People often describe me as fearless which is obviously not true. I understand why this trait is attributed to me, but I would say not risk-averse or courageous are more accurate descriptors. As an actor, writer or any kind of self-employed creative professional, it is impossible to survive in work terms, if you are scared to take a chance. There is too much unpredictability for a start.
Creepy crawlies used to feature at the top of my phobia list, followed by the dark, Mr Bounce (long story!), birds, being left behind, dogs and failure. I am sure there must have been more at one time or other, but these are the most memorable; the ones which most profoundly frightened me once upon a time.
I never made a conscious decision to rid myself of any of these fears, but I can remember the moment of realisation when I discovered the disappearance of some of them.
In many ways, failure was the easiest to cure myself of. It took me five attempts to pass my driving test, so for the first time in my life (and second, third and fourth) I became quite well-acquainted with the big F. I wanted to give up, knowing I was a good driver, but resigning myself to the fact that maybe I just wasn’t destined to pass a test. After the fourth fail, my instructor marched me straight into the house when we got back from the test centre, and all but dialled the number for me. He explained that he had such faith in my ability, that if it weren’t illegal, he would happily let me drive his children to school. As deflated and defeated as I felt, I let him push me into booking a re-test the obligatory ten days later.
On the day of the fifth and final test, I gave myself a talking to in the toilets before joining the other nervous learners in the waiting room. I told my reflection that there was nothing stopping me passing this test, but if I didn’t, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. All of a sudden, though failure was still a real possibility, and an unappealing one at that, it wasn’t actually frightening anymore. Facing it took away the fear.
Fourteen years ago, I took the summer trip of a lifetime and travelled round South East Asia for three months with a group of my closest friends. We had just finished our PGCE and it was our final fling as students. Everything about that adventure was magical – even the awful bits.
One particular journey on the jungle train in Malaysia marked the moment I knew my fear of bugs had passed. Cramped onto the tiny wooden benches that served as seats, holding our noses against the inimitable smell of durian, little more than a few minutes would tick by between each influx of long-legged, winged creatures. About half an hour into our journey, on at least my ninth casual swatting of an enormous flying cockroach from my thigh, it suddenly dawned on me. I was no longer leaping up and squealing when such a thing landed on (or even near) me. It seemed my time in the wilderness had cured me of my fear.
I honestly don’t know if the fifth driving test or the cockroach on the jungle train was the reason for my belief that there is no better option than facing our fears, or if I arrived at this conclusion some other way. The point is, I still firmly believe it. It may not always be possible to overcome our phobias, but it has to be worth a try. Sometimes facing our fears makes them just a bit more manageable, even if it doesn’t banish them completely.
Just last week, I faced a very real fear of my own. I appeared in public and performed with my Nelly. When I think back to my reaction around six months ago when my consultant finally pushed the feeding tube issue, highlighting its necessity, it seems hard to believe that such an event has taken place. I remember telling Lovelyman: I won’t be able to run workshops, or teach, or speak in public if a tube goes in. People will look at me with pity, and think I’m too weak to do my job.
I remember his response: They might do. That’s true. On the other hand, they might look at you and think ‘what an inspirational lady, carrying on with a smile despite her illness!’
I also remember his response to my silence with: Anyway, perhaps you’ll feel differently once you get used to it. You won’t know until you try.
I won’t. Trust me. I will never feel ok about being out in public, doing what I do, with an advertisement for how ill I am right in the middle of my face.
I felt so sure I was right; that my only option would be to hide away and hibernate, even though I knew that would never be my style. So when Nelly finally went in, just before New Year’s Eve, and I gave myself a whole twelve hours of hibernation before braving the public with shops, a petrol refill and general day-to-day living, nobody was more surprised than me.
Still, there seemed to be a world of difference between doing the things I need to do in order to continue on life’s treadmill and keep some money coming in, and choosing to perform. Which is why, when I was invited, mid-December, to feature for the second year running as one of the headline names at a Poetry Cafe as part of the Leeds Jewish Literary Festival, Milim, I asked the organiser to call again at the end of January.
It seemed to make sense to give myself some manoeuvrability. I think I was actually naively hoping the tube would have been and gone by the end of March, but I told myself that I would take that time to see how I felt about it. Mid January I received an email from the organiser, asking for my headshot and bio for the programme, and expressing his pleasure that I would be appearing again. I learned that publicity had already begun, and my name was attached.
My initial feeling was to let him know that I hadn’t promised anything yet, to point out my current health situation and to tell him I was still undecided. Then I thought about it for a moment. Followed by another moment, and a few more moments after that.
I realised that if I waited another week or two, as I had originally intended, my answer would be no. Why? Because I was so far from feeling comfortable or confident with Nelly staring out at everyone who looked my way.
As the date drew nearer, I grew more and more scared. On the evening in question, I had knots in my stomach and lumps in my throat. I was scheduled as the last to perform, meaning I had the entire event for my nerves to build. And build they did. As an actor, nerves aren’t something I usually experience, being adept at channelling the adrenalin of the pre-curtain-up buzz into positive energy to fuel a performance.
This was nothing like that buzz. This didn’t feel like something I could channel. I even found myself thinking: What if I just left now? Would anyone really miss me? Of course, I wouldn’t go back on my word in that way, so leaving wasn’t an option. That meant the only way out, was to get up and do my bit.
So I did. I sat down on a bar chair, which I wouldn’t normally do, because I couldn’t quite trust my legs not to shake like jelly. I delivered my twenty minute set of anecdotes, memories and poems and, despite feeling less sure of myself than I would usually feel when performing, I enjoyed every moment of it once I started.
I had decided to be honest with my audience and let them know how momentous an occasion this was for me. My closing line: I hope you have seen and heard me tonight as Emma – Creative Practitioner, and not ‘that poor girl with the tube in her nose’ seemed to sum up everything about the evening for me. Through the audience applause, I buzzed, smiled and worked hard to steady my breathing.
I had faced my biggest fear and performed as myself, with nowhere for my Nelly to hide. Not only that, but I had acknowledged my Crohn’s Disease in public. I was amazed to note that the outcome wasn’t catastrophic as I had always envisaged it would be. In fact, I felt a sense of relief. Maybe it is all part of growing up (at thirty-five, is that argument valid?) or maybe it is simply time to develop some new fears. Either way, I can honestly say that it feels great to have looked my fear in the eye, outed it to the general public, then faced it head on.
So, does this mean I am fearless, like people think? Of course I’m not; I really think fearlessness is a myth. I have fears, just like everyone else, but my courage has taught me not to run away from them.
By facing the fear, it suddenly stops being scary.