Blue Scarlet on…Anxiety

My name is Clare. I suffer from chronic anxiety. See, that wasn’t a difficult confession to make, but as it comes under the umbrella of mental health, it makes a lot of people very uncomfortable.

I would say that although there is now much more awareness of mental health, in reality, people still display ignorance and fear when it comes to discussing pain that is not physical. I am a person who uses her mind extensively in work and in play, so it is logical that I stand a higher chance of suffering a cerebral injury than some others.

Note, that I use three different versions of words in the mind family: mental/ mind/ cerebral. It is the first word, ‘mental’, which is unfairly synonymous with insanity. I’m writing this on the evening of a full moon (also linked with insanity) and I’m not howling at the moon. Instead I’m here to educate, scold or thank you, depending on your attitude to mental health.

I’ve suffered from stage fright since a rogue performance I gave in October 2007. Having been criticised by the director (we had all become too close as a company and had fallen out), I took the criticism of ‘you’re all crap’ too literally, and it stained me for a long time. I can’t blame this solely for my anxiety; I used to fall to pieces in driving tests and music grading exams. However, after this, my nervous problems became more pronounced.

My career has also played a large part in my downfall. We are never allowed to be outstanding any more: managers feel they have to give us targets. So while we are told to praise pupils and raise their self-esteem, we teachers are about as popular as Hitler. Add to the mix the parents who prefer to criticise rather than support us when their darling precious child kicks off, and there you can see exactly why my confidence has slowly been eroded over the years.

However, through all the struggles I have continued to perform, and in fairness I have been given some wonderful roles. Unfortunately, a lot of the time I have kept that sick feeling of worry and letting the side down, and I haven’t really enjoyed myself. My absolute nadir came when I was forced to leave a show I was doing for New Directions Theatrical Society in 2014. I was in a state as I just couldn’t pick up the dance steps and the song lyrics were almost in another language. I left with a brief text message and hated myself so much I wanted to go into hibernation on the night of the show. As a result, I tried to retire from performing. Unfortunately, but also thankfully, lots of people from the stage scene kept asking me to take parts in their shows. Because I have trouble saying no, I did the shows. And then in February, something terrifying happened.

I now know it was a gallbladder attack. They are usually linked to high levels of stress coupled with fat intolerance, but I didn’t know this at the time. I was suddenly overtaken by a horrible cramping pain, and was in such a mess that I was taken to hospital and the rehearsal was cancelled. As a result I was terrified for the rest of the show. At this point I took an enforced rest, due to return next year.

The illness affected me in work too. Whenever school got stressful, I was forced to take some time off. My headteacher astutely made the link between the gallbladder issues and stress, and put me on occupational health therapy. The advisor really helped me focus on alleviating stress via mindfulness, and the difference in me has been amazing. I usually panic so much even playing darts that I need to squeeze a chalky ball (don’t ask), but the last four games I played I actually enjoyed. Even if I lost all four as usual.

Interestingly, since I’ve had these issues I have lost some people along the way. I’ve been called crazy, I’ve had people deliberately play on my insecurities, and some even gave up on me because they found it too challenging to cope with my constant overthinking. Luckily, I had solid support from many others, and to those who remain in my life, I love you all very much and thank you for sticking around. I turned out all right in the end, and from now the only way is up.

At the start of autumn, as luck would have it, a friend who had written a charity panto was adamant I was to play Aladdin (it was also called Aladdin-ish, so this appealed straight to my ego). I reluctantly turned up to rehearsal and was surrounded by lots of people who made me feel at ease, and the theatre glow returned. As it happens, the panto had to be moved to spring next year, but I’d had a taste of performing. There was one very important thing I needed to do. I had to conquer my demons and make things right. So, I asked Mel from New Directions if I could perform in her next revue. I wouldn’t have blamed her for saying no, but she was very gracious and allowed me in.

I have to say, it was the best decision I could have made. Although I haven’t had a solo song to myself (my audition was constipated; I was terrified and the words felt strangled in my throat because I felt self-conscious and negative), I do sing some solo lines. Mel made the right decision and eased me back in gently. It hasn’t been easy for me. I’m a very dyspraxic dancer, but some kind people have gone over my steps with me enough for me to look like I know what I’m doing. There are no egos in the company and a bucket load of talent. And you know what? I’m going to nail it, and then who knows what will happen next time? So Mel and Beck, this is a massive thank you from me for not giving up on me. Rock the Jukebox opens on Wednesday and is full of outstanding performers. I’ll be the chubby one with the rubbery facial expressions who is probably dancing in a different direction to everyone else. But I’m happy and enjoying life again, so don’t worry about me!

‘Rock the Jukebox’ runs from Wednesday to Friday at Stiwdio Stepni, Llanelli. Tickets cost £10.

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