When I was 10 years old, my best friend and I did a talent show. She chose a Whitney Houston song and I chose a Willie Nelson song, which I can’t even remember what it was now. I should probably first touch upon the fact that this best friend of mine who had entered my class, and life, very recently, was better than me at… well… everything. I went from being the fastest runner, the favored singer in choir and the teachers pet to being 2nd in every race, sharing solos and being the second choice for favored tasks like banging out the chalk erasers at the end of the day.
When the school was telling us the parameters for the show, they told us that we couldn’t use the actual music/song. And so I walked away determined to figure out a way to play the song myself and make a recording. My mom was a piano teacher and I’d learned that though I was unteachable (I refused to learn to read music) I did know how to play by ear. So I grabbed my tiny casio keyboard and cassette recorder and started plugging away at trying to create the instrumental I needed for my performance.
I should tell you, at this point in life I was pretty freaking brave, perhaps because of the naivety of being 10, but also likely because of the denial about my reality. I had been kinda killing it at school despite the crazy shit that was going on in my household. Great grades, and up until my best friend showed up, had been the best at a lot of things. But I didn’t really have anyone to talk to me about things; no one to encourage me, or give me constructive advice about how to do a thing best. I just took my 10 year old self and was like… okay… we’re doing this now.
I do remember the feeling of sitting out in the audience before they called me and my heart started to beat really loud. And my ears started ringing. That was the first time I’d experienced that and I DID NOT like it. And then, my best friend was called up to the stage to sing. And she carried up with her a record that her mother, who was sitting in the audience to cheer her on, had just handed to her. It was the Whitney Houson record album. The actual song. What they said we couldn’t use. They were putting it into a record player for her.
And that’s when the rage set in.
I looked down at my little cassette recorder, and looked up again at her in all her glory singing along with her contraband record album as though Whitney was her freaking backup singer, and was like… what the actual fuck? I’m now going to walk up there with my shitty keyboard recording and sing my song? Why the hell was she able to use the record but I wasn’t? I started to get really, really mad.
And then they called me up to the stage.
I remember shaking as I was walking up there. I figured it was just the rage at the injustice of the situation, something I was kind of familiar with. And then I hit the play button on the cassette recorder, and listening to the awkward notes that played, everything started moving in slow motion… except for my heart, which was now so fast and so loud that I couldn’t hear anything else, not even my crappy cover of whatever the hell song it was I was there to sing.
And that was the moment that the reality of my life hit me. Unbeknownst to my 10 year old self, I was a very highly-functioning, very depressed person. Things in my life were not good. My mom had attempted suicide when I was 5 and was then completely absent from my life for what felt like an eternity. It was unusual back then for a dad to have kids. So people started referring to me as the one without a mother. And that’s when I got my first taste of what pity felt like. And suffice it to say… I hated it. So I was all about making sure everything seemed okay on the outside. I’ll seem happy. I’ll do all the things the kids with moms do. But the reality was, my best friend who was better than me at everything? Her mom AND dad were there. Her siblings were cheering her on. Her mom had gone to bat for her and made sure she had the proper music to sing to. And she went up there with support, and people in her corner, set up for success.
My mom was trying to put her life back together and so my time with her was limited to the first weekend of every month. She lived out of state. The rest of my family was broken and seemingly always mad at me. And they weren’t there to cheer me on. I don’t even know if they knew I was performing. I was the only one in my corner. I looked around at the sea of embarrassed faces staring at me and attempted to sing. I opened my mouth… but my throat closed. No sound would come out, I looked around at the entire school staring at me in my moment of complete brokenness and do you know what I did?
I ran. I ran off stage. I ran down the completely empty hallway. And I don’t really remember anything after that. Except for being in my room in the days following, reliving the horror and telling myself “I’m never going to school again.”
Since then, something as small as introducing myself at a workshop with like 4 people in attendance has lead to my throat closing, my face flushing, losing feeling in my hands and feet, heart palpitations, nausea… etc. So I’ve avoided anything that even resembles the spotlight and happily don name tags at classes/events so I can just point and smile. 😁
Ultimately, I’ve shrunk. I’ve carried this limiting experience with me for nearly 35 years. I’ve let it get in the way of my doing things, putting myself out there… sharing my voice.
But I realized in my car the other night, that I’m not going to get anywhere with the goals that I have for myself and my family, if I can’t get up on that stage and sing. (which is a metaphor… I will not be singing… you’re welcome). I have some important things to say. Things that I really feel can help others. So I’m treating everything, at this point in my life, as training for me to be brave enough to shove my book in Oprah’s face when I see her and be like “read this”. Which, for someone who’s still stuck in running off the stage and struggles with saying “Hi, my name is” to normal folk is kind of a stretch.
I’m trying to face all the things that I say “Oh I could never do that.” and just do them. And one of those things was to do a chalk art piece in front of people. For those of you who may not know, when the pandemic hit and I lost my photography business overnight, I turned to doing chalk art in my driveway to give me a reason to get out of bed and shower. And it’s kinda turned into a thing. A thing that people keep telling me I should do in public so that people know about me. To which I’ve replied… yup… you guessed it… “I could never”.
Well. I did it. A live art piece. Set up a tent and everything at a farmers market. Not once, not twice… but three whole times…
I didn’t die. I didn’t run away. I didn’t vomit. It actually went really well!
If it scares you… do it anyway.
If you had a bad experience one time… do it again and change the story.
Fear is a liar.