Anxiety, my bitchface and public speaking…

Those people who casually know me, or see me out and about, would probably never use the words “shy” or “anxious” to describe me. I’ve played in rock bands. I’ve been on television, I’ve modeled, I’ve been on radio, panels, podcasts, or hello… ROLLER DERBY! But a lot of times that’s a really good act. In reality, I’m so freaking terrified of going out in public I’ve had anxiety attacks when I have to go to a busy grocery store on my own.

I can’t remember not feeling this way. When I was a kid I just wanted to read my books instead of going outside for recess. It got worse after my face was severely damaged from a car accident in my very early teens. Kids made fun of me at school so much that I became extremely anxious about going, causing me to have severe insomnia. I would sit up all night reading, doing a puzzle, pacing around my room, just generally freaking out about the looming school day.

As an older teen I discovered punk and rock music. Playing in a band helped a little bit. Having that outlet onstage, I never found myself nervous about performing and I didn’t mind people looking at me. It was OFF the stage that I had issues. Wandering around the club, unable to approach anyone or if I did, feeling like I said the wrong thing at the wrong time and the entire world was making fun of me as soon as I wandered away.

That was the point in my life when I started hearing the word “bitch” a lot. I wasn’t ugly any longer. I was a little too skinny (which was a whole other anxiety issue. If I couldn’t control my emotions, or the scars on my face, or my teeth, which were also messed up from the accident, then by damn I could control my weight)but I wore cut off shirts and plaid skirts and had blond hair. Guys and girls hit on me, not that I was aware of it. Because in my head, I was ugly. A chubby girl with giant scars all over her face. I Looking back on it, I can admit that I was actually pretty, but there was no way I would have been mentally capable of admitting that to myself at the time.
So what happens when a pretty girl is incredibly nervous around large crowds, doesn’t talk or smile at anyone and in general stands next to a wall by herself? She’s a bitch! Obviously.

In fact, about 13 years ago, I had a couple tell me how bitchy and standoffish I was because I didn’t talk to people and how rude I was to be so quiet all the time. When I explained that I was painfully shy with severe anxiety they told me they didn’t believe me because I was able to get on stage, play and sing with a band. The thing was, when I was in a band, I did the same thing I would later do in roller derby. I became someone else. I was a rockstar with a big bass and a mic in her face and I was gonna rattle the walls with the low end and scream my head off until everyone in the club was paying attention to me. Bass playing me, and roller derby me, loved attention onstage.

What’s the point of this rambling post? Basically, since I started this knitting adventure of mine I’ve been put in way more public situations. A few television appearances and more recently, speaking on panels at science fiction conventions, schools, and public libraries. Panels aren’t usually a big deal since it’s me and one or two other people talking. I can handle that, no problem. That’s just having a conversation with friends while people are watching. Solo talking at public libraries and schools makes me a little bit more freaked out, but the groups tend to be smaller and I end up teaching knitting most of the time, which is pretty easy and fun.
This past weekend however, I did a panel at PopCon in Indianapolis and found out about two days beforehand that I was flying solo for my panel. Eeep would be an understatement. I stressed and did the only thing I could do, planned exactly what I was going to say, complete with a slideshow of pictures.

I felt pretty okay, and was confident that I wouldn’t have that many people since the Game of Thrones panel was happening at the same time.

Then the projector wouldn’t work with my computer, my jump drive, or my cables.

Then the room was full*
*Ok, by “full” I mean there were about 30 people there.

Then everyone hated me and I couldn’t talk and I’m sure everyone left thinking I was the biggest loser on the planet.*
*This didn’t actually happen. People were really nice, buying books and asking me to sign them afterwards. And I did talk, though I may have rambled just a little bit.

I left the room feeling like I sucked.

I got good feedback, both from my husband, who’s on the mic almost every weekend in front of crowds at roller derby and our friend Drew, who talks in public a lot. I’ll take it to heart, I will learn from it and I’ll go into my next speaking engagement (in 2 weeks!!!) better prepared.

I’m not writing this blog looking for pity, or to get compliments or for any other reason than to sort of stand up and explain myself. Most people who meet me come away thinking I’m extremely confident, outgoing and chatty, or they think I’m rude and bitchy. If I’m the confident version of myself, it’s either that I’m feeling that way at the moment, or it’s a bit of an act. Lots of times when I’m chatting, laughing and talking I’m wincing at things that come out of my mouth, thinking that they sound stupid, or like I’m trying too hard.

If it’s the rude and bitchy version of me, well, I’m probably in the throws of anxiety. Which, at least for me, feels like the air is actually physically pushing down on my neck and shoulders, makes it hard to breath, and makes me feel like everyone in the room is looking at me and wishing that I would just go away. I will sometimes literally hide behind someone else to escape what I think are people staring, or I’ll simply go home.

This is also a bit of an effort to be more transparent on my blog. I sometimes tend to edit, and just say, “It was GREAT! There were lots of people and I had a blast making new friends!” Which, you know, is only partially true. I might have made a new friend, and there might have been lots of people, but I also might have felt the need to drink several beers and chew my fingernails down to stubs before and after.

I’m not great at endings. So I’ll just say, if you see me in public and I have a bit of “resting bitchface” please don’t think it’s because I don’t want to talk, or that I don’t like you, the room, or anything else. In fact I LOVE talking to new people. Otherwise I feel like everyone thinks I’m a giant dork who doesn’t belong in the room with the rest of the humans.

And a very, very sincere thank you to everyone who attended my panel at Pop Con, asked questions, chatted afterwards, and made it a really interesting and fun discussion. I’m grateful to every single one of you for being so awesome and tolerating my rambly bits.

Photo by Gabe Duval