Anxiety is so complicated. It comes in many forms and for various different reasons – most of them are unexplainable. Sometimes it occurs in bouts, for example in my final year of college I suffered with anxiety attacks everyday for at least four months. Stress and the fear of failure had seemed to manifest itself and became something that was out of my control.
With the help of some amazing friends and teachers at my school I got over that period of my life and didn’t experience regular panic attacks ever again.
There was a time when I could explain the reasons behind why I got so anxious. It made sense around exam season, I was terrified of people being disappointed in me or having my worth defined by a grade. Driver’s anxiety made sense, I like to know where I’m going down to the last detail and if I don’t know where I am or the layout of the roads I start to panic. There’s lots of factors out of my control. These things weren’t too life changing, there’s more to life than exams and having a car.
The thing is, sometimes anxiety isn’t manageable – it can get out of control. It nearly took away one of the most important parts of my life.
You might think I’m being a tad dramatic, well I’m a (former, sigh.) drama student so I have a bit of a flair for it! I used to be such a confident performer, I’m not being cocky – I just never got nervous. I loved being on stage, I loved to act and sing, my dream was (and still is) to be able to work in the industry full time.
My usual calm demeanor changed on the night of my first musical theatre showcase. I had never been myself on stage before, I had always been playing a character with a ridiculous accent in plays or musicals. A showcase, that was limited to singing only – was new to me. I’d been a little shaky in the audition process, but otherwise my anxiety hadn’t presented itself until now.
I felt so much pressure all of a sudden. The audience was small, I was well rehearsed and ready – but out of nowhere my anxious brain took over. All I could hear was how much of a failure I was, that I’d never be as good as everyone else in the room, nobody would ever want to hear me sing again. The most annoying thing is, I can’t explain it. I know where all of my other anxieties come from, but I’d never felt inferiority with my voice, I’d always been confident in my abilities. Then ten minutes before I was due to sing, while I was on stage, my self esteem shattered.
There’s a video of this performance and looking at it, I can see that there’s something wrong. I usually tell people that I just didn’t want to do that performance or that I wasn’t well. Very few people know that I was anxious. The only thing that gives it away, beside the face of pure defeat – was my leg that was shaking like mad the entire time.
I was living my worst nightmare, I was on stage and having a panic attack. I could hear my heart beat, my face had started to go numb, I felt like my vocals were stealing all of my oxygen. Thankfully my better judgement and history with these attacks helped me to stay on stage and keep going.
I have no problem sharing that video because I think it’s important to know what a panic attack looks like. You can’t tell, plain and simple. There were times when mine were so terrible and that I was so low that I was past caring, but then there were other incidents when I wanted people to believe I was fine – and they did.
This experience created a new fear in me; what if I keep having panic attacks on stage? What if I stop enjoying performing and this degree is totally pointless? I have no back up plan and I’ll never be successful in anything I do because I’m too terrified to get on stage.
I had another two shows to do, both of them involved singing. I had panic attacks just before I went on with both. One of them was a graded performance for my first year of Uni, so it was important that I passed. I did, but my feedback wasn’t great. I was described as distant and vacant, I didn’t seem interested in taking part.
My second performance was my society’s performance of “Into the Woods” I played the Witch. There are no recordings of that musical, for which I’m very grateful! We were painfully unprepared, you could see it in the face of every cast and crew member.
From about midday the anxiety started to kick in. I was sure that this would be my last performance ever and that if I did a bad job of this one, then I’d have to change my degree and rethink everything.
So guess what, for an ill-equipped group, we actually did pretty well. I panicked right up until the moment I stepped on stage and from then on I didn’t enjoy myself but I kept at it. I was juggling a lot of fears and insecurities, they took precedence then daring to like what was going on around me.
I kept it up until my very last note in my final solo – my voice cracked. That wasn’t my anxiety, that really was my fault (No pun intended, if there’s any fans of the show out there reading this.). I was dehydrated and I tried to belt a note that was way out of reach.
When my voice cracked I expected to hear a gasp, or see grimaces in the audience…in fact I genuinely thought people would get up and start to leave. A part of me thought I was going to do all of those things as well, it was something that had never happened before. They stayed in their seats and I remained in character, my mistake went unacknowledged.
I remember asking my family afterwards, how bad was that note I missed? They shrugged, I remember them saying, you made one mistake – why would we judge you for that when the rest of your performance was fine?
I’m not sure why that stuck with me, but it did. That show was a “one night only” event but all of a sudden I wanted to do it again. Not to “fix my mistakes”, I genuinely wanted to go back on stage.
People didn’t react the way I had expected them to, they were living proof that my anxiety fuelled thoughts had all been wrong. That day taught me a lot. I mean first of all, when I sing I just feel like I can hit any note. You know like that old advert for alcoholism when that person thought they were superman and jumped off a building to get a balloon? Just like that drunk, my voice fell flat and from now on I will be listening to my vocal chords (Is that another bad pun?) and stay within my range.
More importantly, failing and facing my anxiety head on let me see that it was all rubbish. It let me see I still have talent and I am allowed to make mistakes. I think maybe my anxiety is about people seeing a vulnerable side that I don’t want others to see.
Without getting too deep and self-analytical, letting an entire see that part of me was the best thing that could have happened.
It’s not right for every situation. I will not get in the car and drive on the motorway and if I go on the train I will probably work out my escape route should there be an emergency. Those are habits I’m yet to quit, but I’m so grateful that I was able to fall back in love with performing.
I overcame my anxiety of being on stage, for someone who wants to be a performer, that’s pretty important. Don’t let mental illnesses ruin your passions. They can be debilitating at times and make basic tasks excruciating, but for some reason that stopped bothering me. Making me feel terrified of my biggest passion, that was the moment that I felt like my mind was betraying me. It’s strange how these things work.
This was supposed to be a 200 word mention in a blog about my experiences with anxiety in university and how to get help, I realised that this one deserved a post all by itself. I’m proud of getting over this one. I will never have a panic attack about performing again, every song I sing and every performance will be one I put my heart and soul into.
I’ve been thinking of posting that video online of my very first musical theatre showcase. Not to show off, but I really want people to know that panic attacks can be hidden and that sometimes there isn’t anything to look for. Let me know below if you think I should!
Thank you so much for reading my story.