
I loved GenreCon. I 100% loved meeting new people and learning new things. But I also had a minor (for me) panic attack during a workshop on my first day, and had to leave the room until I remembered how to breathe. Four hours later, I was still shaking. I wouldn’t call that bit fun.
So if you’re prone to overwhelm and anxiety, but you want to get the most out of a convention or opportunity, what can you do?
The one tip to rule them all
Let’s be honest, this has grown into a monster post, and if you’re looking at it going ‘hell no, I’ve got things to do’, then let’s skip all the chatting and go straight to the big ticket wisdom: you know yourself better than anyone else. All that advice and collective wisdom out there? If it doesn’t suit you, ignore it. All the gurus, coaches, and guides in the world mean SFA against your ability to know your limits. Take what works for you. Ignore what doesn’t. Don’t screw yourself over and have a miserable time because Joelle Blogs is a lifestyle writer who says that you must do things a set way to survive a stressful moment. Screw Joelle.
There’s a lot of talk out there that not doing everything is somehow denying yourself the full Con experience/networking opportunities/shooting your career in the crotch with a pellet gun and giggling like a cartoon character. Your career, your day, your choice. You aren’t going to screw over your career by not attending something, or by not talking to enough people. We have the internet, a magical place where you can learn and communicate. Don’t exhaust yourself fitting into someone else’s idea of what you should be and how you should act, because you damn well deserve better.
Meet your needs.
Even if you feel like you’re time poor, prioritise the self-care stuff. If your morning Zen finder is a cup of coffee on your own, then make it happen, even if it means having to tweak your timing a bit.
In fact, let’s go a step further. Take a bit of time each night to pack your bag or do the bigger prep tasks for the morning. It’s hard enough psyching yourself up to deal with a new situation when you’re also frantically deciding what to wear or take. The less you have to do before you leave the house of a morning, the less chances you’re giving yourself to stress about whether you’ve done something the right way, and the more time you have for the self-care stuff.
I have a checklist I print out and run with, because otherwise I will sit and overanalyse every little choice, and give my wonderful, neurotic brain a chance to second guess every single thing I do. It also stops me from the ‘I’m too overwhelmed, I’m not going!’ moment where some tiny little issue crops up and I fall to pieces.
Know your limits.
If you’re not okay with huge crowds, plan ahead. Skip out on the lunch and networking moments, find yourself a coffee shop somewhere nearby, and avoid the drama of pretending it’s all okay if it isn’t.
If there are after-hours events, don’t force yourself to go if you know they’re going to be too much for you. Would I have loved to have gone to the banquet? Hell, yeah. Would I have spent the night panicking about clothing choices, the how-tos of making conversation with people I didn’t know, and figuring out how to navigate each situation without being too tired for the next day? Yeah, I would have. It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you’re not getting the most out of the event if you’re not there for all of it. But the truth is, you don’t have to do everything this time around. There’ll be other Cons.
I opted out of the nightly events because I knew it’d be too much for me to try and navigate too many completely new situations without people I know well. Now I know enough people in the community that I would be able to at least make polite chit chat if needed, the idea of going to the after-hours events sounds fun rather than terrifying. If/when GenreCon rolls back around, it becomes infinitely easier to say yes because I’ve had the chance to get to know more people and prove that it wasn’t the huge deal I was scared it could be. Smaller steps are nothing to be ashamed of.
This one needs an addendum, I think. There are a lot of arguments out there that gritting your teeth and pushing through that fear can be useful, or the only way to train yourself out of the problem. It’s kind of a ‘pull yourself up by your jockstrap’ approach to self-care. It’s also failing to spot the glaring differences between ‘I’m slightly uncomfortable here’ and ‘I’m going to throw up or panic till I can’t breathe’. A lot of the advice about pushing through is great for those who feel marginally uncomfortable in a situation, rather than those who have moderate to severely negative reactions to the stress. The only expert in the world about your coping abilities is you. If you think you can handle it, awesome. If you don’t think you can, that’s 100% valid. If you’re scared that you’re overreacting, and deep down you can probably cope, either jump in and find out, or find ways to take smaller steps to get to that same place over a longer timeframe.
Know your warning signs
This is what bit me in the ass. I was feeling off for hours before my moment of breathing failure. Something was wrong, and I wasn’t paying enough attention to pick up on the very, very clear warning signs that I was headed for a bad time. Learn from me.
The nice things about our bodies is that they’re usually telling us in advance that something isn’t right. Not everyone has the same warning signs that they’re reaching the end of their tether, so going back after a bad moment and thinking about what it felt like in the minutes and hours before can tell you a lot about how you react to stress, and what your warning signs look like. A lot of times we act like they’re inconveniences, and try to ignore them. Make them your BFF, because if you can catch the problem early, you’ve got a better chance of resolving the issue before full-blown panic sets in.
When you know you’re going into a stressful or anxiety inducing situation, try and find ways to check in and see how you’re doing. If all else fails, go hide in a bathroom stall for a few minutes and give yourself a moment away from the crowds.
But panic attack me and overwhelmed me are two completely different beings. Looking back at the networking moments, I’d face myself away from the crowd to try and pretend they weren’t really there. I’d laugh, and chat, and be hyperactive as hell. And that’s me navigating social situations I feel woefully unprepared for. If I reach a certain level of overwhelm, I get hyperactive. I’m suddenly ‘Kylie had eighty coffees today’ me, rather than calmly professional me (who probably doesn’t actually exist, if I’m honest).
When it comes to conversations, I am useless in crowds. There are too many sudden sounds, too many bits of movement close by- too many distractions to steal my focus. But take me out of those situations, even just a few feet beyond the door, and suddenly I’m less hyped. I can think, and follow conversations. Now I’m aware of that, social stuff is going to be a whole lot easier.
Know when to walk the hell away
When I was at Oz ComicCon earlier this year, there was this absolutely beautiful moment in the Mark Sheppard conversation. A woman was having a panic attack, and needed to leave the room. Now, if you’ve never seen Mark at one of these events, it’s basically like talking to a Crowley forced onto decaf and life affirmations for a week. So exactly no one was surprised when he called her out on her and her friend leaving. But as soon as her friend said what was happening, Mark was a completely different person. He hugged her, he used the moment to talk to everyone about anxiety and the need to take care of yourself and keep yourself safe. He checked on her when she came back inside.
He made it abundantly clear that there was nothing to be ashamed of, and that if we took one thing from the talk, it was that everyone is worth the effort to self-care.
I met that woman the next day and thanked her, because seriously, the idea of walking the hell out of a situation hadn’t ever occurred to me. It actually doesn’t occur to a lot of people, and even when it does, if you’re anything like me your brain goes ‘they’ll call you on it, and everyone will see you and point and laugh or whisper and BE AFRAID’.
When I realised I wasn’t getting over that lack of air thing, I walked the hell out of the workshop. I leaned in the hallway of the offices we were in, hands pressed against the walls because there was nothing to hold on to, and I stayed there until I wasn’t about to cry or suffocate. I only moved to get out of sight of the staff that arrived, because I didn’t know how to say ‘panic attack’ without making the situation worse. It was hard. It was scary. But it was 100% better than staying there, freaking myself out more by trying to hide the fact I was in trouble from a room full of strangers and being terrified someone would ask what was wrong with me.
If they thought I went to the bathroom, who cares? Everybody poops, y’all. Taking ten minutes to step back and look after myself verses feeling like hell for days and probably having more attacks? When I look at it like that, it’s not what I’d call a hard choice.
Remember that it’s not the end of the world
Let’s say you go, and (like me) you struggle your way through conversations, and certain moments fall pancake flat, or people don’t quite get your sense of humour. Let’s say you explain things wrong and realise you sound like a pretty horrible human being when you say things in that way. (“Hi! I’m Kylie. I write crime because killing people in fiction is cheaper than therapy, and it’s really fun. The story you’re asking about was inspired by a time I was stuck in a situation I couldn’t escape from, nor find a way to resolve, so I just kicked back and wrote a story where the source of my frustration died horribly.”)
Suddenly you feel a little bit better about your own word nerd failures, huh? And if you’re nodding along knowing that particular faux pas pain: Hi! You and I are kinda similar, huh? Welcome to the club.
The thing is, people aren’t as bothered by our missteps as we are. An author I adore joined in a conversation I was a part in, and I… I ran the hell away. Made my excuses and ran. Overwhelmed, overawed, bolted. It bugged me, because wtf, brain? A human being tried talking to you, and you ran away? A really cool, wonderful, kind hearted human being was interested in my writing, and I flailed and ran like a startled cat.
So I went up to her later and apologised. Even said I was a little overawed by it all. And guess what? She didn’t care. In fact, she was happy to talk about her own moments of overwhelm. People are generally far kinder than we think, and almost everyone has had that embarrassing moment of wtfery. We all fangirl or boy, we all have those moments we wish we could go back in time and crash tackle ourselves out of.
There’s one other thing to watch out for. Another writer I’m a fan of sidled up into a conversation, and I tried to include them by letting them know what we were talking about. They bailed, fast. In the moment, my brain had a meltdown of epic proportions, because CLEARLY I HAVE DONE WRONG AND THIS PERSON NOW LOATHES ME ETERNALLY, but in retrospect, they were actually really busy and about as scattered and stressed as I was. Once I got out of my own way, I could actually acknowledge that they had the same vaguely overwhelmed expression I was carrying around all day. If you have anxiety, you know the look. It’s that ‘oh God, this may actually kill me’ one.
It’s really helpful to remember you’re not the only stressed, anxious sort white-knuckling their way through the experience. When the stress and upset fades a little, take a moment and look at how they were acting. Chances are, they weren’t so much actively hating on you as they were actively trying not to hyperventilate.
Can it be embarrassing? Yes. But that embarrassment isn’t actually fatal, even if it feels like it in the moment. And besides, if you’re a writer, it’s good story fodder.
That last sentence? That’s my life motto.
And if all else fails, just remember: you can survive this.