It’s odd how different an experience can feel from the inside than the outside. I’m less than a week into my Open Mic pilgrimage and already I’ve lost all objectivity and feel thoroughly baffled and sorry for myself.
As anybody who has known me for a while will know, I’ve periodically suffered from bouts of depression and anxiety. Samuel Johnson characterised his depression as a ‘Black Dog’, but mine’s more of a dead barn owl. It just lies there, putting you off your food, killing your concentration and generally bumming you out. You wish it would go away, and it’s a bit difficult to explain to other people.
Anxiety exists at the other end of the scale, and manifests in worrying about the future, racing thoughts, and casting around for threats. You repeatedly visualise future scenarios, trying to anticipate problems and make contingency plans. When I’ve had it bad, I’ve started to get agrophobic – I become hyperaware of the people around me in public, and start to filter strangers in terms of threat/non-threat. As you can imagine, this ends up rather colouring your perception, and makes you much more likely to interpret value neutral information as scary or unpleasant. It can manifest as a feeling of radical loss of control, as if danger could rise from anywhere around you at any moment. This feels knackering and horrible, and the quickest way to make it stop is to make sure all the doors are locked, go into your room, and stay there.
But, of course, being stuck inside your room with no stimulation or respite from your thoughts is conducive to depression, so often you find yourself ping-ponging between two very unpleasant states – skull-pounding stress and heart-sinking depression. In the same way that anxiety makes you slice up the world in terms of potential threats, depression is likely to make you view the world in terms of all of its deficiencies – you end up evaluating your own life, and the phenomenon of human existence, and thinking dear God, it’s unbearably awful and pointless.
The really difficult thing is that there are grains of truth in the distorted worldviews engendered by these nasty states. We do have limited control over our environment, and major negative incidents – including fatal ones – can come lurching into one’s life out of nowhere, apparently without reason or justice. People get mugged or hurt in car accidents or lose things or die. Similarly, when you’re depressive, you can look at all this injustice, and think of all the people dying lonely, confusing deaths in hospital wards, and of all the people starving or diseased or suffering in the world, and conclude we live in a cruel, horrendous universe. You imagine people laughing it off or countering with some woolly bit of sophistry, and you think to yourself that to survive you have to be either callous or wilfully stupid.
Now, you could be forgiven for thinking that someone who seems to dip into these states periodically is not an ideal candidate for setting out on two months of travelling alone, standing in front of groups of strangers in strange places, and inviting them to judge him. Certainly, this is a thought that has occurred to me more than once.
But I’m not sure what my alternatives are. Sit at home and resign myself to inactivity? That seems just as likely to exacerbate the problem. I suppose I could commit to a lengthy spell of therapy, but outside the NHS it costs money, the NHS waiting list for a short burst of sessions takes months, and in my experience, although it was okay talking to someone, I found it a bit unsatisfying and patchy, especially as it tended to deal with problems on quite a surface, perfunctory level.
I think the truth of the matter is, this journey is about a lot more than just the open mic scene to me. I’m searching for something, and I think, maybe, what I’m after is a solid place to stand. I’ve not been able to work out why I can feel tired and sad and afraid, but then not be scared about going on stage in front of a huge crowd of strangers, and feel great about myself after having a good gig. And maybe if I can work out where those feelings come from, and separate them from the vicissitudes of performance, then I can make my everyday life better.
Already I’ve met some very inspirational people, who’ve dealt with events that we would traditionally expect to make someone – quite reasonably – miserable, and they seem positive and confident and generous and full of things to offer the world. As I push forward, I’m hoping to figure out more. Hmm…