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"like drowning in glue"

James Millar, Australia's own Agatha Trunchbull, opens up about his life-long battles with anxiety and how acting helps keep it at bay.

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Acting and Anxiety: An Unlikely Friendship

Date: 10 Jan 2018

When I was very young, between the ages of around eight and 13, I looked like a girl.

Not just a little boy who appeared girly, but entirely like a girl.

I recall one time, when moving into our respective new-years at school, my mum took my sister and I to the school uniform shop to get fitted. The lady working there took our measurements and then came out with two dresses. My heart sank when my mum had to say, “Sorry, no, one is for a boy.”

This happened on multiple occasions. Either I was mistaken for a girl or some well-intentioned or curious person would ask me if I was a boy or a girl. Every time it happened, I’d feel mortified for days – only feeling comfortable in the safe confines of home.

Around the same time, I sat up and watched a “grown ups” film which was extremely upsetting. It was about a mother who was tragically killed in a car accident, leaving the father to raise the child. Along with my fear of going to school and being called a girl, I also developed a daily worry that, while at school, I would be called into the office to be told that someone I loved had been killed in a car accident.

I did not realise, at that age, these worries were not normal. I began to fear being driven to the shops, not just because of the danger of the drive, but because of all the strangers who might stare at me, point at me, look at me questioningly, or just laugh. I’ve since learned this is called “sociaphobia” … a specific type of anxiety that can be irrational or experience-based. Mine was experience-based, which made it temporary, but rare in someone so young.

I kept my fears to myself. Always.

It made the idea of doing recreational activities or out-of-school community activities like soccer or squad swimming or even art classes difficult. We tried them all. I simply wasn’t good at soccer (once I felt so proud I had finally kicked a goal and everyone was yelling and screaming and I felt like a little hero – cue Chariots of Fire theme song – but I’d kicked it into the wrong net).

I was good at swimming. People could at least tell what gender I was based on the costume. I learned to love swimming because you could be silent and alone in the water and puff yourself out and set your own goals.

I lost my love for that when one day I got out of Gaston Swimming Pool at around 11 and two boys of the same age were waiting for me at the end. I hopped out of the water and they said, “You’re a fat Gaylord” and pushed me back in the water.

Since then, I have always loved swimming (alone) but still to this day wear a t-shirt when I’m in the water.

In art classes, mum and dad had found something I genuinely seemed to love as an extra-curricular activity. I wasn’t afraid of people there. They were all quiet, focused on a task. It was – as the more contemporary psychological term puts it – “mindful”.

I went with my cousin, a chatterbox back then, and she kept telling the group funny stories about our family and constantly referring to me as “He”. That is, until one of the other members of the group chastised my cousin and said “Stop being mean to her”… and by “her” she meant me. I didn’t return to art classes.

My fear of strangers grew worse. I felt stressed in a way a child shouldn’t and it would stay with me. Swells where I could feel some relief by thinking, “One day I’ll grow up and be different and have a lower voice” were usually followed by about 20 minutes of sheer horror in which all I wanted to do was hide in my room.

At that point, I didn’t know what anxiety meant. In fact the world didn’t really acknowledge it as a condition. You were just sad, worried, sensitive, upset, etc, etc. Each describes a part of Anxiety-proper, but they do not describe the complete nature of the beast.

I don’t tell this as a sob story.

I was asked by Audrey Journal to talk about my journey with anxiety, so I had to go back into a time machine to work out when anxiety entered my life and how I made the trip from being a kid afraid of someone looking at him in a shopping centre to what seems to be the dead opposite of that experience: being an actor.

When nothing else worked for me as an extra-curricular activity, mum made a decision to put me into Saturday Morning Acting Classes with The Sydney Talent Company when I was 12. Which was in 1992. Gosh.

What happened next felt like someone released a valve in my chest (in a good way) and I felt almost immediately at home. Like I belonged. Like I fitted in.

Most of the kids in my class were either incredibly shy or obnoxiously and hilariously loud, but all were misfits in their own way. And I didn’t feel anxious. I could escape into a character for the lesson, then escape back out as myself and still feel relaxed. For once, people were staring at me because I wanted them to. And I wanted to stare at what they did as well.

Of course, I’m not saying, “Anxiety problem? Hey, become an actor!” That would not be healthy advice. For me, however, one nurtured the other. There are many employees in this business – and obviously in every business – who privately or publicly struggle with anxiety. For those who don’t, however, it’s hard to understand exactly what it is.

So I’m gonna say what it isn’t to make it clearer:

Anxiety isn’t Depression.

It can go hand-in-hand with Depression, but it is also a stand alone condition of its own.

Anxiety isn’t Nervousness.

Nerves are healthy, productive and normal and remind you that you are doing something challenging and exciting. They also remind you that you still find what you’re doing thrilling.

Anxiety isn’t Worry.

Worry is a normal feeling, when something troubling you is a legitimate concern. Worry can be cousin to anxiety, but normally only when it erupts for no reason and sits there as a feeling without reason or basis.

To me, anxiety is physical, not emotional. My bones ache, my muscles feel like rapidly melting wax and I want to sleep until it goes away.

But inside of all that physical weakness – like drowning in glue – that feeling begins to make my heart race and my stomach sink and a true dooming sense of fear: fear of collapsing dead for no reason all of a sudden; fear of someone else collapsing dead all of a sudden; fear that every time the phone beeps or an email comes through that you must have done something wrong. Ridiculous, dramatic, over-the-top, unsubstantiated fear.

And it happens, at least to me, when I am most relaxed or domestic. Never on stage. It knows it isn’t invited there. But driving down the freeway, walking the dog, doing the shopping or simply lying on the couch reading a book …

I have learned, in large part, to overcome it, once I got to know what (make that ‘who’) it was.

Like someone who suffers with migraines, little signs spring up. It is like hearing the rumble of a distant storm, but the storm isn’t worry, it isn’t nervousness, it is an absolute and completely uncalled for sense of doom.

Luckily, for those who suffer it, learning about it and learning techniques to crush the little bastard before it becomes Godzilla are now readily available. There are a thousand breathing techniques, distraction exercises, immediate-acknowledgment processes (“mindfulness”) that cause it to run away.

You can learn, by speaking to those angels on earth called psychologists, how to master the art of these techniques and you can control it so it doesn’t bother you anymore, or if it tries to, techniques to scare it off before it bites.

As for acting, anxiety has never bothered me in my work. In fact, I think the pleasure I derive from writing and performing mean my anxiety has no space to fill so it slouches away and vanishes. It only begins to try to make its way back when it has a space to fill. My work on and offstage don’t give it that.

So in retrospect, none of those events from my childhood or any of the experiences I talked about gave me anxiety. I just didn’t know I had it. Which is the key, I think, to conquering it. The minute you give something a name and learn its habits, the stronger you become to pick up a sword and conquer it.

I am, however, still terrified of spiders. And I’m not sharing my experiences with them with anyone.

Thanks Audrey Journal for giving me this opportunity to share my one little journey with anxiety. I hope it helps others who have experienced or are currently experiencing it to feel their condition is shared. And can be beaten.

For me, the art of acting and writing are my tonic along with very effective breathing exercises. I frequently listen to a song called Joy by a band called Sleeping at Last. It always settles my anxiety. For others it may also include medication if that’s what is necessary.

I think it’s a very empowering way of fighting the monster before it can even get close to blowing fire on you. And for now: I am happy to be BeastMaster over my Dragon – who I haven’t had a joust with again for many years.

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