I was once asked by a friend to tell him something about myself that he would not expect. I confessed to him that I secretly suffered from occasionally extreme bouts of social anxiety. He laughed. “You? Of all people! Yeah right.” To this day, I don’t believe he ever realized I was serious.
You see, I’ve spent the last year unlearning how to pretend my depression and anxiety do not exist.
My default behavior is extroversion. Because I learned early on about myself that I was bad at making friends. I taught myself how to talk to strangers because if I couldn’t, I knew I would be very lonely once I left my hometown. So, I became the talker, the social one, the storyteller. The one who is always an open book, so nobody questions what they aren’t saying out loud.
My anxiety is back. The little voice telling me that they all are questioning me, judging me, ignoring me, forgetting me, laughing at me, it’s there and it’s been harder to shut it up. In reacting to it, I find myself talking even more.
My depression has also returned. The dark cloud hovering and pulling at the bits of self-confidence I grow back. You’ll just screw up again. Your writing isn’t worth anyone’s time to read. Your story isn’t interesting. Your heartbreak isn’t special. No one cares. You’re not changing the world by putting your heart into it. Maybe you should just stop trying.
It’s a vicious, paralytic cycle. While in this moment it may feel worse than it has before, it’s also not new.
And it’s become terribly entwined with my professional life and a daily part of my struggle to accomplish my new goals, especially when it comes to submitting my work.
It became more apparent in the fall of 2016 when I did something that can be classified as either brave and admirable or reckless and incredibly stupid.
I was young, in a fairly high management position at a renowned theatre company, in a city I liked, working directly under my mentor who I still adore.
I was also miserable.
For many reasons and various factors, my dream job had become my nightmare.
So, I gave notice. At the end of their season, I helped wrap up the loose ends, packed my bags, and was on the last train out of town the first night I could return to NYC.
I had a small savings, an apartment, a temp job that maybe covered utilities (if we’re being generous), a handful of connections, and not much else beyond classes and looming tuition fees for my master’s degree.
To this day I do not know how I made it through the next 10 months. I stage managed a small show that paid a month’s rent for 7 weeks of work. I picked up a fire guard job at night. I spent mornings at a coffee shop job. I trained to sell juice samples at Whole Foods. I picked up work whenever someone threw it my way. If there was a dollar sign or meals involved, I was in.
I was also burnt out. I was stressed and delirious and not sleeping. I traded leftover baked goods from work for free drinks nearly every night.
I received 16 rejection letters over the course of those ten months. Around August, I stopped applying for anything I was qualified for. I applied for a fellowship after being told I was under-qualified and inexperienced for a low-level associate position with the same company. I was then told I was overqualified and asked why I was still applying to fellowships meant for someone without real experience.
The voices in my head got louder, fed by the whisky I drank at night and the reminders that where my classmates were succeeding, I was still here, hoping to squeeze rent out of my next paycheck.
I fell into that paralytic state. I was completing homework with a lack of effort that once would have embarrassed me. On the days I could bring myself to do it.
I still remember the voices in my head when I received a Facebook post sent by a friend of a friend. They had a stage manager opening in Dubai. There was an open call for CVs and recommendations.
“You stopped stage managing.”
“This is a real company, they’ll need a real stage manager, not some small town girl with anal levels of organization and excel spreadsheets.”
“Why waste everyone’s time?”
“Who answers a Facebook post and winds up in Dubai?”
But I still thank God for the small voice that whispered: “But what do you have to lose?”
Because I had nothing else to lose. My main source of income was going dark for a month, my lease was about to be up, my roommate was possibly leaving the city. I was one more month away from having to pack my bags and move home. I was clinging to the last threads of hope and sanity, so I gave in. Why not?
And it turns out, the kind of person who answers a Facebook post and winds up in Dubai is me.
And in that whirlwind of stress and amazement, I didn’t have time for anxiety and depression. The two demons on my shoulders were left behind for a little while. I remembered how to be free. I remembered how to be happy.
But you can’t run from them for very long. They were waiting with my luggage back at JFK to drag my new happy self kicking and screaming back into the darkness it had left.
My first two months back I was proud of myself for being upright before noon. Answering emails before 3 days had passed was a sign of success. I looked at my photos and what I had accomplished and thought, I could have done better. I judged every action, every choice, and took every brush off or change in my life so personally, I’m certain I was convinced even the apartment was resentful of my existence every time I knocked into a corner or stubbed my toe on a “new” wall.
The paralysis returned. And hasn’t yet left entirely.
There were bright spots, still are. Moments of clarity, of joy, of lightness. Moments where the blank pages of my notebooks and laptop don’t scare me. Where I don’t listen to the voice that says I’m wasting my time and everyone else’s time.
Where I remember how to create something new.
It was in one of these bright spots that I wrote the piece ‘Respect’ that my friend then agreed to publish on her blog. It was a hit. I was getting attention for my writing, something I had quietly dreamed of, not even admitting to myself that maybe I wanted to be a writer. That maybe I was a writer. That my interesting stories could maybe become stories that were interesting to other people.
I was asked to become a contributor for TheatreArtLife. I was ecstatic. A platform run by two amazing women, where I could talk about my experience in this business. A starting point to get into a better rhythm of writing. A place to start to get noticed.
And then I froze. At first it was family, then it was my romantic life turning into a Bollywood film, then the loss of my grandfather, the drama and bad behavior that follows the death of a patriarch, the loss of a job, the last-minute job offer, the move, and then finally, the chance to start over from the chaos. But the excuses piled up, the paralysis returned.
There are no fewer than 8 pieces started for TheatreArtLife on my desktop. Not a single one have I been able to upload to the site. Because it’s weak, because it’s strange, because no one will care, because it’s not as good as ‘Respect’ and maybe nothing I write ever will be.
This is dumb. This is a very dumb way to think.
But it is also very real and very powerful. And it is even more dumb for me to sit here and try and pretend that I am not suffering.
That anxiety and depression are here holding me hostage to my own fears, and therefore holding me back from my own success.
This needs to change. And it will.
I promised myself before the month ends, I will polish this piece and submit it. And 2 of the others that are “not good enough”. Let the editors decide what is right on point or what needs to go into the bin. Because I have been proven to be unqualified to make that decision myself.
I am unwell. I am struggling. But this time I am seeking help. Digital therapy, meditation, and a balance of discipline and going easy on myself.
It’s okay that I didn’t get up at 9:30 when my alarm went off, but I shouldn’t lay in bed until 12pm just because I don’t have a reason to move until 2pm.
I don’t have to do yoga or meditate for long sessions every day. But I should take a minute to breathe daily.
No one’s asking me to write a perfect novel or post off the bat. But I can’t edit what doesn’t exist. I can’t improve if I don’t have a starting base.
So I’m stopping myself from self-editing and directing each piece before it gets written.
I’m just writing. Getting it all on the page and I’ll separate the gold from the muck later. Not everything coming out of my brain is genius. But neither is any of it worthless.
And it’s not up to the demons on my shoulders to judge that.
Also by Katherine McCombs:
Join TheatreArtLife to access unlimited articles, our global career center, discussion forums, and professional development resource guide. Your investment will help us continue to ignite connections across the globe in live entertainment and build this community for industry professionals. Learn more about our subscription plans.
Love to write or have something to say? Become a contributor with TheatreArtLife. Join our community of industry leaders working in artistic, creative, and technical roles across the globe. Visit our CONTRIBUTE page to learn more or submit an article.