Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Hello, my name is Diane!

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Hello, my name is Diane!

Well, no. It’s not. But this is what happens when I get nervous—the wrong words leave my mouth. I blurt statements I don’t believe. I say things that are incredibly, obviously erroneous and false. Many times, even within the most simple of friendly conversations, I’m unable to say anything at all. But I did say that though—“Hello, my name is Diane”—to a warm and approachable Diane, the real Diane, a writer from Alberta who had just introduced herself, fittingly and correctly, to me. This was in 2008 at the Banff Centre. A group of writers were meeting, eight of us to each round table, for our first dinner and stress-free conversation. I walked in, sat down beside Diane, and, cringingly, that’s how our conversation began. Good god, I thought. I’m an idiot.

This is what it can be like for people with social anxiety or any panic disorder triggered by one sort of thing or another—it’s more than shyness. And it’s not that I’m sociopathic, although, maybe in a way I am. I find conversation with people I don’t know very well to be incredibly awkward to the point of producing fear. I do feel a real dread in my body. My sympathetic nervous system floods with stress hormones. My breathing thins. My saliva thickens. I can’t swallow. And I swallow too much. Blood pressure rises, and with the surge of adrenalin and its endocrine sympathizers, I feel sick. I am sick. In no time, there is no time, my heart rate hits over 150 beats/minute, almost tripling from normal. Tachycardic. I feel like I’m going to have a heart attack. Have you heard this before? Yes. There are the classic shakes and sweats. There is so much sweat. I throw up. I faint. All except for basic motor functioning ceases. Um. Ah. Almost aphasic, all body systems fall back into a limbic, primal mess. Intellect? Forget it. This isn’t an issue of competence or confidence—it’s a biochemical state and it does return me to the primordial. Pre-language. For those who feel this kind of panic, the prefrontal cortex shuts down and the reptilian brain takes over. It’s fight or flight. Turn T-Rex or Pterodactyl.

Public engagement of any kind is difficult. Those of us with anxiety experience visceral trepidation and foreboding for days in advance, sometimes weeks, in anticipation of the impending panic itself. The body feels impending doom. The fear extends beyond the idea of basic introductions and conversations over a meal and into the business side of life. I’m talking about real-time on-the-fly interviews, Q&A sessions on stage, radio gigs, panels, readings, performances, parties—social participation of any kind. God. There are many situations to worry about, or dread, let alone to negotiate them well. There are worse things to worry about, I know. But that is a different story.

Have you seen the video footage of Michael Bay, the director of the film “Transformers”, who in front of a live audience, lost access to his teleprompt script, via a typical glitch of tech failure? In under a minute, he walked off stage because he couldn’t find the words needed to make basic product promo banter with his smooth-talking host. Language left him. Here’s the clip:

This isn’t something that goes over well for anyone that has a public life. Who doesn’t dread this kind of experience? Many of us know the feeling. It’s the material of recurring nightmares. It doesn’t matter that he’s wearing a suit. The old reptilian side of his brain took over. Anxiety knows no bounds. There is no privilege in that realm.

Bay’s coping strategy clearly didn’t work that day. He needed his script. For the socially anxious with a spotlight phobia, or performance anxiety, a script is more than a crutch. It can be how we get through. And the stressors are often simple and routine. I’ve left countless rooms before taking my turn at round-table first name introductions because, at times like these, basic language does indeed leave me. Without words in front of me, in times of stress, it’s difficult to remember anything at all. Hello, my name is Diane.

(Continued next post.)

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Sandra Ridley

Sandra Ridley’s first full-length collection of poetry, Fallout, won the 2010 Saskatchewan Book Award for publishing, the Alfred G. Bailey prize, and was a finalist for the Ottawa Book Award. Her second book, Post-Apothecary, was short-listed for the 2012 ReLit and Archibald Lampman Awards. Also in 2012, Ridley won the international festival Of Authors’ Battle of the Bards and was featured in The University of Toronto’s Influency Salon. Twice a finalist for the Robert Kroetsch Award for innovative poetry, Ridley is the author of two chapbooks: Rest Cure, and Lift, for which she was co-recipient of the bpNichol Chapbook Award. Her latest book is The Counting House (BookThug 2013). She lives in Ottawa.

You can contact Sandra throughout the month of September with questions and comments at

Go to Sandra Ridley’s Author Page