I am in junior high school. It is time to audition for show choir. My knuckles ache from how tightly I am gripping the microphone, and my entire body trembles. As I begin to sing – a song I know backwards and forwards – my voice shakes, and I grip the microphone more tightly. As if in retaliation for my attempt to get myself under control, my mind goes blank. I forget the lyrics. “Shit,” I whisper into the live mike. A titter ripples through the full choir room. I don’t make the show choir.
I am in high school. I have been practicing a song with my church choir director for weeks. He has deemed me ready to perform in front of the congregation. I blow it. Every time, I blow it – I am shaking too much, or tears start to spill down my cheeks as I sing, or I completely blow a big note. This happens more times than I can count, but the choir director keeps giving me chances to try again. I fuck it up every. Single. Time. Finally, I stop going to church, for multiple reasons, but this is definitely part of it, because I can no longer take people asking why I am not using my God-given gifts to sing His praises.
I am in college. I am selected to sing a solo – Schubert’s Ave Maria. My voice professor has worked and worked and worked with me. I can sing it beautifully. He is in the balcony of the auditorium with the head of the university’s music department when I step forward to perform my solo next to the chorale’s star baritone, who will sing the male solo part. I am the first chair Soprano I. The spotlights blind me. My knees and hands shake violently and I nearly drop my folder of sheet music. My chest seizes up and I cannot take in a full breath. The simple piano overture begins and I struggle for composure. I completely blow a high A only a few measures into the piece. On Monday at my next voice lesson, my professor shakes his head. “Do you know what the head of the department said to me?” he asks. I can’t speak. “She made sure I knew that her student–” the baritone, he means– “didn’t blow his high note.”
The next semester, the chorale director summons me to his office. “I’m bumping you down to Alto II,” he tells me, and I am reeling. I have a three octave range. He tested me himself. I beg for another chance, and he lets me try to sing some scales. My throat closes up, I shake, and I can’t do it. “After you blew that solo last semester,” he says, “I thought I might have made a mistake.” At the end of the semester, after a disastrous concert solo and horrific vocal jury, I drop out of college.
Over the years, I join a musical comedy troupe. I sing in karaoke bars. Sometimes the nerves try to get me. I drink a lot to try to chill out. Sometimes it works and I sing my heart out and I remember why I love to do this. Sometimes I crash and burn. The crashes, I feel them deeply, and I weep at my failure. Why can’t I get myself under control? I love to sing, to perform, so why do I so often completely fall to pieces once I get on stage? What is wrong with me? No one else seems to have this problem. They seem to think I should not have it, either. It feels like a moral failing that I cannot pull myself together and perform.
I am in my thirties. I am in a karaoke bar in Denver. I am trying to sing a song I have sung so, so many times, a song that I love and know so well. I have had two large, strong drinks, but I can’t stop shaking. My voice wobbles, I have no control, my knees are absolutely jelly and I am terrified and upset. I get through it, and I get off the stage. This is the last straw. As much as I love to sing, I know I will never do it live and in public again. I am tired of fighting myself. It is exhausting, and I have had enough of the humiliation. I did my best, but I can’t win against the worst part of myself and I am so tired of trying. It is not fun anymore. I can’t remember the last time it was fun when I was sober. From that moment on, singing is for showers, for car trips, for only those times when I am alone, when no one can see me. That’s the only time it’s fun anymore, but it’s fun with an undercurrent of grief and of failure.
Singing and writing found me at approximately the same time – somewhere around the age of 9 or 10. I loved music and writing both, loved them wildly, deeply. I loved scrawling out long, florid lines of poetry or fanciful stories and reading them to people. But I was also a ham from an early age, put into children’s theater to discharge some of my attention-seeking energy. I held singing and dancing contests in my backyard (and frequently declared myself the winner). When I found out about the choir at my new middle school, I tried out. And I fell in love.
But then the stage fright hit me like a freight train. For a while, the confidence of a child carried me through it. I would fight through auditions on sheer will, I would win solos, I would win my place in state chorales. I fought myself through sectional solo competitions. I struggled and dragged myself through years of auditions. I felt so at home singing as part of a chorale, and I loved music so much, and I had a really good voice, I knew I did.
So why the fuck was it getting harder and harder to perform as a soloist?
Nobody else seemed to have the problem, nobody told me that I shouldn’t have to struggle like this.
The more I was determined to fight myself and win, the more horribly wrong things went.
Until I just couldn’t do it anymore.
I was sad about giving up performing arts, of course I was. Music is such a large part of who I am. But I didn’t have the will to keep struggling. Still, it’s not like I had lost my voice. I just couldn’t sing in public, that’s all. I told myself that was okay. And I still had writing. I didn’t really have the time or energy for my full-time day job, and writing, and performing. So this was all for the best. No more performing, no more horrifying public humiliations, no more jelly-knees and vocal tremors and blown notes. Wasn’t it worth it, to not have to deal with that anymore? So much less stress, less crying, less self-hatred.
Sure, this was better. This was good. This was fine.
I am thirty-nine years old. I am at a book fair. This is my first major appearance as a published author. I have one book out, and another coming. I have been excited about this for months.
As the fair is about to begin, I am at my signing table, nestled between two best-selling authors. I am asked a question by the PR expert of my publishing company. My composure and excitement falter – I can’t answer it. I admit that I cannot answer it. “Let’s brainstorm,” she says. A perfectly normal request.
My brain’s hard drive crashes, wipes out. To my absolute horror, I begin to shake, and my eyes fill with tears. I cannot stop myself. I am trying, so so so so so hard to not cry, I am mentally screaming stop stop stop this is fine why are you doing this stop it but the tears roll down my cheeks, my cheeks that are burning hot with humiliation at my failure to control myself. Oh, my God.
Chocolate and Kleenex are brought to me. I dab at my eyes, hoping my makeup isn’t a hot melting mess. The author to my right pats my shoulder. “You should probably get that under control,” she says, and I know she means my anxiety. I gather myself together and get through the fair. I meet so many great people, I talk and chatter and smile and sign things. When everything is over, I buy a few books and then I escape to my rental car and drive to get ice cream. I am seething, furious. Hasn’t this goddamn unpredictable anxiety taken enough from me? I gave it my music, I let it consume my ability to perform in public. Wasn’t that enough of a sacrifice? Public appearances are part and parcel of being a published author, if you want to get anywhere. Even if you are a only a minor writer with a small, but increasingly prestigious press. Writing is what I have left after feeding the monster my music, and in many ways I am already taking a beating from writing as I figure it out. Does the anxiety have to come after it, too?
I sit in the food court of a mall in Las Vegas, and I think about it, and I shake my head.
No, motherfucker. You do not get to take this, too. Not today. Not ever.
My doctor and I have a contentious relationship. I am fat, and she doesn’t believe I work out or eat vegetables. She has been hesitant to prescribe anything for my depression, so I am left to handle that alone. Sometimes she forgets that I also struggle with an eating disorder, that I am queer, and that I am a writer.
I keep saying I will find another doctor, but I don’t – I never feel like going through the hassle. I need a checkup, so I make an appointment. And I spend weeks practicing what I am going to say to her. I hope that I can say it.
I do. “Can we do something about the fact that when I make public appearances, I cry and shake uncontrollably?”
“Performance anxiety,” she says, nodding. “Yes, of course. Beta blockers have been prescribed to help with this for years. I’ll call some in for you.”
A few short sentences. Within hours, a small bottle of yellow pills.
I look up the medication. She’s right. String musicians seem to be the primary users of these beta blockers, but they’re all through the performing arts. People swear by them. They say their lives have been changed for the better, that they have their music back. I know this feeling, sort of. My previous doctor did prescribe anti-depressants to me during a particularly dark phase many years ago. I remember the darkness, and then a sleepy fog as my brain chemistry adjusted, and then I remember what it was like to live again.
Some people sneer at the idea of beta blockers, and call them “performance enhancing drugs.” This baffles me. Sure, it enhances the performance. It takes a shaking, weeping wreck that no one wants to see and turns them into someone who can belt out Un Bel Di in front of a sold-out concert hall. If that’s “performance enhancing” then sign me the fuck up. Me and everyone else who has ever stood in front of an audience and wished that hurling themselves into the orchestra pit was guaranteed to be fatal.
For a while, I hold the pill bottle, and I grieve. I wish I had known about these before. I think about how maybe if I had, I could have gotten through my vocal performance degree. There’s no guarantee, of course. After all, I was hopeless with instruments, and I had to pass at least four instrument classes as part of the degree. But the maybe sits heavy in my stomach. These things have been around and used for performance anxiety for longer than I have been alive. Maybe I could have finished school. If nothing else, definitely performing and auditioning did not have to be the minefield of terror that it so often was. I grieve, and sometimes, I am furious. So much potential wasted. So much terror fruitlessly struggled against. So many humiliations. It didn’t have to be like this. It never had to be like this.
I could have not given up my music.
Even today, a couple of weeks later, I am still upset and I sometimes have to stop typing for a moment to regain my composure. All those maybes. The loss is profound, and it hurts. It will come upon me when I least expect it and it hollows out my guts.
But I am a pragmatist. Slowly, the ache will fade, because I know how useless it is to dwell upon might-have-beens. And anyway, what if I had finished my degree? Then what? What would I have done then? I have no idea, but maybe none of it would have involved writing three books. I don’t know. I will never know. I can only know what I have already done.
I know that I have said you don’t get to take this, motherfucker, not this too, and I know that because I spoke up, I now hold in my hand the first real weapon I have ever gotten to take into battle against the paralyzing, strangling monster of my performance anxiety. Will it work? I don’t know. I am going to have to test it somehow, maybe by going to a karaoke bar, that would be the most expedient thing. But I have it. I have it because I have lost enough already, and I will not give up any other part of me without a fight.