It’s the middle of Winchester high street. Market day. The tarpaulin tents flap against the cobbled street as vendors shout their wares, or idly check their phones. People are channelled on two sides of the street, the stalls a colourful river running between them, and every so often the flow of pedestrians halts so people can pick at the homemade trinkets and fudge. There are people everywhere, laughing, talking.
And on this street, I sing. With a headphone covering one ear, my other focused on my pitch, I walk up and down this high street singing to myself. I have a special playlist on my phone, full of songs that I am confident in singing. I am not quiet, nor loud; strangers close to me cast curious looks, but ultimately I am undisturbed as I weave between the crowd.
I am singing because I have to; I am singing to stop a panic attack.
My fondest childhood memories are linked to the stage.
Given the starring role at my junior school production.
Watching my older brother perform on stage, first in the audience then, as a starry eyed little sister peeking out from the wings.
Writing and directing a one act play, winning the Best Original Script award at a local drama festival.
And, of course, being under the stage lights myself.
To this day, I have never experienced stage fright. I’ve had butterflies in my stomach, of course. The adrenaline shot through my veins as you hit your cue, emerging from the blackness of the wings to the flood lights, your sense of self replaced with another, the character stepping through the script and into you. I meet the eyes of an audience with a sense of indifference. Who cares what they see? All that matters is the new persona I have adopted, right now, in this moment.
It wasn’t long after I followed my brother into amateur dramatics that I began after-school singing lessons. I’m not Taylor Swift or anything, but I had a nice voice that I wanted to improve, and I like the way it felt to belt out my favourite songs. I performed in few singing shows alongside my drama, joined and dropped a few choirs – I was never too committed to taking singing seriously, but I was just committed enough to feel that performance high.
When I eventually stepped back from drama – getting ready for exams, as well as focusing on my writing – I found that my singing stuck with me. Pretty soon, it became a companion of sorts. Something I could always fall back on, to loosen the tension inside myself, or to just have a good time. As I journeyed into university life, my habit for spontaneous song numbers travelled with me. Didn’t matter if I was at a party or in a seminar, doing chores or catching up on coursework, somehow I’d find an excuse to sing. I’m sure if you asked my university friends which one of us would most likely burst into a fully-prepared musical number, I’d probably be at the top of their list.
But things are never as simple as they seem.
I lean back in the small armchair of the waiting room, hands bunched into fists on my jeans. The carpets are plush, red and dusty, like an old woman’s sitting room, with decorative paintings lining the wallpaper on all sides. The smell gives it away; that metallic, clinical smell of a doctor’s surgery, mingled in with the summer heat. I shift awkwardly in my chair, headphones around my neck, trying not to meet the eyes of the nurses behind the desk in the corner. Sunlight grazes the back of my head, but the warmth that spreads across my rib-cage comes from within. A stream of heat, rising up from the pit of my stomach to my collar, like a trickle of steam rising from a kettle.
Here I was: in my second year at university, eyes stinging, waiting to see my counsellor for the fifth time, the aches of last night’s panic attack still crawling on my shoulders.
I didn’t recognise my anxiety until I arrived at university, but part of me always sensed the dark haze looming over everything that I did. It had been inside me for as long as I could remember, trapped in my denial, tucked away behind excuses and adolescence. But the new people, the deadlines, the late nights, the possibility of screwing it all up, applied just enough pressure for the cage to snap.
The fearlessness in the face of an audience. The enjoyable rush of the spotlight. It doesn’t follow me into the real world. It never has.
In fact, the real world has always been far more terrifying than any audience I have ever encountered. And my thoughts, even more so.
My name is called. I stand up from the chair and follow my counsellor down the hallways, brushing off her small talk with nervous laughter. She leads me into a small room, where a long wooden desk sits pressed beneath the window, the daylight mixing with the fluorescent light overhead, bleaching the flat computer screen a startling white. My counsellor gestures to one of the chairs in front of the desk. Already, I can feel the tears stinging the corners of my eyes as I sit down. My stomach clenches inward, as though I’ve been punched by an unseen fist, but I force myself to sit upright, smile, and laugh awkwardly as she asks me how my week has been.
Pretty soon, I’m reciting the stories that should have been symptoms. The time I burst into tears in a Marks and Spencer’s changing room because I thought everything I wore was ugly on me. The time I spent three days not speaking at the dinner table, because I was certain that my family didn’t care about me. The emptiness I felt when I recieved good grades and praise, because As were the standard I was, in my mind, expected to reach. (And the subsequent depression when those standards were not met.) The way my entire self-worth could be dictated on a stray comment. The idea that meeting new people, going to new places, doing new things, is met with such an overwhelming sense of fear that merely choosing what to do with my day becomes agonising. The hours I would spend, trying to stop my heart from racing, trying to stop the panic swelling in my chest, without showing anyone that my body was in pain.
Anxiety wants me to be silent. It clogs my lungs with its haze of doubt. It makes every word I speak sound wrong, pointless. It draws me inward, luring me towards a thousand critical eyes, a classic Greek chorus inside my head, watching from the fringes of my life. Their voices comment on my choices with a sneer and ironic tone.
You are a burden upon your family.
Your friends don’t really like you.
You’re so lazy.
“Would you say that you hate yourself?”
“Yes.” It’s the easiest question the counsellor asks all session.
When my time is up, I step out of the GP into the sunlight and the world tilts. I’m standing on solid concrete, but a tingling runs across my entire body. The air is water – I’ve been thrown adrift in an ocean. Floating. The pounding of my blood churning through my ears, while the heat in my chest explodes into an inferno. I rub my eyes and walk. I don’t care where. Escape is the only thing I can think about, amid the flurry of voices inside my head. Telling me how useless I am. Telling me that I’ll never amount to anything. That I still have so much work to do. In an effort to drown them, I tug my headphones onto my ears and unlock my phone.
The playlist comes into view. Don’t do it. The chorus whispers. You don’t really want to do it. You just want to distract yourself. It won’t help you. Nothing can help you. You’re broken.
It knows. I know it knows. And sometimes, the voices win. But not this time.
I press play. The first song: Invisible Touch by Genesis. By the time I’m in the high street, I’m quietly singing the final lines. There’s a red flush upon my cheeks, but the fire inside me has changed. Where once it was the fuel for a panic attack, it’s now pushing me to sing louder. The next song comes on and I do so, raising the volume just enough to catch the eyes of an old couple, across the street. They murmur to themselves, smiling, looking at me, and a familiar sense of indifference washes over.
It doesn’t matter what they think. All that matters is the persona I’ve adopted. Maybe I’ll be the funny story they tell their Grankids tonight – Maybe I’ll just be forgotten, lost in the chaos of their day. All that matters is this moment, here, now, where my voice is just one in a crowded high street, but where it can still be heard. Despite everything anxiety does to silence me, I exist. I am alive. And with that small affirmation, I can find a way to live.
There is a difference, I think, between stage-confidence and self-worth. When I’m in the eyes of the audience, I’m not really in the eyes of anybody. It’s a character. It’s a performance. It’s a concrete mask on a porcelain actor. When I sing or act, when I’m giving a presentation or reading a poem, I am not myself. And with this temporary distance, I can bring myself into a sense of calm – I can look at the real me, with all her cracks, and begin to figure out how I can fix them.
There’s still a lot I need to improve upon. But there’s also a lot of songs out there. And as long as I keep singing – as long as I use my voice to fight back anxiety’s silence – I know that I will continue to pull through.