The year I turned eleven, I joined all-girl choir that my music teacher ran. It was called The Julia Singers. We met once a week for rehearsals and, each term, put on a show. There’d be a tea party beforehand – every member of the choir was responsible for contributing to the spread. We gathered in the school gym, with our mothers, and stuffed our faces – at least, this is what I did. Then the girls assembled on stage and the concert began.
I was in the back row, right at the end. This was probably because I was one of the weakest singers: placing me on the periphery meant I could do the least harm to the overall quality of the group. I’ve always wanted to be a better singer, but I have to be grateful, now, that I wasn’t at the front.
For a lot of people, the thought of delivering a speech before an audience brings feelings of deep apprehension, which is one of the things I am always trying to address in my workshops. This apprehension often acquires a supernatural element: the mind is no longer preparing for logical occurrences, but extreme situations that aren’t likely to happen. Fear multiplies for the very fact that the future promises to be beyond our capability.
I wasn’t nervous about singing that day – I was too busy gorging on cakes and biscuits. Standing up in front of an audience was familiar territory for me; my mind had no need to work through possible threats, trying to resolve them before they happened. This is the adaptive function of worry, allowing us to go over something, so we can avoid calamity. Our imagination enables us to time travel: we contemplate the past so errors aren’t repeated; visualize the future to ensure we’re primed. The mind’s eye is the greatest tool we have – everything that exists on earth that wasn’t created by God or nature first began in someone’s imagination. But if we don’t know how to use this tool it can make our lives miserable, always seeing the worst, preventing us from ever living in the moment.
As I help myself to another slice of Victoria sponge, slowly licking at the sugar crystals on the cake’s golden top, I am entirely immersed in the present.
Now, we gather to mount the steps onto the stage, moving in a neat line – song sheets held at our sides. The back row stands on two long benches. The girls in front are on the worn, wooden boards of the stage. Gradually, the chatter in the audience drops away. Mothers find a comfortable position in their seats. Someone clears their throat and the piano starts. One bar of music, two bars, three – and on one triumphant note the choir begins.
Halfway through the second song, I feel a sharp ache low down in my stomach. I shift my feet on the bench, take a deep breath in, waiting for the pain to diminish, but it doesn’t. My skin becomes damp. I swallow and shift again, using one hand to press at my tummy, but the pain is growing – beyond something temporary into something urgent. Suddenly weak, I begin to mouth the words. Now we are starting the second piece of the recital. There are four more to go. I feel agitated, pulled apart by a profound sense of boredom and distraction.
I need to fart, to drive out whatever pressure is building up inside me. With the music no one will hear. I’m not worried about the smell – my desire to end the pain in my belly is my only point of focus. I let go and push. For a moment, the ache is diminishing in the wind, but then I feel something warm, gooey. I cannot stop, only stand there with the music going on around me as my pants slowly fill.
I close my eyes. I’m still mouthing the words, but thoughts are pouring into my head, escalating between sensible ideas and the instinct to scream.
What I find intriguing with my students is that most of them experience a fear of laying themselves bare when they think of standing in front of a crowd, reading their work out loud. But this very dread, when understood, can guide us. An awareness of exposure kept cavemen alive, stopping them from wandering outside when there were wolves or bears nearby. It prevented me from bursting into tears and wailing that I’d crapped my pants as the rest of the choir launched into the third song.
Instead, I looked right, into the wings, stepped off the bench and crept into the shadows. I made straight for the stage door, into the corridor. Despite my rampant thoughts, I was being held together by something more robust – instinct – which was leading me to a place of refuge.
I continued past the notice boards, through the recreation room with its pool table and comfy chairs. The girls’ toilets were at the other end of the school. I still had to navigate the distance of the dining room. At every moment the worry function of my imagination was conjuring the worst: my pants giving way, a hot leaking down my legs; a brown stain at the back of my summer uniform. Like a computer program running through eventualities, the images came steadily.
I made my way down the steps into the dining room where a dozen members of staff were sitting at the central table, having their own tea. At no point did I make eye contact. I walked with short, fast paces with my legs as close together as possible. The worst part was climbing the stairs at the other end, having to lift my feet up and imagine what might happen as my thighs separated. In my mind, the entire table of staff were staring at me as diarrhoea rained from the sky.
I made it to the door at the top of the stairs and hurried through. I was in the boot room now, which led into the girls’ changing room, so I could hurry unrestrained. No one was about. As I passed the washbasins, I glanced at my reflection in the mirror – overjoyed to see that my summer dress was clean. But what struck me more, was how normal I appeared. Despite everything that had happened, I looked exactly the same as I always did.
If, before the concert, my mind – through worry – had conjured an image of myself crapping my pants on stage, I would have been a wreck before the show even started. There’s no way I could deal with such a situation, I might have told myself.
But I did deal with it.
And – even more than that – no one noticed. Not even my mother. This isn’t because she’s neglectful – my mother was there for every concert and play, every squash and tennis and rounders match I ever had at that school. It’s just that in her world, there was nothing to notice.
The way our mind focuses, in extreme situations, gives a sense that the whole world is watching, knowing. Whilst this is deeply uncomfortable, it also enables us to act beyond ourselves due to this magnified threat.
When my students talk of how crippled they get with nerves, it reminds me how in fraught moments we are so acutely self-aware that we feel unbearably exposed, but I also know it was those very feelings that held me together. When those sensations come in our imagination – lying on our bed say, trying not to think about the presentation we have to give at work – we are consumed by how awful they make us feel. This is stress – our physical response to a threat. Out of context, it’s an overwhelming experience. That’s because these bodily sensations are designed to enable us to fight or fly. They are not premonitions, which is often the way they leave us feeling.
In the second I realised my attempt at a fart had gone horribly wrong, I never thought I’d be grateful for the experience – I certainly never thought that the invention of something called the internet would allow me to tell this story to people I’d never met. This is the difference between the worst as we imagine it, and genuine reality, which is never really as bad.
Useful links and shout outs
A big thank you to the honest and poetic Phillip for nominating me for an award: ‘always there if you need me’, and for other bloggers who have been checking up on me, during my hiatus.