She loves a good party. Her (very) nervous system begs to differ. After years of perspiring through cocktail hour, Jessica Winter finally finds drier ground.
It begins, always, in the groove of flesh just above my upper lip—what the Greeks named the philtrum. Tiny beads of moisture collect there, like morning dew on a leaf. More stipples appear under the awning of my lower lip, then above my brow. At this point, I start mopping my forehead preemptively with whatever's at hand—a tissue, a cocktail napkin, a sleeve—but a few rivulets usually manage to trace a brief course along my hairline before I can catch them. There isn't much I can do about the thin, cold streams trickling down my spine, pooling in the sway of my lower back.
I take precautions. I wear lots of black. No silk. Never mascara.
I have a repertoire of camouflaging gestures—secret wiping maneuvers. I'll raise a hand to my mouth, as if for a dainty clearing of the throat. I'll duck my head and do a meditative forehead rub. I'll cup my lips with thumb and forefinger while nodding sagely at the floor—my version (or so I imagine) of Rodin's Thinker.
I find that people are exquisitely nice. The couple I met at a birthday celebration last summer were adorable, their faces softening with bemused concern as the temperature settings rose on my internal sauna. Later, peering into the ladies' room mirror, I understood their bewilderment: I looked literally wrung out. Last autumn, at a bustling event for a friend's new book, I chatted with a college classmate who, after perhaps 10 minutes of catching up, reached back to take a paper towel off the drinks table. She gave it to me without comment—I'm not sure she even broke eye contact—and with matter-of-fact graciousness, as if she were handing her business card to a prospective client.
Which is all to say: I sweat a lot at parties.
Thankfully, it's not a smelly sweat; it's diluted and benign. And, unlikely as this sounds, the sweating is not a manifestation of churning dread and anxiety—not directly, anyway. I like parties! I like people, and music, and free drinks! But somewhere, somehow, my nervous system seems to have put itself on red alert for any large social gathering, because my fight-or-flight mechanism kicks into overdrive at the first hint of crowds nibbling canapés. I'm left drenched, sheepish, and cursing my neurotransmitters for being such drama queens (but also relieved that they're so well-behaved when I'm consciously nervous—oddly enough, I don't perspire if I'm, say, interviewing for a job or speaking in front of a group).
After the Paper Towel Incident, I resolve to do all I can to dehydrate the party experience. I see an herbalist in New York City's Chinatown who gives me a small paper bag of huang qi (each piece resembles an oversize, misshapen emery board) and another of bai zhu (which looks like jigsaw pieces carved out of ginger). I cook the herbs into a tasteless soup, guzzling cup after cup of the stuff before I head over to a magazine launch party on a freezing winter night. The venue turns out to be a converted public bathhouse under renovation; the roof isn't completely installed yet, and the space is dotted with heating lamps. The guests keep their coats on. And yet, despite the herbs and the chill, in midconversation I find myself striking that modified Thinker pose so I can dab furtively at my mustache of sweat.
I wonder: Could I manage to sweat in a blizzard, provided the blizzard involved 50 people standing around with plastic cups of beer?
A few days later, at the suggestion of my editor, I visit the ebullient New York City dermatologist Cheryl Karcher, who injects Botox into my philtrum and the groove under my lower lip, blocking the nerve signals that stimulate the sweat glands. Three mornings later, I dribble Listerine down my chin and know that the Botox has taken hold. At cocktail hours to follow, my stiff upper lip stays as dry as the martinis. My habits, however, aren't effaced so easily: My hand keeps fluttering needlessly to my mouth in that professorial cupping gesture. And because I was too wimpy to let Karcher zap my hairline, my forehead remains in dire need of another Paper Towel Incident.
Among all my quick-fix experiments, the most effective involves the sedative Xanax, which is typically prescribed for anxiety disorders and panic attacks. I swallow half a milligram about an hour before arriving at a packed benefit where there's plenty of cheerful complaining about the heat and close quarters. Yet I stay supernaturally crisp and dry all evening, and as a surprise bonus, I temporarily gain the ability to achieve intense, almost sensuous eye contact with anyone I meet.
Now, I have no plans to begin popping tranquilizers every time I report for party duty. But the crystalline success of the Xanax trial confirms the obvious: that my sweating problem is definitely a case of displaced anxiety—anxiety I'm not even aware of until it liquefies!—rather than a purely physical malfunction. (Xanax does not target norepinephrine, one of the stress hormones that undergirds the fight-or-flight response; rather, it enhances the action of the same soothing neurotransmitter that gets along so well with alcohol.)
For a therapist's perspective, I call Roger Granet, a psychiatrist based in New York and New Jersey. "Somewhere along the line, you learned some distorted thinking related to specific social situations," he says. "What's at play is a conditioned behavioral response." In other words: Pavlov's dogs had their dinner bell; for me, it's a swarming loft and a DJ. But how—and when—did I learn to respond this way? How did my nervous system train itself to associate parties with panic? Granet asks me to think back "to high school or even grammar school—maybe something happened on the playground, or at a bar mitzvah?"
Eureka! At last, a creation myth for my sweating syndrome. It is June 1990, the day of my friend Rachel's bat mitzvah. But for me, a gangly 13-year-old upholstered in Laura Ashley chintz, it is an outtake from Mean Girls—you know the deal, where you show up and none of the other girls will talk to you, and you have no idea why, but apparently a bunch of them are "mad" at you, and you're assigned to the end of one table with no one sitting across from you, and you flee the scene and spend the evening loitering around the guy they've hired to sketch caricatures of the guests. You tell this kind man that you like to swim, so he draws you diving into a goldfish bowl—which is apt, because this is the night when you are ordained to spend every social occasion of your adult life soaking wet.
Well, okay, I can't place all of the blame for my Nixonian flop-sweat disorder on one bat mitzvah. But it's a start. Granet reckons that a judicious course of beta-blockers (which can modulate the fight-or-flight response in stressful situations) paired with cognitive-behavioral therapy would help me reorganize my scrambled thought patterns, freeze my supply of trigger memories, and, as a result, dry me out.
Part of me (the lazy part, I suppose) is disappointed: I wanted an insta-solution inside a pill or a syringe. On the other hand, I'm impressed that the human brain has such a long, stubborn memory—that it's so committed to learning from past mistakes and keeping me safe from emotional harm, however ineptly. And I must admit, there are moments when I'm delighted by the spectacular Keystone Kops incompetence of my neurotransmitters, forever shouting "Fire!" in a crowded party space and setting off my sprinkler system. Just because it's happening to me doesn't mean it's not hilarious.
But maybe the joke's over. Maybe I should give the wilted wallflower that is my nervous system a makeover. It's been ordered around by a mortified 13-year-old long enough. And my party face could use some mascara.
Printed from Oprah.com on Friday, March 7, 2014
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