I have a confession to make. I am terrified of public speaking. If you’ve seen me give a talk or a reading, it may come as a surprise to know I am secretly so petrified of talking in front of people that I would do just about anything to avoid it.
It wasn’t always that way. When I was in high school, I was in plays and musicals. I acted in a storytelling troupe that twice won the state championships and performed in front of a crowd of nearly a thousand people. I gave a speech in a packed auditorium to 500 graduates and their families. But when I went to work, mostly in administrative roles, I didn’t have cause to speak in public again for nearly twenty years. Three years ago, however, I took a new job that required me to give talks regularly. I also started finding success as a writer, and began to receive invitations to do readings and workshops. The horror! The HORROR! ALL CAPS CANNOT DESCRIBE THE HORROR!
But in swooped medical science to save the day. Now, I can get up on stage in front of a dozens or even hundreds of people, smiling, confident, shoulders relaxed, nary a wobble in my voice. My secret? I’m not me. I’m My Best Self. My Best Self can talk to people without the filter of terror that used to cloud the space between me and my audience like a room-filling cataract. What allows Best Self Mindy to show up, and not Quaking with Terror Mindy? Drugs. My performance anxiety had been so pervasive that my doctor wrote me a prescription for beta blockers that actually says “For Public Speaking” right on the little orange bottle. About 30 minutes before I take the stage, I take a beta blocker, which tames the butterflies thrashing around in my tummy and keeps my heart from exploding out of my chest like that sharp-toothed, mutant E.T. in Alien.
You want to know the craziest part? When I had to give a talk in DC a few weeks ago, I didn’t need to take my miracle calming pill. I was fine. It’s not that I think the drugs were just some pill-shaped version of Dumbo’s magic feather. I needed the pills to tamp down my out-of-control physiological response. They controlled my surging stress hormones and convinced my brain it was safe to allow My Best Self to show up. But repeated practice has retrained my panic muscles so they aren’t set on a hair trigger anymore.
You can see the results of my “Vorsprung durch Technik” experience in the video footage of a public reading I did last fall. It was recently posted online by New River Valley Voices, a wonderful local arts organization here in Southwest Virginia. My short story, “The Four Questions,” starts around minute 7. I even sing a little. In Hebrew. In front of almost 100 people. If I’m clutching an invisible magic feather, who’s the wiser?