There are several varieties of anxiety, and let me tell you I have them all. I live and deal with them all with varying degrees of ... success? But today we're going to focus on Performance Anxiety. This type doesn't just smack me upside the head if I have to give a speech, or some type of musical performance, oh no. Anytime I have to get up and talk in front of people, have to call someone on the phone, an interview, giving a work presentation (even over a conference call), speaking in meetings, meeting co-workers, bosses, or even co-workers working for me for the first time. You may not think of some of these things as "performance anxiety" situations, but I have to perform. I'm the one in the spotlight. I have a job to do (perform).
A family friend visited my dad and I a week or so ago for the day. He asked if I had done any field work recently. And I was explaining why I don't do field work much anymore. But I had recently done a very small survey for a cell tower installation, and I was explaining how just that simple task can cause anxiety. He was shocked to hear how much preparation I do, even for a simple cell tower survey that took less than 10 minutes to actually do. But I do all these tasks and preparations to keep my anxiety from overwhelming me and keeping me from doing my job. I have to prepare for any outcome. Which vehicle should I take? How many miles from my house is it? Are there alternate routes? Is there a gate? Which road do I use as access? Who do I have to call to say I'm coming? Where should I park? What does the area look like? What's the terrain? I Google Earth the shit out of it. I print out maps and aerial images. Check batteries in my backup GPS unit, charge the phone, get all my field gear packed into said vehicle I chose to take earlier. All the day before I even leave to do the tiny survey. I've learned to just not think, and dial the phone number of the mystery person who answers when I have to call to say I'm coming. Otherwise I flounder and over think all possible outcomes of said phone call and I get so worked up, I can hardly talk and form sentences when the mystery person answers. I didn't say to our family friend that the map app on my phone didn't work, so it was good that I had looked at maps and my route before, and that even though I knew where I was going and what to look for, and what the place looked like, I was having to do breathing exercises to calm my nerves the closer I got to the site.
I have to do varying degrees of this preparation for any part of my job that takes me out of my house. I work from home these days, by the way. The more I do something, like say drive to Turlock to do what we call Records Searches at CSU Stanislaus, the less anxiety I feel. I know how to get there. I know several, and have driven several alternate routes to the school's campus. I know where all six car charging stations are on campus. I know where all the pay stations are. I know where the building and room is now. I know my way around the stacks and file cabinets, and how finicky the copy machine is. But do I still get anxious? I do. The last time I went there, four of the six charging stations had blue screens of death. There was a car charging on the fifth one. I was lucky that the sixth and final one was open and working. Otherwise I would have had to find somewhere to charge the car... in the middle of The Central Valley. I have an app for that, but still, I was starting to panic a bit driving from parking lot to parking lot and seeing the blue screens of death. Another good example of what happens when even with all the preparation I do, everything goes wrong, and what happens to me is here.
I have a trifecta, a triple threat. I'm an introvert with depression and anxiety. Let's all have a panic attack! Wee! I know now from life and job experiences I have had what will and could give me anxiety. I know how to control my breathing. I know what works and doesn't work when I get nauseous from said anxiety. I know how to curb it, lessen its effects on my body and psyche. I know to prepare. I know when to say no. I know what I can and cannot do and what I am willing to put myself through. I know all this now. When I was a kid or even a teenager? I had no idea.
My experiences with piano are bit more sinister. Like I said earlier, as a kid, I loved playing and performing on the piano. As I got older and better, I started signing up to play the offertory on a Sunday morning at church. My teacher and I would pick out a song and work on it for my performance. The day would arrive, and I'd get nervous. Sweaty hands and the shakes. My ears would burn hot. I would get through the song. I'd usually do a pretty good job but I would always make at least one or two mistakes, that to me were very obvious. But I'd get done, everyone would clap, and I'd get a few accolades after the service from people. I felt good after, and determined to do better next time. Well one of those next times ended up being the worst experience I ever had while sitting at a piano. Even my mother was pissed off, not at my horrible bombing at the keys, but at what happened right after.
Well I had this big cool idea about how I was going to tell this trauma tidbit, but I couldn't find the song book this particular song came out of, and I can't remember the name of the song, or even how it went. It must have been quite traumatizing if I actually got rid of the book and can't remember anything about it. Anyway, here's the less dramatic version: I bombed. Everyone knew I bombed. But I pushed through and finished. I was almost in tears. I stood up and was about to walk out of the sanctuary to go hide in the bathroom for the rest of my life when the asshole pastor that was there at that time called me over to him... ON STAGE. I don't remember his exact words anymore, but said something to the effect of "good job on powering through that. Go practice some more, you obviously weren't ready, and come back and play it again", then patted me on the back or something. By then I was balling my eye out, snot was running from the nose, face red from extreme embarrassment. I'm an ugly crier. It's one thing to say something after I left the stage, but it was extremely embarrassing and very traumatic for me to be called out, told to walk to center stage where he was and be both "comforted and scolded" in front of the entire congregation. No one would have seen me crying, had I been allowed to flee when I wanted to. I have to note here too that this pastor had very poor people skills, which is why I put comforted in quotations. He thought he was doing something good and encouraging for me when what he did had the opposite effect. After I was excused, I went and sat down next to my parents and cried some more. My mom was pissed he did that to me. She knew how nervous I would get. She wrapped me in her arms and said "do you want to leave?", I nodded my head (since I still couldn't speak), and she took me home. Maybe a month or so later I was slated to play the offertory again, and I was going to redeem myself and play that song again. I practiced my ass off. The Sunday arrived, and I couldn't do it. I couldn't get up on the stage. I told my piano teacher (who was the church pianist) that I couldn't do it. She said okay, and she took the sheet music from me and played it herself. She bombed. Not nearly as bad as me, but she made noticeable mistakes. That made me feel slightly better, knowing that even my teacher couldn't get through that song without messing up. She later told me during one of our lessons that that song was hard and not my style. So we chucked it. But from that point on, my performance anxiety got worse. I got even more nervous. It's at the point now, that I will start getting anxious or nervous days before I have to do whatever it is I have to do.
Now this same piano teacher, who was the church pianist, was grooming me to take her place. She didn't want to be the church pianist. I wanted to learn Chopin, Debussy, and Joplin. I didn't want to be the church pianist. That style of music and playing was not in my wheelhouse. She was shoving church music down my throat when what I really wanted was to learn Rags, Nocturnes, and Concertos. But I never said anything. I was timid. I just wanted to please her and everyone. I eventually stopped practicing what she assigned me. I'd make up excuses (sometimes they'd be legit like when I'd jam my fingers playing softball). And eventually I stopped showing up for my lessons. I quit. I stopped playing piano at church. I lost my passion for it. Had I had spoken up and said, no, I don't want to learn this. I want to learn to play this, perhaps I'd still be playing today. I eventually taught myself to play Chopin's Prelude #4 in E Minor from an "easy" book, but what I wanted to learn and couldn't teach myself was Chopin's Nocturne #2 in E Flat. Which one is that, you ask?
That piano teacher eventually left the church for another (her husband was a music pastor). I did not fill her shoes when she left. I did play the violin as part of the "worship team" for a year or so. Which I was completely fine with. Playing with a group on an instrument that wasn't front and center was fine. No nerves, no anxiety. And playing church music on the violin was not difficult.
I so wanted to be a musician when I was younger. I wanted to be in a band. I wanted to be in a symphony orchestra. I wanted to tour the world and play music. My dad had bought me midi software for our family computer that I could plug my keyboard into. I wrote so many songs. I loved recording and layering tracks. I was showing off a piece I was working on to my then extended family. My then sister-in-law was so impressed (I still think she was just catering to me, but whatever) she wanted to use the song in her wedding. So I worked on it and worked on it, and my dad worked on how to get it onto a cd, and it was used in her wedding. I was so proud... and frustrated, because I heard all the little mistakes I made. I'm sad that all those songs I created are lost and gone forever.
So in my last years of high school and into college, I knew that my dream of being a musician would not happen because of two things: my lack of skill and my performance anxiety. Even if I could have concurred one of those things, the other would have still stopped me.
You know what I just realized while writing this up? I have little to no pictures of me actually playing any instrument. The only one I could find is in here above (my dad found the one of me playing my bass). That's kind of sad.
Well, so now you know a bit about why I'm not a professional musician, public speaker, teacher, or anything involving me being in any kind of spotlight. And I didn't even go into any details about panic attacks, stress induced anxiety, self image/doubt anxiety, travel anxiety, or social anxiety. Oh yes, all those are so fun too.
So until next time... Don't be offended when I don't answer your call, say no to your invite to a crowded bar, or trip to the mall on a weekend. I have my reasons.
Let's Dig In Series links: Religion Part I and Part II Depression Part I Obsession