Trapped in the Spotlight

What happens when quitting your job means quitting yourself?

Jen Wick Studio

Imagine you're an accountant. (Or, if you're an accountant, imagine you're you.)

Now imagine that numbers terrify you. Your pulse quickens and your throat closes up as you're buttoning your shirt for work in the morning. Brushing your teeth, you feel disconnected from reality as your mind races, imagining the thousands of numbers that await you on your computer screen. When you finally reach your desk and see all the spreadsheets laid out in front of you, it feels like someone has attached electrodes to your upper body and is slowly turning the knob up. Your chest tightens and buzzes with energy, making it impossible to get a full breath.

If this happened to you every morning, continuing your accounting career wouldn't be an option.

Now imagine you're a performer.

Welcome to another day at work.

This was what show days felt like for me when I was hosting Live Wire, a radio variety show that records in front of a live audience in Portland, Oregon, and airs on about forty public radio stations nationally. I hosted the weekly show until March 16, 2013, when a crippling two-day anxiety attack—nine years to the day from our first show—finally made me realize that this might not be the job for me.

Before then, the anxiety was more of a dull pain than a stabbing one. At the Monday writer's meeting for each show, my chest would start growing what I called my Dread Ball. It would start out the size of a pea, and by Wednesday it was a watermelon. By show day on Saturday, my Dread Ball had turned into a giant, human-size hamster ball I'd walk around in, the rest of the world dulled by the view through the plastic.

I did lots of things on the show—read essays, performed in sketches—but those things didn't bother me. It was interviewing people in front of an audience that filled me with dread (balls). It's strange and awkward to meet someone for the first time no matter what the situation—imagine doing it in front of four hundred people. Now imagine that you are also strange and awkward. Not a good combination. Additionally, virtually every person I interviewed was a leader in his or her field: Pulitzer Prize–winning authors, Oscar-winning filmmakers, the creator of the wiki. It felt like putting a magnifying glass on the giant holes in my education once a week. I was always worried I would seem like an idiot by comparison.

I stuck it out, though, for many reasons that were smart: I worked with insanely talented people who made me look smarter, I met extraordinary artists and got to ask them how they made their work, and the show offered me hard writing deadlines that resulted in public humiliation in front of live audiences when not met. I created more new work than most of the writers I knew.

There were lots of great reasons to stay, but there remained a dark one: the nagging, terrifying idea that this job was the most interesting thing about me.

I already knew I had trouble talking to strangers at parties, and my eHarmony profile had caused exactly three men in dad jeans to beat a path to my digital door, so I didn't feel like I had a ton of personality traits to recommend me. This job gave me great angst, but it also gave me great anecdotes. When someone asked me, “What do you do?” my reply was shared by only about five other people in the country. That felt like a selling point for me. Of course I realize I'm not a product, but when you're a single woman in your forties, it's difficult not to think of yourself as a brand. And if I was a brand, my flagship product was the show. Once I'd made the mistake of allowing my job to define me in that way, I could no longer consider quitting my job without feeling like I was quitting myself.

But two days before our anniversary show last year, none of the identity stuff mattered, because I was having a panic attack. Not a hit-and-run panic attack, but the kind that sits down and orders a double. The kind that wakes up with you and asks how you slept. The kind that laughs when you tell it that you have a show in two days so could it go bother Garrison Keillor, because he seems like he could stand to gain from a little nervous energy? And suddenly it's the night before the show, and the panic attack is still hanging around.

Photo by Jennie May
Courtenay Hameister (right) quit as host of Live Wire Radio; she remained as head writer. Luke Burbank (left) became the new host in September 2013. Photo by Jennie Baker

After a long, sobbing, terrified conversation with my brother, I finally called our producer and told her I couldn't do the show. I called her with a problem and its solution—one of the guests we were planning to have on the show, Luke Burbank, could host it. Luke is an incredibly quick-witted, charming, natural showman who hosts his own popular podcast called Too Beautiful to Live. We'd actually booked him to see if he'd be a good replacement for me if I ever got sick, so it made perfect sense to try him out now.

The next night, the worst and the best thing happened: the show was utterly, completely fine without me. Luke glided through the show as if he'd been there all along, and I could suddenly breathe. Not through layers of fear, but into an open, grateful chest that was happy to finally have air.

After a couple weeks of conversations in which my friends, family, and colleagues watched me struggle to make the decision they'd seen coming for years, I stepped down as host and remained head writer and coproducer. I felt my body change the moment I made the decision. My shoulders dropped, my chest opened up, and my stomach was knot- and butterfly-free. It was definitely, unequivocally, the right decision.

That said, I lost something big and beautiful the day I stepped down, and it made me wonder: Why couldn't I push through the anxiety and just enjoy the job? And if it was so wrong for me, why did it take me nine years to leave it?

I asked those questions of William Todd Schultz, a professor of psychology at Pacific University and the author of Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith. Elliott Smith was a quiet, shy singer whose career began in hard rock bands in Portland in the early '90s. He became famous when director Gus Van Sant used his understated, poignant solo music as the soundtrack to the film Good Will Hunting. Schultz's book paints Smith as increasingly uncomfortable with the limelight, culminating in his nervous performance of the song “Miss Misery” at the 1998 Oscars.

My situation was obviously quite different from an internationally famous musician's, but Schultz said that even so, there were things Smith did that could've helped me. One of his best tools in connecting to his audience was something I never would've dreamed of doing: he showed them how scared he was.

“Elliott would just be visibly, openly anxious,” he began. “If he felt like he couldn't finish, he would just stop a song—be openly, flamboyantly vulnerable—to the point where the audience would call out to him that he could do it. They became a part of the show, and they loved that.”

Schultz went on to say that one of the biggest impediments to getting over performance anxiety is pretending you don't have it. In addition to the anxiety you're already feeling, you dread the humiliation you'll feel when people find out you're anxious. In Elliott Smith's case, he knew people loved to recognize their own vulnerability in someone onstage, so he just told the truth about it. When he did, he robbed those fears of their power.

As a person who's been sharing humiliating stories with audiences for ten years, this was a lesson I should've had down. Plus, when it comes to human interaction, I've always believed that revealing vulnerability appears weak on the surface—in, say, the Darwinian sense of “now you can see my jugular and do what you will with it.” But, in reality, what's braver and more badass than offering up your emotional jugular to someone and begging them to take a whack? Sure, it changes when you're asking four hundred people to unsheathe their swords, but who's counting?

Another thing I had in common with Smith—and another reason I ran into problems, according to Schultz—was my personality type.

A popular model that psychologists use when discussing personality types is what they call the “Five Factor Theory” or “The Big Five.” It rates people in five broad dimensions that describe human personality: Extroversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness to Experience/Intellect.

“If you're like Elliott Smith, which I think you are,” he said, “you're low in extroversion—maybe in the 28th percentile—and high in neuroticism. That's the recipe for someone who's going to struggle when it comes to stuff like this.”

Extroverts get energized and thrive on external stimulation (like hundreds of clapping people), while introverts get their energy from time alone and are far more sensitive to stimulus. Some level of extroversion is obviously important for a performer. And, according to Schultz, being high in neuroticism is particularly problematic for entertainers as it leads to more pronounced anticipatory dread, which is a factor for all performers.

Schultz had me go to the Big Five website and take a test to see where I landed. I can't say he was dead-on, but that's only because he missed my extroversion percentile by three points.

THREE POINTS.

He'd said I might be in the 28th percentile. I was in the 31st. “You tend to shy away from social situations,” the test results told me. Well, that seems disastrous for a variety-show host, doesn't it? What the hell was I thinking? I'd always imagined myself to be one of those strange introvert/extrovert hybrids. I love time to myself, but when I don't have time with friends, I can get a little grumpy/clinically depressed. So it shocked me that I was so low on the extroversion scale.

My neuroticism percentile wasn't so shocking—I was in the 87th percentile there. (Single men: YES, I am still available! Call me!) “You are a generally anxious person and tend to worry about things,” said the test.

“Oh, really?” I replied. “Well, you're not helping things.”

I don't want to go over all my other scores because it was pretty depressing overall, but it's important to say that Schultz felt I would score high in the “openness to experience” area, which helped me succeed at the job for as long as I did. He was right—I was in the 95th percentile.

“You enjoy having novel experiences and seeing things in new ways,” the test said.

“Thank you for finally saying something nice, jerk,” I replied.

So perhaps the reason I stuck around as long as I did was that the two most prominent aspects of my personality, according to the test—my neuroticism and my curiosity—were in a constant battle to the death, with each one jockeying for position but never quite winning. I do remember feeling almost schizophrenic during some shows—I would be so excited to finally be able to ask Lynda Barry how she created such rich, sweet, hilarious characters, but devastated that I had to do it in front of a crowd. In the end, it seems my neuroticism won, perhaps with an assist from my introversion. And one big panic attack.

Schultz offered up one more reason why people with the low extroversion/high neuroticism combination keep performing: they, like everyone, crave connection.

“So many people are temperamentally ill-equipped to be onstage,” he said. “But they believe strongly in their work. They need it to be heard, and they crave the response. The audience is at the same time a source of anxiety and an attachment object that provides comfort.”

This I could relate to. This group of people, just by clicking “Buy Ticket,” had no idea that by doing so, they were becoming both my worst fear and my warmest security blanket. Performers don't generally tell stories about experiences we're proud of or that went well—we tell stories about the moments that make us feel the most awkward or alone because we desperately want to know they're shared. This is what stand-up comics do.

So why was that desire for connection so strong that I went through hell to get it?

I asked the question of two extremely talented comedians—Luke Burbank, the current host of Live Wire (as well as a Wait Wait Don't Tell Me panelist) and Ophira Eisenberg, the host of NPR's Ask Me Another and a longtime stand-up comic.

“It's been said to me by people I'm married to that I'm much better at relating to large groups of people,” Burbank quips. “And there's a reason for that. Your good interactions with a single person—imagine sort of mainlining the best, uncut freaking adrenochrome of that. It's euphoric.”

Eisenberg agrees. “When I'm not onstage for a while, I get a little grumpy,” she says. “I can feel a sense of myself is affected by the audience's reaction to me. And that's a little fucked up, but if it's your job to be propelled forward by positive reactions, doesn't it naturally become part of who you are? So there's a portion of my love for myself that's decided by a bunch of drunk people in a basement, and I just have to live with that.”

While this aspect works for Eisenberg and Burbank (Burbank claims his audience high will usually last him until he encounters his next one), I think it was another part of my downfall. I saw a picture of myself walking offstage after reading an essay recently, and I was shocked. The smile on my face looked like pure, unadulterated joy, but that's never the part I remember when thinking of a show. The part I remember most is the week of anticipatory dread I felt for the very reason Eisenberg mentions: that my success or failure was going to be decided by four hundred people I didn't know. Sure, that can be a very successful three hours, but successful enough to make up for the seventy-eight hours you spent worrying? It's like Thanksgiving dinner: if we were to actually see the work-to-enjoyment ratio of that meal, we would never do it again. But almost none of us look at it that way; it's a matter of perspective.

Eisenberg's perspective is unquestionably positive. When she told her first stand-up joke ever, she got one laugh. One. She describes it as the biggest rush of her life. Why was she so thrilled when most people would have seen that as a failure?

“It was from someone I didn't know, so I saw that as success,” she said. “Some people have ‘laugh ears,' where they hear laughs that aren't there. Other people don't hear laughs that are there and come off the stage destroyed. If you really listen, you start to make different choices and it gets better. It takes a long time to have the guts to hear your audience.”

Burbank, it appears, is also beyond optimistic. “In stand-up, you only remember the people who laughed,” he says. “I would record a set I thought was killing, and replay it to hear three people laughing. It's a survival technique the spirit employs. You don't do the math, otherwise you realize you're having a .05 percent success rate.”

As for me, I could never not do the math. I am what psychologist Nancy Cantor referred to as a “defensive pessimist”: a person who doesn't expect the worst to happen, but prepares for it just in case it does. And while this is an important differentiation between me and, say, Eeyore, defensive pessimism isn't enough to get you through weekly three-hour performances. Yes, you need to be able to realistically read what's happening in your audience to be able to respond appropriately, but to push through the fear, and the nerves, and the YouTube comments, over and over and over, you need what Burbank and Eisenberg have in spades: a powerful, overarching, down-to-your-bones belief that in the end, everything is going to be OK.

Ironically, now that I'm out of the weekly dread-terror-relief cycle, I finally believe that. I still perform, but now I know very clearly which experiences will bring me just the joy (reading essays) and which to avoid (situations in which I am paired with a genius and must ask them questions that may expose me as a nongenius). I've defined for myself which relationships I should spend time thinking about (the kind with the people I love), and which I shouldn't (the kind with four hundred strangers). And I've discovered that I should seek work in a field in which neuroticism is a plus (I would make a great Chihuahua, for instance).

Beyond those lessons, perhaps the biggest solace I should take in all of this is how lucky I am that my body and mind decided to rebel against me that day last March, forcing me out of my complacency. Some people, including the extraordinarily talented and troubled Elliott Smith, who lost his battle with depression in Los Angeles in October of 2003, aren't so lucky.

In the end, I've clearly figured out what I'm not, but have only narrowed down the field of what I could be by one. It's scary, I know. But this scary, I can live with.

Comments

8 comments have been posted.

"My neuroticism percentile wasn't so shocking—I was in the 87th percentile there. (Single men: YES, I am still available! Call me!)" - ha, you're a card, Courtney! And, frankly, you're a better writer than interviewer. Yes, I said that out loud. I've been a performer, interviewer, producer, and writer, too. Your intuition and panic took you to the right place. You were a fine host, but to me your words sing and make me laugh much better on the page.

T Bo | September 2017 |

I only found this essay in 2016, right on the day when I was examining my own extreme anxiety, life-long, when performing or even reading to a small and presumably supportive group. Just an hour ago, talking in bed with my husband, I said "I'm going to write about it. Maybe that will help me figure it out," meaning the extreme and always almost shocking fear. "I know other performers and writers feel that too, because after all, I'm a writer who likes to be alone, not someone who wants to read the stuff on-stage." So isn't this synchronicity to randomly discover OHR and then to randomly pick the topic "Me," and then to randomly stop at Courtenay Hameister's essay? I hope you read this, CH. Thank you for your courage.

Kirie Pedersen | February 2016 | Ventura River near Ojai, CA

We are reading "Quiet:The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking" in my book group and I am sharing this essay with them. I also suggested we all take the Big 5 and compare scores. <-I'm not sure we'll all go for that.

A Mancini | July 2014 | Portland, OR

This has really helped me today, Court. I adore and miss you, and am very proud of you.

Paloma | April 2014 |

Your absence from the show made me worry. So happy you are well. Thank you for sharing. You may not hear from us, but we love you.

Quiet desperation | April 2014 | Portland, or

Thanks for this essay. I'm a frequent listener and occasional audience member at the LiveWire performances, including the one where Luke Burbank subbed in at the last minute. Though you explained why you were stepping down, this essay makes it all clearer and easier to understand. For example, it is clear that it was a good decision for you. But your experience at LiveWire also provided you with a ton of experiences, so I trust that you don't look at those years with regret. As an occasional member of the 400, let me say that you did an excellent job hosting the show -- I wouldn't have kept listening if the host was anything less than excellent. Luke also does an excellent job, so LiveWire continues to thrive in your and his hands, as well as those of the rest of the talent. But I liked the "it's it's" intro better than the mere "it's" we now get. ;)

MKT | April 2014 | Lloyd District

I just love you Courtney. Sorry you struggled so but it seems to have led to an epiphany that has provided helpful. I will always miss your face in the limelight though I will continue to enjoy your wonderful sense of humor in the performances. Also BTW whatever has happened you look great. From one red head in her forties to another your an inspiration. Much love and luck.

Dona | April 2014 | Portland

Humor. Honesty. Insight. Thank you Courtenay.

julie keefe | April 2014 | portland

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