The last ebb of the audience slunk out of the venue followed by the final anti-climactic ring of the night’s playlist droning out into nothingness. What follows is a silence that can only come after a 3-hour barrage of sound. This nothingness is respite for the ears, but for me comes with a great sense of sadness and loss. Everything I have worked up to until this point is over, done.
What has just occurred is by no means unusual in any sense. Just another gig. You see them advertised in your local paper all the time, a band you’ve never heard of in a pub renowned for how grotesque it is. You may have played a whole bunch of gigs in venues like these, too (I know I have). For some, these venues are the background for favourite and treasured memories. But for me, a creative person with mental health issues, this is a period of time that can literally only be compared to the metaphorical cliché of a rollercoaster.
Now, before I’m accused of it, I’m not complaining. I’m not signed, or making money from music, so when I create, and when I play, it is out of choice. I don’t have a record company breathing down my neck, and music isn’t my income. No one has a gun to my head. I do it because I want to, because I like to, but sometimes, playing gigs can be hell.
As someone who suffers with anxiety, I don’t really have to tell you that the hard bit isn’t the creating, but the performing. If you asked someone for a list of the most frightening things they’ve done in public, you’ll most likely gather the same answer; school or work presentations. Playing live music in front of people, to me at least, is the musical equivalent of a school presentation. Only instead of proving intellect, you are trying to prove talent. And, instead of hiding emotion, you are showcasing it to a room full of strangers.
Just writing this now, I can see why I’m absolutely petrified by my favourite hobby. It’s just not something an anxious person should choose to do. But most people look back at the hard things they’ve accomplished with a smile, a sense of pride and achievement. It’s something that I do too, not all the time, but one out of ten post-gig buzzes are worth it, even if the other nine send me cascading towards pure depression.
So, why do nine out of ten gigs fill me with dread and leave me unwilling to pick up a guitar, and often unable to leave the bed?
The reason for it is simple. It’s the voices I hear. My own voice, telling myself negative things. And I write this with confidence because I know that anyone reading this will instantly go, “Oh yeah, I have that sometimes, too.” This isn’t something born out of pure madness, but more so out of being human.
Initially it’s in the lead up to playing a gig with the majority of my time being spent on trying to convince myself that I’m not going to completely fall apart on the night. Rehearsals are filled with mistakes which my partner will supportively tell me is “what rehearsals are for.” Forgetting words, whole sections of songs, it happens to the best of us, but when you suffer from anxiety and depression, this only fuels those particular negative thoughts. I’m going to mess up aren’t I? I’m not good enough to be playing in front of people am I? Then finally, no one is going to show up, are they?
And, then there’s the phantom illness I get the week before a gig, without fail. It starts with a nagging tickle in my throat. Not enough to cause a cough, but enough to say “I think I’m getting ill.” A day or so after it turns into a snot-filled nose, congestion across my head, and this dull tiredness that fills my whole body. A friend believes this is my mind’s way of self-sabotaging me and initially I thought he was just trying to be clever, but looking back on my experiences of this, I have to agree. I can’t even begin to tell you how many opportunities I’ve missed out on because of phantom illnesses, that disappear the moment I’ve cancelled and the pressure is off. I’m lucky with music though, I’m able to battle through. I don’t know how or why.
Though finally, (and this is the big thing for me) it’s the expectation. It doesn’t matter if I play a show to a hundred people or five people, the performance itself is always anti-climatic in comparison to the anxiety that’s drowned me for weeks leading up to the gig and my own ambition. More often than not, the turnout isn’t good enough, or I haven’t played as well as I can, or I’ve noticed the sound guy on his phone the whole time I’ve been playing. It’s the small details that I know shouldn’t weigh on me after all these years of playing live gigs, but weeks after the show I still think “ah, I messed up that second verse section, and I forgot the lyrics here, and my voice cracked here.” I’m basically tormenting myself, continuously allowing the anxiety win.
I promised myself when I started writing this that I wouldn’t be that whiney person moping about. That this wouldn’t be diary fodder. Something I could share and not be ashamed of. The truth of it is, getting on a stage is tough for anyone, and most of the time the payoff is, if anything, small. Though, this crippling anxiety doesn’t seem to affect everyone.
You’re probably wondering “would I ever give it up?” I think about it all the time, probably more often than I actually perform. It would be so easy to just be one of those artists who records music, puts it on SoundCloud and then starts recording again. It’s real tempting, too. Then a one-out-of-ten moment occurs and someone comes up to me after a gigs, mentioning how my performance really resonated with them. Or they visit the merch table to pick up a cd or t-shirt, and for a brief moment, all those horrible little voices dissipate. It’s in those moments that I realise what playing music is for me, those tiny segments of silence where the chaos in my mind is still.
Photo: Chris Trevena