I had an experience today that was both a failure and a success. Most people call them learning experiences. That’s a grand statement, but for those with depression and severe anxiety, you don’t learn, you just repeat until you learn to cope.
Today’s story relates to something I wrote about a long time ago on this blog, but don’t talk about it much. I graduated from college with a bachelor’s in music performance. I was good. Not the greatest, but I played well enough I could have made a career out of it. About 6 months after I graduated, I started having panic attacks. I won’t say music was the trigger, but I will say I was unable to perform in any capacity.
What does anxiety mean to a musician? Well, imagine you are onstage, with hundreds of people watching. You can’t breathe. Your chest feels like somebody is crushing it. Your fingers won’t move because they’ve suddenly become cold and stiff. All you want to do is run off the stage and hide in a corner. Now imagine you’re halfway through a Beethoven symphony, or plugging through a solo piece.
I think the closest I could liken this to is this: One time, in Las Vegas, I was in my car and stuck at the intersection of Flamingo and Maryland Parkway. Las Vegas traffic being what it is, I was sandwiched at the turn signal in the middle of a bunch of cars and unable to move. My brain decided that was a perfect panic moment, and instead of my body having the freedom to flight (panic attacks are flight-or-fight), I was stuck sitting there. Vegas traffic lights are dumb and long, but I swear that 3 minute time period felt like an hour. The light eventually changed, and I had enough sanity left to pull into the first driveway and sit there until I composed myself. I’ve never forgotten that moment because for a brief time I was sure I’d either pass out or run out of my car. I held it together long enough to get through it, and after I got home I sat shaking in my living room until it all passed.
Like the time I panicked and dropped a full basket in the checkout lane at the grocery store and ran out, I had immense shame. I felt like every person was staring at me and judging me. I never went back to that store, and for the record, I never drove through that same intersection again.
Back to music: one of the many reasons I gave up music after I graduated was because I was unable to sit on a stage for any length of time without having a panic attack. I remember my last performance before I quit. I barely held it together, and when it was over I swore I’d never put myself in that position again. I’d say it weighed heavily in the favor of quitting. So I quit.
Years later, I found myself playing again. I was in a better place. The panic attacks had abated to the point where they were no longer several times a week but at the worst a few times a year. I stood on the stage, and I had the confidence to get through what I was doing. I’ve done multiple solo concertos, duets with famous musicians, and pushed through heavy-duty arias. Never once did I freak out.
And then there was today.
Today wasn’t quite any other day. For some backstory: I’m mostly okay, and I’m honestly ok now. That said, I’ve hit a rough patch with the depression. Up until last week, I spent the previous month hiding in my house, avoiding humans, and in general trying to shrink up into nothing. I promised I’d do a Mozart Sinfonia with some other winds in my orchestra, and while I could not give a single fucking crap, I pushed through it and got the music under my fingers. I put reminders on my personal calendar to make sure I did the work. I made myself sleep by taking a half-dose of Benadryl, even though most days I barely scratched out 4 hours. In short, I made a promise, and I made myself keep it. Even though I really didn’t care.
In addition, I was asked to play at a small fundraiser for the orchestra. All of my previous experiences were amazing, so I figured why not. I dusted off Marcello and ran it a few times to make sure I was cool. I was cool. I had enough threads to hang onto I knew I could do it.
That was all well and good, but my brain decided otherwise. I had that stupid music down. I can do it from memory in my sleep. Today, I just couldn’t. It’s like I burnt out all the energy I had with work, and by the time I hit that fundraiser, I was broken. I made it through about 2/3 of the second movement, and then the full panic set in. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. I actually stopped the accompanist (who was our guest soloist for this concert series). He was such a kind man, he gave me a minute, and said “where would you like to pick up?” I took a breath, gave him a measure, and finished it. When it was over, I pulled out enough words to thank everyone for their patience.
That wasn’t the amazing part. The amazing part was after the first set was over, everyone came over to talk to me. One patron said, “I don’t know why you would get nervous for music illiterates like us”. Another gal, our amazing coloratura soprano, said “You make me feel so much better about my mistakes! You are always so perfect, and never mess up. Now I don’t feel so bad about the time I forgot the words to that one song.”. Another lady said “Don’t even worry, I hear you perform flawlessly all the time. I just wish you could have enjoyed the music as much as we did.”
After that whole experience, Previous Me would have been embarrassed. I would have run away and never played again. I realized I not only held it together, I did it with grace. I cracked jokes with the audience. I smiled and chatted with people. After the performance, I explained what happened to everyone that came to chat with me. I talked about the difficulty of the piece. Explained what anxiety is like. Told them to come to the concerts, because I’ll be just fine. And they were all loving and caring because they’ve heard me play before and just want the best for me.
I’ve not shed one single tear over that mishap, and I’ve pulled out the strength to push through the upcoming concerts where I’m a guest soloist. No, I am not cured of the depression sinkhole I’m in. I just know I can still do it, and this will pass.