I have suffered from stage fright my entire life. When I say “fright,” I mean a full-blown, out-of-body experience during which time I have zero recollection of what is happening, and cannot recall a single word I said. It is terrifying. Imagine having a blackout on stage, in front of an audience. This is me. Every single time.
Forget about imagining the audience naked or, if you’re more polite, in their undies. Forget about emulating your favorite public speakers. Forget about Ouma’s ‘Five Ps’—Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance!—because you are about to go on stage, and you are not prepared!
At PorcFest 2011, I looked around the main tent, trying to still my breathing. The space is filled with people I know. Donors. People who want to see the Free State Project succeed. People who want to see me succeed… I think?! I glance across the field, watching brightly clad teenagers playing pick-up basketball. I try to sync my breathing to the bounce of the ball. It doesn’t work. I glance at the notes I’ve jotted down over the past hour in the VIP tent while downing three gin and tonics: “Yankee Hong Kong!!!!” “Success stories!!!” “Gimme your money!!!”
The first time I experienced a blackout speech was at Mafikeng Primary School. I must have been eight or nine. I was two years younger than my classmates, which came with its own set of challenges, but mostly manifested itself in me trying too hard. I won’t lie: I was a Smart Aleck.
(As smart as you can be when you are constantly playing catch-up.)
As part of our curriculum, we did a public speaking course. Half your grade came from prepared speeches given over the term, and the other, from impromptu talks where the teacher gave you a topic, five minutes to prepare a short talk by jotting down your ideas on flash cards, and then you were expected to give a three minute speech to the class.
My topic that day was about what would happen if the drought we were experiencing never ended. I wrote ‘World Wars!!!!’ on my card.
That was it.
When I came to, when I reentered by body, no longer hovering above myself watching my mouth move, when the electrical charges coursing through my insides left, and the shooting starbursts in my peripheral vision disappeared, when I could again identify my peers and friends sitting in front of me, and I returned to the stuffy classroom trailer that smelled of dust and chalk, the teacher was on her feet, giving me a standing ovation.
She had never reacted like this before. I could tell my classmate were confounded, perhaps even a little jealous. They were clearly not as impressed with whatever had come out of my mouth as the teacher was, but, being polite and intelligent enough to understand her enthusiasm should translate to theirs, they joined in, clapping. I have no idea what I said, but apparently, my doom and gloom rendition of a world without water and the perpetual wars that would follow had struck a nerve with Miss.
The next distinct memory of such an out-of-body experience was during my interview to become a Rotary Exchange student. I was sixteen, a senior in high school. I was dating my first boyfriend, Stephan Le Roux, and had become ambivalent about leaving South Africa (him, really) for a whole year to lands unknown, but the competitive part of me wanted to prove that I could win. That I could be picked over my more mature (and likely better balanced) compatriots.
Being a Rotary Exchange student from South Africa in 1988 came with baggage. Big White Apartheid Baggage. Even if you were anti-apartheid, as I was, you had to be able to frame the despicable Nationalist policies with some semblance of nuance. Like being able to defend the homelands—the shithole areas designated as “tribal lands”—by arguing that most of South Africa was a shithole, so they weren’t being especially punished by being banished to these inarable places.
My parents, who both worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs at the time, prepped me good and hard, sitting around the kitchen table every evening after dinner.
Ma: “What percentage of South Africa is arable?”
Me: “Less than 27%”
Pa: “Good, good. Remember to point out that means lots of areas are less than optimal for human occupation, not just the homelands. Now, let’s go over Nelson Mandela again.”
I went into that interview with the Rotary Club of Hatfield as well prepared as Pik Botha–imagine a mashup between Robert McNamara and Dick Cheney: charming and dangerous, and not only when hunting–the South African Minister of Foreign Affairs would have been.
I nailed the interview. Except, once again, I have no idea what I said. The interviewers were concerned about my relative youth—there’s a big difference between sending a sixteen year old versus an eighteen year old overseas on their own, as we know from the Permissible Age to Murder Citizens (AKA, the draft)—so the Rotary committee decided I would be ineligible for a full year scholarship, but offered me six weeks in Germany instead.
I’d been to Germany before. The boyfriend won out.
Stephan and I wrote and performed anti-establishment plays during our ‘Varsity years. One, called “Die Klein Krul Swart Haartjie”—The Tiny Curly Black Hair, which referred to a pubic hair, not an afro, as people who refused to attend failed to grasp—was banned on campus, and pushed to the Fringe of the Grahamstown Arts Festival, the largest arts festival in the Southern Hemisphere. Relegated to a 2 p.m. slot at a primary school miles from the downtown action, we were not the greatest of successes, although I did learn the meaning of a new word from a review we received—one that said the show was in the spirit of “Not the Nine o’Clock News.”
“Scatological?” Stephan asked, reading the review, English being his second language. “Is that good?”
“Very,” I said firmly, making a mental note to consult the Oxford English when I got home.
During that Grahamstown performance, my stage fright took an even more alarming turn, in that I literally forgot my lines. The final coup de grace of the scene was supposed to be mine, a zinger at the end, in a devastatingly critical and clever piece about the power of individuality as it triumphs over the state.
“You can’t fit a square peg in a round hole,” I was supposed to say.
But nothing came out. My mind dissolved into blankness, my synapses reaching out, searching for the answer, the words I knew came next, but all there was only a blindingly chasm of nothingness, a dark, empty blackboard stretching in my brain. Every word I knew, any word, just beyond reach.
Other times, it happened in court. When I started practicing law during my articleship, I took Legal Aid Board cases in the townships that no one else at the firm would touch. The country was on the cusp of radical changes, with a new Constitution in the works. One time, I represented a nineteen year old boy-child, who had been in jail since he was sixteen, who had not even been given a trial date yet. Even though the Constitution had not yet been adopted, we’d learned about all these newfangled, shiny human rights in Law School, and I made an impassioned plea in Court as to why the judge should release this young defendant on bail. Except I don’t recall a word. For me, that day: Blankety, blank, blank.
You cannot fit a square peg in a round hole.
You cannot fit a square peg in a round hole.
You cannot fit a square peg in a round hole.
Will it ever end?
Part of the issue is I have an artist’s heart and a lawyer’s brain. I once saw a Venn Diagram with two circles. One was, “Overwhelming Narcissism,” and the other, “Crushing Insecurity.” The part where they overlapped: “Art.” And so, I disregard my betraying brain, and I keep pushing through my fears towards my heart, towards my art.
Now in 2019, eight years from that time I took the stage at PorcFest, I get ready for my talk, which officially kicks off the 16th annual Porcupine Freedom Festival. In these ensuing years, I have quit drinking alcohol, which means I no longer get to drown my stage fright in amnesia-inducing booze. It means I no longer have to take a swig of tequila in the car in the parking lot at 8:30AM before heading into the NHPR office to be pilloried for believing in freedom, peace, and prosperity. I also no longer take prescription beta blockers to alleviate the stage fright, which helped with the symptoms of my anxiety, but for some reason made me sweat like a junkie in withdrawal–not a great look for TV! And, I haven’t vomited prior to an interview since 2016!
My positive life choices over the past two years (Keto diet, Bikram yoga, and ENOUGH SLEEP) means I have a new clarity, and yet, I am still nervous as hell, and, of course, not as prepared as I should be. But whyyyyyy!?!? On the Ouma scale, I’d say I’m at: “Partial Preparation Makes for Somewhat Passable Performance.”
I ask myself why I keep pushing. Why subject myself to this terror? Why don’t I just give up and say, Public Life is Not for Me (says the woman who wants that Senate seat!)? But I know why… Because I have important ideas to share and a unique voice to share them with. A voice that may tremble, a woman who may cry on stage when talking about what brought her to New Hampshire, and what broke and healed her on the journey to where she is today. I keep pushing because to give up would be to admit defeat, to say I can’t improve, when I know, and have proved to myself, that I can. Better… not perfect. But improving, consciously, actively, by choice, and hard work… I am becoming a better me.
[Stay tuned for the video of my 2019 PorcFest talk coming soon, “How I learned to stop faking it and become a better me.”]