Anxiety & Knocking It Out Of The Park

I developed an anxiety condition when I moved to San Francisco (almost) five years ago. And I don’t mean, “I’d had an anxiety condition for years, and I was finally properly diagnosed.” I mean I developed it, in one fell swoop. A few short months after moving to San Francisco, I found myself hyperventilating with my head between my knees as the floor slipped out from under me, and I thought, “Ah, I’m having a panic attack. Shit.” Now, five years later, I’m figuring out what it was all about, which is a short way of saying that it was so goddamn obvious that it took me a little bit of emotional distance to get it.

By moving to San Francisco, I was making a conscious choice to give up two things that I deeply loved because neither of them were serving me anymore. And while I was smart enough to know that you need to quit while you’re ahead, I didn’t get that quitting The Path You Are On can take you a few years (and many panic attacks) to recover from.

First, I’d quit professional theatre. I remember this moment during my final months where I was delivering something to a successful Broadway producer’s office. When I got there, it was a dingy tenement office decorated with a single ratty couch. I remember thinking, first, “Holy shit, I can’t believe that a kid from my impoverished California hometown worked her way up to this point by 26,” and then, “I have seen behind the curtain, and get me the hell out of here.” So I left. It turned out that I loved independently producing theatre, but I felt like my talents were totally wasted when only twenty people (all of whom were friends who wanted you to come to their shows) came. And the level of emotional abuse and/or total boredom required to withstand working on big-deal theatre projects was something I wasn’t willing to put up with. Besides, I was tired of being profoundly broke.

Second, I quit New York City. I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that I’ve recovered from that one, or even that I think it was the best long term choice. But on some level I knew that if I was going to throw in the towel on everything I’d been working on for the last ten years, I wasn’t up to starting over, again, in the hugest and hardest city in the world. I needed a break.

So, fast forward six months, and I am having my first panic attack while I try to study for a finance exam, for which I am wildly unqualified, because I promised myself that if I was leaving theatre, I was going to try something totally new. And finance, alas, is about as new as you can get.

You would expect (or I would have expected) that once we’d settled into our new city and our new life, the anxiety would have gone away. I mean, we made friends quickly, I started a blog which became a satisfying creative outlet. Yes, I was getting up at five a.m. to go to a corporate office job, but still. And when I finally stopped waking up at five a.m. to become a high powered secretary and department manager, it still didn’t ease up. And when I quit my corporate gig to finally go back into creative work, it still didn’t let up. At which point, I decided anxiety was just my new state of being. (And I belatedly got a little help with it. Hot tip: get help first, don’t be a total moron like me.)

But what I didn’t realize was that I’d always been relatively good at what I did. Yes, I gave up my star turn as a debater by not going to law school and going to conservatory theatre school instead. But I went to one of the top theatre programs in the country. I didn’t f*ck around. Yes, I took some horribly low paying jobs out of college, but I co-founded a theatre company that did it’s first gala at Peter Yarrow‘s house, and I got an theatre administration internship with one of the biggest theatre companies in New York. I did obscure artistic things, but I did them with style.

And then I quit my corporate job to write a blog. And, whatever, let’s be frank. Most of the world has marginal to zero understanding of what a blog actually is. Telling people you quit your job to write a blog is a little like telling them you decided to give up your benefits to become a professional postcard writer. Everyone slowly backs away. It is not prestigious, to say the least. (At least not yet.)

But I trusted it was the right decision. In fact, I knew it was the right decision, rest of the world be damned. And some of it was an airy-fairy “it-feels-right-in-my-soul” “I’m-creating-things-I-love-this-is-the-right-direction” kind of thing, but I’m also a phenomenally practical person, and when I looked at the balance sheet I knew it made sense.

So I set out to prove myself, and it was exhausting on a soul-deep level. If you’d asked me a few months ago, I would have told you that it was exhausting proving myself to everyone in the world. Over and over and over. That it was exhausting explaining to people over and over what I did (again), and that yes I made money. And that I was writing a book, and that no I wasn’t self-publishing it in my garage using a photocopier. I would have told you that it was rather exhausting doing something no one understood, after a lifetime of doing things that were obscure, but still prestigious.

But then, on book tour, I figured out I was wrong.

I had, of course, hoped that writing a book would somehow give me legitimacy. I mean, for God’s sake, I published a book with a major publisher, and we all pushed it to #29 on the Amazon bestseller list (time-out for high fives!). Surely now everyone would take me, APW, my work, and my book seriously?

No.

From the minute we started planning the tour with my amazing and phenomenally patient book publicist Lara, I realized that no one had a reason to take me seriously, unless I proved myself to them. Book stores were telling us no because they didn’t believe a first-time author could get a crowd or sell any books. The bookstores that said yes still didn’t believe we were going to get a crowd, didn’t order enough books and didn’t put out enough seats. Very early in the process, I realized that I had to act as if I had proven nothing, and then prove everything. Every. Single. Time. My ex-professional-arts-administrator self was suddenly hit over the head with the obvious: I was now talent. And talent has to prove themselves with every show.

So I did it.

And it was the most liberating experience of my life. For a month, I had to show up to new cities, new events, major interviews, and knock it out of the park. I would show up tired, or really needing to work out, or wishing I’d washed my hair. I’d show up in one imperfect state after another, nervous, grumpy, unfocused, and know I had to deliver the goods. And after a month of delivering, I got home and realized I’d proved myself to myself.

I no longer really cared if people believed in me because I believed in me. I no longer really cared if I made the bed every day or kept the house clean because f*ck it, I’d written a book (weird how those things are related in the brain, but they are). I no longer felt the same intense pressure to prove myself every second of every day because I could look over on the bookshelf and see my book sitting right next to Caitlin Moran’s (because obviously they hang out) and have faith that if I could do that, I could handle whatever I needed to do next.

And the strangest part? From the second I got on the train to start promoting the book, I stopped having panic attacks. Yes, I’m sure they’ll be back in some form or another, sooner or later. But for the first time in almost five years, I haven’t had major anxiety in two months.

It took five years, but I dug my way back. And while I’m still dubious about giving up Brooklyn, I fought my way back from leaving my passion, and I found something better. And I’m so grateful to 26-year-old Meg for walking away from her job cold turkey with only a couple thousand dollars in the bank, simply because she knew it was the right move. Good job 26-year-old Meg. You were on to something.

And now, forward. (With my book firmly on the shelf.) Let’s see what the future brings.

Photos: Hart & Sol West (Brooklyn Book Talk), calin + bisous photo (Boston Book Talk)

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