published Sunday, July 20th, 2014

Shavin: Everything to fear, especially fear itself

By Dana's Shavin

This past weekend, my husband was the artist of honor at a beautiful gallery in Nashville. Along with his photo collages on display, he also has six large pieces on loan at a creative design tech company next door. All of which he was tremendously excited about.

What wasn't exciting -- to either of us -- was the news that he'd be discussing his work, first with the 20 or so brilliant young employees of the design tech company, then at the art gallery with Paul Polycarpou, the editor of Nashville Arts magazine.

Public speaking is on my husband's short list of things worse than torture. It used to be on my short list, too, but I've learned some coping techniques, one of which is how to swallow a pill that helps. But trust me: There are few things more challenging to a public speaking-phobe than being married to one.

There is nothing you can do, as a speech-phobic person, to comfort another speech-phobic person. This is because you know, deep down in your dark little heart, that the other person has much to fear. And, although you have prescription medication to help you through the house of horrors that is public speaking -- and you're willing to share it -- there are all those pre-medication hours during which you are called upon to do the impossible: console your fellow speaker.

Fortunately, my husband only knew about the scheduled talks for a week. And strangely, his anxiety did not reach a fevered pitch until the day before. That day I could have told him a thousand gut-splitting jokes -- or pieces of life-ending news -- and gotten the same "I have to give a speech" response: a blank, wordless, wide-eyed stare. I remember driving over a bridge during his (thankfully) short-lived bridge phobia and observing aloud that a large swath of Philadelphia appeared to be on fire just outside his window. Cue blank, wordless, wide-eyed stare.

The day of his scheduled speeches, we got up early and took a brisk walk. I chatted about the weather, what I might wear to the opening, how my evening had gone the previous night with friends. In short, I tried to pretend like nothing was wrong, even though everything was wrong and I knew it. Speaking in public -- especially when you're not on trial for committing a horrific crime but are actually being honored -- should not feel like an impending execution. But it does. So I dropped the mindless chatter and got real. I confessed how every instance of public speaking, is, for me, like jumping off a cliff, and how every time I just hope and pray my parachute (i.e., the medication) will function properly.

Probably I should not have mentioned the cliff. Or the "hope and pray" part. Probably I should have been more definitive, less acrobatic. But when it came right down to it, it didn't matter, because he couldn't hear me. Or see me. He just stared. Blankly and wordlessly.

My husband took the first pill with lunch in Nashville. Two hours later he came at me, eyes huge. "I dropped my other pill on the bathroom floor!" he whispered sharply.

Which called up the image of Bradley Cooper on the floor of his condo in the movie "Limitless." In it, Cooper, like my husband, has fumbled his last survival pill and, also like my husband, is in grave danger from a large and sinister enemy. But it turns out that Cooper's enemy has ingested the very pill Cooper needs. He has also been stabbed and is beginning to bleed out. Seeing this, Cooper does the unthinkable: He sucks up his enemy's drug-laced blood from the carpet and survives. My husband just got another pill from the bottle.

And then he strode to the front of the room. He sat down and began to talk about the psychology and process of his art and about his life as an artist. He was articulate, funny, thought-provoking and engaging. He made jokes, told stories and entertained questions. He didn't stare, not even once.

And now that it's behind us, I'm so relieved. It's hard playing the supporting role in an anxiety drama. Though it sure beats the heck out of playing the lead.

Dana's Shavin's memoir, "The Body Tourist," is due for release in October. Contact her at

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