I stood backstage amongst the paint-splattered floor and shelves of props. The brief buzz of the awaiting audience drifted through the curtain and pressed against my ears. Me and the other leads were standing in a circle just off stage. They were talking about something, but I wasn’t really listening. I had retreated far back into the confines of my consciousness. The present moment was filled with nothing but crippling fear. My therapist had told me it was the fear of “an unforgiving observer,” but everybody else called it stage fright. It was about the worst thing you could have if you loved performing, and as it so happened, I LOVED performing.
“That doesn’t make any sense” My dad had told me. “If you love performing, why are you scared to do it?” The answer was simple.
“I’m fine when I’m on the stage, it’s just right before when I start to panic.” Of course, this was met with the usual response.
“Well, everybody gets nervous honey” Ugh. I wish I could erase a sentence from the human language. If I could, I would make sure that sentence is never uttered from another parent’s mouth again. A panic attack isn’t just getting nervous. It isn’t just something everybody has to deal with. It isn’t just butterflies in my stomach, it's butterknives. Rusty, serrated, poisonous butterknives that slice up all my internal organs. Injecting poison that then leaks into my brain and makes me hallucinate all the millions of ways I can fail. It turns my imagination against me, using it to make the stage into a terrible monster.
“Guys, the shows in five minutes!” I heard someone say beside me. Oh god. I heard my heart pounding in my chest. I felt dizzy. I needed to calm down. I attempted the breathing exercises my therapist had taught me. In for four, hold for five, release for seven. It only made my hands shake. Just breath. I told myself. My throat felt dry. I needed water. Go get water, go now, your voice is going to sound weird, run to the dressing room, go. I resisted the thought. I couldn’t leave now, I am fine, I told myself as my friend Stephanie burst into our little group of leads.
“I just peeked through the curtain, and guys, we have a full house!” She squeaked. Oh god, oh god, oh god. Now it was time to panic. The rest of the group let out a small cheer, I stayed silent. My mind began buzzing, and not in a good way, in the “swarm of wasps chasing you” kind of way. I lost my breath again. I couldn’t get it back. My head shot up at the clock. Four minutes. The rest of the leads gathered closer to me.
“You guys ready?” Paul said.
“Yeah,” The circle said. I managed to put out a small “yeah,” with them. I didn’t want them to know I was freaking out.
“We're going to kill it tonight. It's opening night, we got a full house. We got a kick-ass crew, and you guys are so good!” Paul finished. My vision was starting to do the zoom-out thing where it seems like everything is getting further away.
“Yeah, seriously this show is one of the best I’ve ever been in,” Wyatt said from next to me. I wanted to agree with Wyatt but in the current moment, the show seemed like the worst decision I had ever made.
“I can’t believe we pulled it together,” Steph said. “The show was lowkey a total mess like a week ago” Everybody laughed, I laughed softly along, at least the part of me still there. The rest was in full panic mode. Every alarm switched flipped. DEFCON 1.
“Yeah, for real, I mean, the fact that I got my costume yesterday…” Courtney said with a smirk making everybody laugh again. I managed a smile.
“Hey, there were a few bumps, but this show turned out so good, and yesterday’s dress rehearsal, I mean, god damn ya’ll popped off,” Paul said. Steph glanced at me. I was sure she could see the sweat glistening on my face.
“Hey, Kate you, okay?” She asked me. Everybody turned my way; I felt my face get hot.
“Yeah.” I lied. Steph continued to study me for a second. She knew I was prone to freakouts before shows, but I also happened to be a pretty good actor, so she eventually looked away. Everybody kept talking as my mind retreated into its acrobatics.
What if I forget a line? Oh god, I’m going to forget a line. Wait. What was my first line again? What was it... Come on, come on, think, think, think, what was it? How did you forget this? Go and get your book now. Run. Get it now.
I knew deep down I had my lines down and I just needed a cue line to remind me, but my brain was stuck.
Just peek at your book. It's in the dressing room. Go get it. One more glance. Just one more. Go, GO. I caved in and slowly backed out of the group. Then turned and walked away hoping nobody noticed me. I can make it back in time, yeah, just one peek, that’s all. I knew this wasn’t true. The show was about to start, and I entered in the middle of the first scene. Leaving now was reckless, but I had to look at my lines. I had to. I glanced briefly back at my castmates who were chatting happily and disappeared down the hallway to the girl's dressing room. As soon as the door closed behind me, I collapsed on the floor. I didn’t have to pretend anymore, no more acting like calm Kate, no more putting on a show for everybody, now I let my anxiety take control. My breathing was fast and raspy as I threw myself at my script and tore it open to my first scene. I read the first line. I knew it instantly.
“I can’t believe I forgot that.” I thought. “Oh god. What if I forget it again? I can’t do this. I’m going to draw a blank, I know I am. Why did I even do this? That was so stupid. Why am I so stupid?” I threw the script on the ground and wrapped my arms around my knees. The room was spinning. My breathing was out of my control.
“I’m ruining the show everybody worked so hard on because my stupid brain overreacts and overthinks, and I can’t control it, and what’s wrong with me?” I couldn’t settle down my breath. I couldn’t stop my thoughts. “I’m going to mess up, I can’t do it, oh god, this was so stupid, why did I think I could do this? Thoughts began to circle through my brain at hyper speed. I was paralyzed. Paralyzed just because I wanted to do something that I loved, just because I wanted to be part of a show, play a part, entertain an audience. It’s so stupid. I heard the dressing room door open and peeked up and saw Steph’s long brown hair trailing behind her as she entered.
“Kate! We’re starting, we have to go!” She yelled at me. I glanced up at her. My breathing grew faster.
“I’m sorry” I managed to say as I shoved my face in my knees again.
“Oh Kate,” Steph said as she bent down to my level. She stretched her arms around my huddled body and squeezed tightly. I felt her warmth soak into me. Her breathing, calm and steady.
“It’s okay,” she said in a soft voice. “Don’t be nervous, you’re going to be amazing” The stabbing in my stomach let up a little at her embrace. I felt it being replaced by a fluttering sensation. A light tingle. Butterflies. I lingered in the feeling for a second. Forgetting about the show. Forgetting about the fear. It was just me and Steph, dressed in glorious costumes as she eased and ignited my heart impossibly at the same time. She pulled away and looked into my eyes.
“Hey, you can do this,” she said
“I don’t know” I replied. Steph reached down and grabbed my hand.
“Kate, look at me, say you can do this” Her hand was cold, but a nice cold. I took a deep breath and focused on the tingling in my stomach. I felt relaxed and safe with Steph. My breathing was evening out. I think I can do this. I thought.
“Kate?” Steph asked again.
“I can do this” I managed to say as I met her gaze.
“You mean it?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Are you sure?” She asked with a squint. I laughed a little and smiled at her.
“Yes, I swear, I can do this.”
“Okay well then let’s go kick some ass,” she said as she pulled me up to my feet and towards the door. She stopped just before she got to the door. She turned around and gave me a kiss on the cheek. My stomach buzzed, but not in a bad way, in a good way, like a cat’s purr kind of way. She then yanked me out of the dressing room and back towards the curtains. I felt my stomach lurch at the sight of them. The butterknives of panic returned. I braced myself for the onslaught of thoughts but, to my surprise, none surfaced. I only felt the mixture of butterflies and butterknives inside of my stomach, locking themselves in an all-out battle for my attention. I heard my cue line ring out on the stage. Its time. I glanced over at Steph; she gave me a supportive nod. I can do this. I assumed my posture and stepped out on stage. In a flash the butterknives disappeared, leaving nothing but butterflies, all fluttering and buzzing in the best way imaginable.