Psychoanalyzing my Moth GrandSLAM performance

Last Tuesday night I performed at The Moth GrandSLAM, and while I did well, finishing in second place, I also failed to tell my story in the way that I had planned for the first time in my brief Moth career. It was also the first time I had ever taken the stage for any occasion (and there have been many) and not felt entirely in control. My almost six-minute story ended in less than five minutes, and it was only through luck and a bit of verbal jujitsu that I was able to string together  enough facts to keep some semblance of the actual story.

I assumed that it was because I had become emotional onstage, but there have been other times when emotions have gotten the best of me before. This time was different. I had also lost all focus onstage. I had begun to tremble. To be completely honest, I couldn’t keep track or entirely remember what I was saying. The words were coming from my mouth, but it was as if I was only half aware of what they were. Rather than telling the story, I had somehow drifted into the story and was listening to it as it was being told.

That’s not quite right, but it’s as close as I can get to describing the feeling.

It was all very strange, and ever since that night, I have been concerned that I had somehow lost my onstage mojo. I wondered if my inability to remain calm and focused in front of a large group of people was a sign of things to come. I worried that this may happen every time I took the stage to tell a story, and if that were the case, my brief storytelling career would be over.

Regardless of the scores that I received for Tuesday’s performance, I never wanted to feel that way again, and I was afraid that I might.

I wrote about my Moth experience a couple days after the performance, and a friend and psychologist who knows the story that I told onstage well weighed in on my experience. Her words brought immediate understanding and comfort to me.

She wrote:

With all you've been through, those events were among the most traumatic, if not the most. And the body remembers trauma, even when the mind has figured it out. For whatever reason, the Moth triggered some PTS.

What (Tuesday night and the actual experience) had in common were you as the focus/center of attention in both cases. While that's usually fine, in fact you’re very comfortable in that place, you haven't talked about that subject in front of a lot of people. I think the crowd plus the topic triggered your PTS. And it wasn't simple PTS, it was prolonged, intense, potentially destructive, scary, icky, despicable, so-called "complex PTS " in my business. It's as if you had a body flashback.

I have suffered with post traumatic stress disorder since surviving an armed robbery in 1993. For years I would wake up every night screaming, and my nerves have always been on a hair trigger as a result. For more than a decade, my life was governed by a complex set of rules and precautions designed to keep me safe and in charge of my environment. I was an over-planner and hyper-vigilante to a level that is difficult to imagine.

When I met my wife, she finally convinced me to receive treatment for the condition, and after two years of incredibly hard work, I managed to recover. The nightmares, for the most part, have stopped. While I am still easily startled and remain more alert than most people, the rituals that I once undertook upon entering a new environment in order to feel safe have fallen by the wayside. Most important, the deafening click of an empty gun being fired, which used to fire off in my head at several times throughout the day, is thankfully no more.

But when my reputation and career came under attack in 2007, many of my PTS symptoms returned, and I went back to my therapist for a while in order to deal with the issue. It was a brief and surprisingly manageable flare-up, but my friend is right. The anonymous, public attack on me and my wife during the summer of 2007 was one of the most traumatic events in my life, and when I took the stage last Tuesday night to describe them, it was almost as if I were experiencing it all over again. 

I find great comfort in this newfound awareness. While experiencing a post traumatic stress attack on stage is not something that I would ever want to happen again, it is unlikely that it ever would, since there are only a small handful of stories that I could tell that might trigger my PTSD. The story of the robbery, perhaps, which I have yet to tell, and possibly the car accident that nearly took my life in 1988. These two events have been identified by my therapist as instances that triggered my first bouts with PTSD, and so they are likely the only stories that might cause a similar reaction onstage. Even so, now that I am aware of this potential, I think I can be better prepared for it and manage it more effectively than I did on Tuesday night.

My hope is to tell the story of the summer of 2007 onstage again someday, and hopefully in a longer format. Ideally, I would need 10-12 minutes to tell the story in its entirety, and though I initially thought that I might never want to speak of it again in any context, the understanding of what happened on Tuesday night has already ended my concerns about taking the stage again and has me convinced that next time, I will likely become emotional again, but those emotions will not be accompanied by the lost, unfocused, detached, harrowing sensation of Tuesday night.

My hope is to be able to tell that story again someday, with all the emotion of Tuesday night, but to also tell the story in its grim but ultimately triumphant entirety.

Thanks to the understanding that my friend has provided, I think I can do that now.