What makes me hesitate to share this story is the simple truth that the act of a woman publicly coming forward about a personal experience often results in the perception that she is attempting to victimize herself or vilify others. I am not interested in any of that. I am, however, interested in spreading some awareness about what it is to live with anxiety. As a musician. And as a female. So at the risk of burning professional bridges and/or sounding like a “crazy bitch,” I decided to go ahead and click that terrifying little share button:
So there I was, getting ready to play a restaurant gig. I was the second act on the lineup, so I arrived early and had plenty of time to grab a drink and order food. A nice man walks up to me and introduces himself as the percussionist for the first act. We chatted awhile, then he mentioned he’d be happy to sit in with me on my set. I politely declined, sharing with him that I struggle with anxiety and that it’s really hard for me to play on the fly with other musicians without rehearsing first.
I should note here what may not be obvious about this situation. Though I have reached a place where I’m generally comfortable talking about my anxiety via writing or music or performing, this information is not the easiest thing for me to share willy-nilly in the first one-on-one discussion I have with someone. I just met you, and off the bat I must disclose something that makes me very vulnerable and insecure as both a musician and a human. If I were a man, I think a simple “no, thanks” might have been sufficient, but this isn’t my first rodeo. A woman’s "no" doesn’t carry the same weight, and often requires an explanation, so I made sure to be as personal and direct and nonthreatening as possible when attaching my addendum.
The man and I joked that I picked a real winner of a profession seeing as how anxiety and performing don’t always go hand in hand (har har har, so peculiar, my life choices). People commonly assume that anxiety equals stage fright. It might for some, but not for me. I rarely have stage fright, and I’ve quite confidently performed for several (okay, maybe 5-6) large crowds in my day (hair flip). Vulnerable again, I shared with him that I’ve thankfully found ways to cope with my anxiety and that I even take medication for it.
Our pleasant conversation concluded and the night rolled on. The first act played a great set while I scarfed down some dinner with my wife, and then it was my turn to go on. My expectations for anyone to listen to my original songs were low, as I’ve played enough background music/bar gigs in my day to just grind through it. Even so, I was digging the atmosphere and enjoying myself. I was in the middle of a song when the aforementioned percussionist walked up to the stage area and started playing his cajon. Immediately, I felt the anxiety starting to well up in my chest. Across the room, I locked huge eyeballs with my wife. She’s witnessed my anxiety firsthand enough to know this was a red flag.
I had a decision to make, and I had to make it fast. Either roll over and let it happen (as I probably would have done in my younger years), or find my big-girl voice and stand up for myself. After the song finished, I leaned over and reiterated to the man that I didn’t feel comfortable playing with musicians on the fly. Going so far as to comfort him (why to women do this!?) I even persisted in my reassurance that it nothing to do with him and everything to do with my own comfort level and anxiety. He proceeded to tell me how good he was at “feeling it out” to which I stated again that it had absolutely nothing to do with him or his skills as a musician. Then came the zinger. “Just give it one song,” he prodded. Now I was filled with anxiety and rage. Did this guy who I’ve known for a total of five minutes really just give me the musical equivalent of the classic “just the tip, just to see if it feels good” line?! I stared at him in disbelief and once again told him I wasn’t comfortable with him there. He finally got up and left.
Now, I’ve struggled with anxiety for so long that I’ve learned to control it…to a point. I am like a volcano in human form. When a panic attack is brewing, I might look fine on the outside, but there is lava-flavored dread bubbling just below the surface, invisible steam coming out of my ears, and I’m just waiting for an opportune (aka private) moment to erupt. I believe one of the reasons anxiety seems so vague (and dare-I-say imaginary) to people who don’t struggle with it is because the many people who do seem to have developed superhero powers when it comes to mastering the discrete panic attack.
On with the show, volcano. Still flustered, I trucked along with a few more covers until the guitarist from the first act heard one he liked and decided to join in. Now, I will clarify here that this man is a longtime friend of mine, and we had previously discussed the possibility of collaborating on a couple songs. Those two crucial details put me much more at ease than the previous encounter with the stranger-percussionist. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done at this point, so the whole thing felt a little twilight zone-y. I could feel the panic attack inching up my throat, so I set myself on autopilot and powered through the rest of my set as quickly as possible.
When it was over, I rushed into the restroom and locked myself in a stall. On came the tears. On came the heaving gasps for breath. On came the irrational thoughts that my lungs were going to collapse under the weight of my chest. I didn’t realize until I heard a toilet flush that someone was in the other stall.
Her: “Are you okay?”
Me: “Ye(gasp)ss. I’m(gasp)just(gasp)having(gasp)a(gasp)panic(gasp)attack.”
Her: “Do you want me to stay in here with you?”
Me: “No. I just (gasp) need to (gasp) get my (gasp) breath back.”
Her. “Ok, just take deep breaths.” Heads to the door. Pauses... “If it’s about a boy, just don’t think about him. Think about something else!”
It wasn’t really the best time or place to educate a stranger about my sexual orientation, but I appreciated her sincere offer to help, and her willingness to listen and accommodate my request for space. I finally gained enough composure to leave the stall, wash my face, and walk back to my seat. I could have kicked myself for not carrying my Xanax with me, but thankfully my dear friend had some essential oils in her purse. She gave me a good douse and I finally started to calm down.
Once I regained control of my breath, the shame, assumptions, and crippling self-doubt came along right on cue. Man, this drummer dude probably thinks I’m a crazy diva bitch. We share a lot of mutual friends – what’s this going to do to my reputation in the music scene? My friend will probably never invite me back to share a show with him. People are probably wondering why I’m all teary eyed in the back of the bar. People are probably wondering why I even play music at all. Why DO you play music at all, Lindsay? This is what you love? Having panic attacks in random bathrooms, for the love of music? You suck. You’re so terrible and high-strung and uncomfortable that you can’t even have a little easy-going jam session? Why do you always make a big deal out of nothing? You should quit. You should go find a normal job where you don’t have to burden people with the terrible experience of interacting with you. You are the worst. No talent at all. Not to mention ugly and fat. You are a sorry excuse for a musician, and quite frankly, you’re a sorry excuse for a human. The world is better off with out you.
Yep, that’s how bad it gets. Thankfully, I’ve learned how to quell those gnarly voices. It typically takes some careful combination of Xanax, sleep, exercise, my wife’s encouragement, a gratitude journal, and a therapist. The emotional toll is one thing, almost familiar and routine now, but the physical toll continues to take me by surprise. If you’ve ever experienced mild whiplash, that’s exactly how I feel the day after an anxiety attack. It’s the kind of discomfort you just have to wait out.
Again, I’m not sharing this story to place blame or call anyone out. I trust that people’s hearts are in usually in the right place. I LOVE people! I LOVE collaborating! For me though, time and preparation are HUGE tools I use to combat anxiety on a daily basis. Without them, I can go into a mind-numbing tailspin. I am sharing this story to crank up the volume on the often silent and lonely struggle that is dealing with anxiety. Compounded with the often silent and lonely struggle that is being a female musician, the impossible challenges and choices we face on a daily basis are so numerous, they become dangerously normalized. Everything from the way strangers speak to us, to the way we let them speak to us interferes with our ability to realize our full potential. We are socialized to make nice and not ruffle feathers. We are shown that advocating for yourself means you will be labeled as a raging fem-Nazi. We are taught to shut our mouth and sacrifice our sense of safety for the comfort of men around us. I’ve been playing music for a looooong time, and STILL I fight to overcome the “grin and bear it” cultural mindfuck that is being a woman in this industry (or any industry for that matter).
Whenever I hear stories about people with experiences that resemble my own, I’m comforted, and as a result my capacity for compassion grows. Whenever I hear stories about people with experiences that don’t resemble my own, I’m enlightened, and as a result my capacity for compassion grows. I hope there is a similar takeaway for people reading this post. For those who experience anxiety, I don’t wish to speak for you, because everyone is so different. However, I hope you know you aren’t alone. People like us are everywhere, and that makes the struggle less quiet and lonely. For those who don’t experience anxiety, I know I can’t expect you to read my mind. I accept the responsibility of advocating for myself so those around me understand what I’m comfortable with and capable of. In doing so, my wish is for understanding, but my demand is for respect. Just a little bit, just to see if it feels good.