Sweating It Out
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?"