Hundreds upon hundreds of my mildly intoxicated peers cheer as I, and the rest of my hall’s Big Night Out Band, stride on stage – ready to seize the glory of an almost-not-quite podium finish. The mostly-anonymous crowd listen as I pluck the microphone from its stand and give the band the introduction it deserves. As far as I can tell no one can see what is bubbling just beneath the surface. I’m a musician, and I suffer from panic attacks.
My vision is blurred, and my whole body is numb as if I’m constantly hitting a rather unsavoury turn of the limbic rollercoaster. The lights are hot on my face, and the noise is disorientating. I’m on the cusp of fainting and, as the noise dies down, my heart fills with an unknown and unfettered sense of dread. My stomach flips. I want to scream. I want to run. I want to cry. I look to the crowd, each occupant wearing a judge’s wig and holding a clipboard. They’ve come to see a show and, like a lion prancing and roaring for its tamer, that is what I aim to give – one way or the other.
It’s always like this. No matter how often I perform or how well I prepare — every time I perform in any sense of the word I have a panic attack. Although some are more severe than others, they’re inevitable. To be honest, I was scared to even write all of this down and publicly come to terms with what I go through on a regular basis. But thankfully, I’ve developed a way of dealing with the urgently lachrymose anxiety that means I am able to perform. There’s a sort of cognitive dissonance I’ve trained myself to apply seconds before walking on stage. I push all of those feelings to a corner of my mind, assuring myself they will be dealt with later, and distract myself by concentrating on a certain riff or acting like a badass Alex Turner type. Anything to occupy the more dangerous corners and crevasses of my consciousness. When it’s all done and dusted, I can walk off stage and deal with the emotions I’ve been nursing throughout the show, when all eyes are on someone else. It’s not healthy, and that fifteen or twenty minutes after the show is hell, but I still do it. Because the worst thing is that despite these obstructions, I love to perform.
Channelling my idols and borrowing different moves or flourishes, in my mind, excuses me from embarrassment — like hey, I didn’t think of this, blame Bowie if you don’t like it. By interpreting and reconveying these little bits and pieces of musical history, I’m doing something that is unique and that I can be proud of. But it’s still a bit like eating a Tammaco from that old episode of The Simpsons. It seems like every bite is disgusting, but I can never get enough. The thrill of performing is more exciting than anything else I’ve ever tried, jumped off or ingested, and it makes me proud to know that I can do something like this. It can be done.
I thought that this is the kind of thing I would have wanted to read five or six years ago — a time in my life where even talking to more than three or four people at once would make me feel like my heart was slowly inflating, threatening to pop at any moment. It was also the time I realised that these episodes made it incredibly unlikely I would ever be able to fulfil my dream of performing music in any sense. To have known that there are people like me out there, that love what they fear and do it anyway, would have made sense of so much in my life. It’s possible if you’re willing to take the plunge. I’m proud of what I can do and what the task requires of me. All it takes is the courage to accept the audience’s invitation, to have the pluck to prove that you are as exceptional as you believe you can be. Everyone has hurdles to overcome in the pursuit of their passion; it’s just a matter of building the nerve.