Thriving on Stage Fright

Stage fright is a sickening, draining, sudden rush of terror that causes our hearts to hyper-beat.  Stage fright steals our composure and threatens to steal our credibility.  Stage fright makes us feel as if we’re about to die, right there on that cursed stage.  Stage fright causes us to shake and sweat, to stumble and stutter.  Stage fright attacks the strongest man as well as the weakest child.

The feelings associated with stage fright are unpleasant, but that does not mean we have to fight them.  Neither does it mean that we need to avoid them at all costs.  I recently heard an established Comedian recount in a radio interview that he has died on stage a number of times.  That gave me heart, for I realised that dying on stage is commonplace yet it does not signify the end.  Death on stage is nothing more than a temporary phenomenon.  It only becomes permanent if we never stand on stage again.

As a volunteer Speaker for Guide dogs I have experienced dying on stage.  I have been so terrified that my whole body quivers, the sweat pours off me and I cannot control my shaking voice.  Yet even on these occasions the talks were not disastrous.  I have been incredibly moved by the spontaneous generosity of some of the audiences who have witnessed my raw fear.  So it is fair to say that success cannot always be accurately measured by our own perceptions and feelings.  I might consider a talk to be a disaster because I experienced terror, but the outcome of the talk may be extremely positive.  .

Giving a presentation or lecture is very similar to doing stand-up comedy. Both Comedians and Speakers seek to get the audience on their side and then keep them interested and entertained.  An audience is like a blank sheet of paper, and it is up to us whether we leave it untouched or bring it to life.

Experiencing stage fright  may well lead people to think they can never stand up in front of an audience again.  But avoiding the unpleasantness of stage fright is no solution.  Equally if we become confident in Public Speaking it does not necessarily mean that stage fright will never return.  Accepting that stage fright is normal, temporary and indiscriminate might help to restore  self-belief.  Experiencing it does not signify failure or incompetence, but succumbing to it by running away from it allows the beast to continue its reign of terror.

Stage fright is powerful and emotional, but that visible emotion could possibly captivate an audience.  My shaking voice which I know to be a symptom of my terror, has been described as passionate and emotional by people listening, and at times it has moved them to tears.  Is it possible then that stage fright can  help us to stir the hearts of an audience, or to reach people in a way that we had not anticipated?

This week I gave two talks to two very different audiences.  Both times I experienced the familiar symptoms of terror beforehand, but even though I could hear my voice quivering, stage fright did not dominate either talk.  The adrenalin buzz which raced through me afterwards completely annihilated my memories of previous  stage deaths.  I know that stage fright may decide to suffocate me in future, but for the moment I am enjoying my exhilaration. 

To thrive on stage fright we need to face the monster head-on, allow it to roar and even knock us to the ground, but walk away afterwards knowing that it has not beaten us.

Advertisements

Metal Mama’s Verdict

This is just a quick report to say that, whilst she kept me waiting almost beyond endurance, Metal Mama gave a favourable verdict.

Thankfully I shall start 2012 officially free of cancer.  I think it is going to be a year of no limits!

To everyone reading this post, Happy New Year!

A Basket of Toy Amputees

All dogs have their favourite toys, but unfortunately these toys are the ones whose lives are destined to be short and painful.  They must endure being tugged, chewed,  disemboweled and ultimately decapitated or mortally wounded.   Some manage to escape into the depths of the dog’s bed or under the fridge, but even these are eventually sniffed out to meet their fate.  It is never play time for a dog’s toy. 

When I trained with Trudy, my Guide dog Instructor warned of the dangers of giving dogs soft toys because their inner stuffing can potentially choke a dog.   Likewise if a squeaker from a toy becomes lodged in your dog’s throat it can be fatal.

I took note of my Instructor’s advice and endeavoured not to buy Trudy any soft or squeaky toys.  But Trudy is a seasoned thief, and it wasn’t long before I caught her stealing my own cuddly toys from the bedroom.  (Yes, I do love teddy bears, and frogs, and beanies..!).    My old favourites began to lose the shine on their fur and to develop a slightly bedraggled, manky appearance.  Occasionally I would discover one of them lying dead in another room.   In the end I decided that I would buy Trudy a couple of soft toys to play with under supervision.

Three and a half years later I have some gruesome scenes imprinted on my memory.  Last Summer for example I bought a large dog-shaped doorstop. One morning I was shocked to discover that Trudy had blinded the dog and totally defaced its snout.   I have had to remove it from my lounge because it is too disturbing.  Its empty eyes and ripped snout speak of dastardly deeds.  Was Trudy ensuring that the doorstop dog would never take her place as my Guide dog?!  Suffice to say that the motives of Labradors are not always clear-cut.

In addition to the eye-gauging incident there have been numerous spontaneous massacres resulting in limbs and heads strewn all over the floor.   Wads of stuffing have appeared in the most unlikely places.  Eyes, ears and tails are frequently left abandoned in the hallway.  Many toys have ended their sad lives in the bin.   But there are some characters which have been consigned to the Sick Room, AKA “The Invalid Box”.  These are the all-time favourites which have treasured memories embedded in their remaining body parts, and which I am unable to throw away.  The Invalid Box is a very macabre collection indeed.  Several of Trudy’s “Invalids” are in fact headless, and many are just a torso.   

Trudy’s Invalid Box is now bursting at the seams.  With this in mind I have reached a momentous decision.  I have decided to undertake a mammoth project to repair those Invalids which have enough body mass to tolerate a needle and thread.  I am hoping that Trudy’s excitement at being reunited with some of her loved-ones will overcome her critical eye – for the truth is I cannot sew to save my life.   In fact, I cannot even thread a needle.  But with the help of the RNIB shop (from which I’ve  purchased an automatic needle-threader), Amazon and Google,  I have high hopes.

Some of the torsos may find themselves attached to different limbs from before, and some may even end up with more limbs than they started with.  But Trudy (fingers crossed!) will be gobsmacked to see the return of such legends as Myrtle the Turtle  (the prize she won  at the Guide dog of the Year Awards 2011).  Myrtle unfortunately suffered multiple organ failure in the early Autumn.

If the Invalid Project is a success, I may progress to sewing up holes in my own skirts and darning my Trudyfied socks.  The days of asking friends to mend things for me could soon be a thing of the past.  That would really boost my confidence.  Who knows what lies ahead in the sewing sphere of 2012?  Watch this crafty space! 

 http://www.ne.nfb.org/node/576

  

Metal Mama and Me

Metal Mama is the affectionate name I have given to the mammogram machine in Hereford County Hospital.  Mysterious and rather noble, she maintains the throne in the X-ray room and no one has yet challenged her supremacy.   She is unyielding, dispassionate and cold to the touch. She stares in stoney silence as you stand before her, watching your every move with an air of feigned patience. Then  she takes your breasts in her metal hands and squashes them each in turn.  Occasionally, she’ll whisper to the radiologist that you have cancer.    So would you be surprised if I tell you that Metal Mama and I are as good as mates? 

When I first met up with her a year ago I did not know what to expect.  I did not know I had cancer, I did not know that despite Metal Mama attempting to crush my breasts I would not actually feel pain.  I went in to the palatial chamber fearful and naive.  Metal Mama did nothing to allay my anxieties, and in fact she may have made them more acute.  She was too shiny, too perfect, too supercilious by far.  And that metal gleam of hers highlighted my own mortality.  The fact that I had to remove my bra and T-shirt was a huge ordeal back then.  It did not occur to me that Metal Mama and her radiographer side-kicks have seen hundreds of shapes and sizes passing as women.  But there was so much I didn’t know then.  Almost exactly a year ago.

To be perfectly honest I was not relishing my reunion with Metal Mama today.  I remembered her hard stare, her cold grasp, her chilling verdict.  She held my fate in her steely hands, and she always will do.  I cannot think of her without some part of me shuddering.  Today I had my trusted  hound Trudy with me and she  accompanied me into Metal Mama’s chamber.  She had a sniff around the regal feet, but decided that the bin in the corner smelt more interesting so pitter-pattered off in that direction.  Thanks Trudy!  I  faced Metal Mama alone whilst The Hoover hoovered quietly nearby.  Unlike me, Metal Mama was no different from last year.  She was still iron-hard and ice-cold, no-nonsense and no-frills.  Yet as she was no longer a complete stranger I felt relatively at ease.  Today Metal Mama and I had an understanding. 

I smiled at the fact that today I was able to stand topless before Metal Mama without blushing scarlet.  When you have breast cancer, one thing you quickly learn is that you have to order your inhibitions to move aside and shut up.  I have learned to forget that it is me with no T-shirt on. Me automatically goes to the back of my head when I’m in a hospital environment.  Metal Mama could have told me that a year ago.

But it does not pay to be cocky.  Last year each X-ray courtesy of Metal Mama was painless (albeit slightly uncomfortable).  Today’s experience therefore came as a shock.  When Metal Mama clamped the breast which has undergone surgery and radiotherapy,  I nearly shot to the ceiling with the pain that sliced through me.  But it was short-lived.  Metal Mama’s hugs are never longer than about 30 seconds, thank God.     Four hugs (two on each breast) and she’s usually done with you.  And here came the second unwanted surprise of the day.  Metal Mama took my offer of friendship literally.  She spat out one of the X-ray images and called me back for one extra hug – the one that hurt most of all. 

Last year I received Metal Mama’s verdict the same day, as I was seeing the Consultant straight afterwards.  This time I have to wait between a week and ten days for the results.  It’s quite weird knowing that Metal Mama knows already if I’m clear of cancer or not.  She has my image imprinted on her mechanical brain.  I’d love to be able to meet her for a drink in Wetherspoon’s and get her to divulge the results after a triple Vodka.  Then Metal Mama might roll along Commercial Road spilling all her secrets throughout High Town.  I have a picture of her crashed out in a metal heap, turning up for work later with a thumping hangover and being fired for breaking the code of conduct.  But she’s far too professional.

Back to reality.  I’m all set for an impatient ten days, wondering what Metal Mama has seen and what she will tell.

Video of a mammogram http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/mammogram/MM00639

Information about mammograms and breast cancer http://cancerhelp.cancerresearchuk.org/type/breast-cancer/about/screening/mammograms-in-breast-screening

Breast Cancer Care Charity http://www.breastcancercare.org.uk/

Dogs or Antidepressants?

I have not tended my Blog for a while because I’ve been waiting for a decidedly dark cloud to lift from my mind.  It is taking its time – so much so that I have decided to wait no longer.  This time of year has always stirred up a malevolent host of demons in my world.  The darkening evenings actually seem to suck the life out of me, and I feel myself sinking into hopelessness.  Real sink or swim stuff.  Yet here I am, still alive enough to write.

When all is well I throw myself into daily life  – making plans, embarking on courses, committing to dates and appointments, acting on ideas.  Then depression strikes and within days all my excitement has died.  I can feel the demon’s claw seizing my spirit and attempting to strangle it.  Suddenly I cannot go out, I want to shut myself away from my friends, I lose the motivation to do the simplest tasks, and slowly things begin to fall apart.

So where does Trudy fit into this?  My black and white choice is to find somebody to look after her while I wallow in misery, or to stumble onwards and continue caring for her myself.  Unable to part with her, I’ve chosen to keep things as they are.  The upshot is that I have   to continue with a daily routine for Trudy’s sake.  That means getting  up at the usual time to feed her and take her outside for her “busy busy”.  More often than not I meet a neighbour and we spend a few minutes engaging in chit-chat.   Having a bouncy Labrador makes it impossible to hide away from the outside world.   Thanks to Trudy, the skeleton of my normal routine has remained intact. 

I have learned to lower my expectations during times of low mood.  My current goal is to survive this rather bleak period and to continue to look after Trudy – not because I have to, but because I want to.  The love I have for Trudy makes me glow inside, and even when my mood is dark and I can’t feel the warmth from that glow I know it’s still there.  When Trudy bounds over after I’ve popped out for a few minutes, I can feel the glow stirring, and it gives me hope.  Trudy is a gift, and the bond we have is a gift.  Being on the receiving end of the unconditional love which just spills out of Labradors is very precious. 

One of the great things about dogs is that they are so tangible.  Trudy’s warm, soft fur has an instant feel-good effect – and that’s before I get to the silky ears, and the wagging tail.  Research has proved that stroking animals can increase the levels of serotonin in the brain.  In addition it can boost your immune system, lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, and decrease pain.  This is why there is an increasing number of Therapy dogs being assigned to hospices and retirement homes.  In fact when I have visited such places myself in my capacity as a Speaker, I have witnessed the positive effects that Trudy has had on some of the patients.  Trudy is synonymous with Life.  Just being around her makes life livable.

Perhaps her ability to inject humour into my bleakest moments is the thing that strikes me most.  If Trudy wants to play hide and seek with items from my laundry basket, she won’t take no for an answer no matter how depressed I feel!  And the fast-beating thump of her tail has such an upbeat rhythm that my mouth smiles without me even thinking about it.  Then there are the numerous feats of Labrador mischief that prove to me how priceless Trudy is, and before long I realise that I’m actually glad to be alive.  Sometimes I surprise myself by my own spontaneous laughter – thanks to Trudy.   Trudy ignites hope inside me, and hope is what stops people from drowning.

So despite the waves of gloom which permeate my days at the moment, I have the means to stay grounded, focussed and connected with other people.  When I’m in the park with Trudy, fellow walkers see the hurtling Labrador before they see me.  Even when they notice me and we strike up a conversation they are unaware of my inner struggle.  This in itself is a true bonus.     Antidepressants can set right the chemical imbalances in your brain, but having a dog like Trudy is a reason for living and thriving.  Merely wanting to look after a dog takes your thoughts away from your own troubles.  Actually having a dog reduces those troubles to the bare minimum.   Trudy’s role as a Guide dog at this time is secondary to her therapeutic role.  The very fact that she gives me so much makes me determined to do what I can for her.  This has prevented me from caving in on myself.

Trudy provides me with so much more than freedom and mobility.  I know she understands me as I do her, and it feels like we’re joined together by something magical.  She is not just part of my life, she has become part of me.

 Hetty is Britain’s first dual Guide dog and Seizure Alert dog http://www.guidedogs.org.uk/news/uks-first-dual-guide-dog-and-seizure-dog-graduates-with-new-owner/

Children with autism and OCD benefit from assistance dogs  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/11/giving/11DOGS.html?_r=2&partner=TOPIXNEWS&ei=5099

Therapy dogs in Psychiatric services http://drdeborahserani.blogspot.com/2010/10/therapy-service-dogs.html

My Phoenix will not let me die

I am not a particularly outgoing person, and three years ago you would have had to drag me into a room full of people.  Social ease does not come naturally to me.  Yet I have learned to present a confident persona largely as a result of my role as a volunteer Speaker.

When I trained with my Guide dog Trudy in 2008 I received the “Qualifying Pack” which all rookie Guide dog owners are given at the end of training.  One of the leaflets in this pack gave details about becoming a volunteer Speaker for Guide dogs.  Something stirred inside me and I wondered if I would be any good at it.  After all, I had started out at University wanting to be a Teacher.  I love the art of language, and to me a string of well-chosen words beats any fireworks display.  This  drive to express myself and communicate passionately with others left me in no doubt that I would end up being a Classics Teacher. 

But it was not to be.  Twenty years after my arrival at Oxford I found myself dwindling in a nursing home, afraid to be seen in public, unsure of who I was.  Losing my useful vision at the end of my first year as an undergraduate was the end of my world.   The disappointment of having to abandon my degree  left me in tatters, and I lost all hope of having a life.  The grief I felt took over my mind and dismantled my thoughts.  I was unable to function, and thus began my default career as a psychiatric patient.  I  seriously thought that I would never emerge whole again.  

But after many struggles which spanned twenty years I did emerge.   Somehow I reached the peak of the mountain, and my reward was Trudy.  Training with a Guide dog had been my dream since leaving Oxford.  I knew that a dog would free me from the confines of sight loss, so I had to get myself back on track.  At the time I did not anticipate that it would take so many years.  But Trudy was worth the wait.  When I trained with her I had been a resident in the nursing home for seven years, and never envisaged leaving.  Trudy literally led me out of the front door and showed me the world outside. 

So the leaflet in the Qualifying Pack renewed my sense of purpose and gave me direction.  I moved into my own flat and began to seize every opportunity to rekindle the life which had so nearly died inside me.  Could I really be a Speaker?  Why not!  I was extremely apprehensive, for my mental breakdown had stolen my confidence and given me a morbid fear of strangers.  Yet I knew that if I didn’t seize this chance I would probably never feel fulfilled.  I reasoned that even if it was disastrous, at least I would have given it my best shot.

I expected to have some training in Public Speaking before I was let loose on the public.  However this was not the case.  After registering as a volunteer for Guide dogs, six months later I received a phone call requesting me to give a talk at a nearby village Primary School.  I cannot properly describe the terror which took hold of me as the appointed day grew closer.  What was I thinking of?!  Me! The semi-reclusive blind woman with a cleft palate speech impediment, giving a talk to a schoolful of kids!  I always struggled being part of an audience, so how was I going to address one?

The dire scenarios tormented me for nights on end, but I forced myself to go through with it.  When the day came I was relieved to find that most eyes were fixed on Trudy throughout my talk.  I was speaking during Assembly to 90 children,  but thanks to Trudy the dreaded “spotlight effect” did not take hold of me for long.  When I finished my talk the children plied me with excited questions, and I felt so elated that I almost soared into the air.  I was alive and free! This first talk was sixteen months ago, and now I am averaging about three talks a month.  So in a very round-about way I have fulfilled my dream of becoming a Teacher.  The topic of Guide dogs is easily as thrilling as Classics. 

As I have grown more confident, my voice has ceased to vibrate uncontrollably as I’m speaking.  I forget that I have a cleft palate which affects my pronunciation of certain consonants.  Somehow I have learned to project out of myself, and the audiences I speak to rarely get to see the quaking nervous wreck inside the Speaker.  I would not say that every talk I give is a success.  Recently I came home convinced that my public speaking phase was over, and that I would never have the guts to speak in public again.  But I guess the Phoenix within me won’t let my courage die forever.  This week I gave another talk in Hereford, and thankfully I hit the right note with the audience.  The buzz from a well-received talk fires up your soul and you leap into the clouds feeling literally on top of the world.

One of my favourite books is Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis.  Zorba’s dance epitomises the phrase “Carpe Diem” – seize the day.  His love for the moment and the simple pleasures of life, together with his incredible passion for music, has always struck a deep chord within me.  Zorba knows what it means to be free, and is desperate to teach others the essence of freedom.  One day I shall visit Crete and when I get there I will dance like Zorba.  Sometimes it pays to leap out of your every day life and risk the unknown.  Uncertainty gives rise to adventure, self-discovery and possible fulfilment.   If it all goes wrong and you find yourself heading over a cliff-edge, then you can always turn round and go back the way you came.

I Love Aylestone Park

There is a park in Hereford which is four minutes walk away from my flat.  This park comprises two large fields/meadows, a canal, an orchard and a gravel path which snakes its way round in an irregular loop.  The trees are fairly sparse so it always feels breezy, and on a day like today there is a good chance that hat-wearers would go home hatless.  Over the past few months I have become indebted to this open space known as Aylestone Park.  As I feel the wind seize my hair by its roots and flutter against my face I can’t help feeling moved, for I am in no doubt that I am in the presence of something beyond words.   This presence stirs, and seems to manifest itself in the tumbling wind.  When I stand still in Aylestone Park I feel bonded to nature, I feel humbled by the elements, I feel mortal, I feel free.
Simply by rooting myself to the ground I am reassured.   The earth still breathes and moves beneath me but my feet are still.  My mishmash of worries becomes lighter, and my restless spirit starts to calm.   Hope revives herself within me.  I love this park because it has not been unduly tampered with.  There are no landscaped flowerbeds and no ornamental ponds guarded by stone goddesses.  Humans have their rightful place, as does the long grass, and the scuttling mammals.  Dogs bound everywhere, sniffing out the mole hills and splashing in the canal.  Some people find Aylestone Park “boring” because it is themeless and its only “facility” is a large car park.  But to me this park is freedom itself.  Just planting myself in the lower field and allowing the wind to absorb me breaks open the ties which bind my spirit.  I feel so fortunate to have such freedom.
Trudy my Guide dog adores this park.  It gives her freedom too, as here is where she sheds her harness and tears around being a Labrador.  This time of year she goes scrumping in the orchard and I’m often showered with leaves as her snout sends them flying into the air.  All I can hear is the rustling of twigs and leaves as Trudy pursues the myriad scents which arouse her snout.  She befriends two or three pet dogs every time we visit, and eagerly joins in their games.  If I take her to the canal she throws herself into the brown-blue water and doggy-paddles back to me snorting like a pig.  The snorting is even louder if she’s carrying something in her mouth, and little jets of water spurt out of her nostrils.  Sometimes a regular group of dog-walkers whom I’ve nicknamed “the Labrador Convention” arrives at the canal and Trudy mingles with the black, yellow and chocolate Labradors teasing and chasing them.  She steals their frisbees and dives in after their treats.  She is in Labrador paradise.  When it’s time to go Trudy pretends not to hear the whistle and I have to use all my cunning and skill to lure her back to me.  Even with her smelly water-logged fur I am relieved when she comes lolloping back.

We amble back home through the tall stems of prickly grass, Trudy is usually munching weeds or thrusting her snout into the hedgerows.  Before I put her back on harness we often stand for a few more minutes savouring our freedom.  I turn my face towards the wind and feel it tussle my hair.  I inhale its freshness and allow all my anxieties to melt into the air.  They disperse like paper petals.  Trudy has a final nose-dive and then drums her tail against my legs ready for the four-minute stroll home.  I never leave the park with an ounce of stress or fear lingering.  This magical place renews and invigorates me.  It makes life seem even more precious, and I arrive home eager to make the most of everything I have.