Everything Will Kill You: Anxiety, Fear & Shame Onstage
by Jerzy Jung
I’m laughing right now because I just had the following thought:
“I’m so nervous about writing this piece on anxiety!”
Let’s think about this for a second.
Still the body.
Quiet the mind.
Breathe in for four counts.
Breathe out for eight.
Ask yourself: does this reaction truly fit the situation?
If not, remember to be kind to yourself. Remember that shame is never helpful.
Now, reframe the thought in your mind. Whatever you’re worried about may be a challenge, but you can handle it. List the reasons why. Focus on facts and proof. Think of all the challenges you’ve successfully handled before.
And finally, whenever possible, lovingly laugh at yourself. This is not the end of the world. It’s okay to take yourself less seriously. Plus, it’s very likely that, some day, this struggle will be so far behind in your rearview that it will be just as hilarious as the time that you, adorably weird and desperate five-year-old that you were, made what is now famously known as …
The Dinosaur Plan.
My name is Jerzy Jung. I’m a singer, songwriter, and piano player who also loves acting, dancing and music production. I’ve won awards for my writing and have also been too intimidated to return calls from interested people in the music industry. You can watch me on Netflix right now in a performance for a production company that took me three years to work up the courage to join. I want to be a professional artist more than I’ve ever wanted anything else in my life, but, for most of my life, I’ve been terrified to truly try to attain this goal. In other words; I just might be normal.
Anxiety runs in my family. I went through a period where I tried to really unpack this, to figure out why. These days, I’m at a place where I just accept that this is our particular challenge to deal with. Somehow, that acceptance of my history helps me to focus on what I can control – the present, and how I behave now. I was raised by two incredibly loving and attentive parents. Any time my sisters or I came to them crying, they would stop, listen, and reassure us. I remember my mom explaining concepts like death and sex and periods to us so that they wouldn’t seem scary. My dad would have funny little philosophical talks with us, reminding us that it was okay to be ourselves despite what others around us were doing. We all had our share of personal quirks and challenges, but we also shared plenty of love, traditions, and time to express our goofy creativity.
My problem was just that, from a young age, I felt like my anxious feelings and fears were shameful and I should hide them whenever I could. I had myself convinced that “it’s okay to be yourself” applied to everyone but me. I thought, if people really got to know me, they’d realize how weird I was. I didn’t know any other kids at school who worried about their ceiling fan turning into a monster overnight or their house burning down while they were asleep inside. I would get angry at myself for being “weak” or “not normal,” and thus began a cycle that lasted for many years. Anxiety would lead to shame. Shame would lead to anger at myself. Anger would lead to silence, because I badly wanted to beat back the feelings on my own without help from anyone. I was supposed to have it all together.
Recently, I told my mom the story of the Dinosaur Plan and she said, “Why didn’t you tell me? We could have sorted that out within five minutes!” We had a good laugh over it, because, like many of the obsessive fears that have taken root in my head over the years, in hindsight it was pretty ridiculous. Shame, however, was the match that turned that situation into an uncontrollable fire.
The Setting: Mrs. Kennedy’s Kindergarten Class, Stoy School, South Jersey
I’m five years old. Our teacher is introducing us to a group of ancient creatures called the dinosaurs. They were big. Powerful. Ferocious. Some ate just plants, but others ate … other creatures.
Once upon a time, the dinosaurs were in charge. They roamed the earth doing big, and sometimes scary, dinosaur things. They probably had bloody battles in the mud. Some of them could fly. They died a long time ago.
After the dinosaur lesson, most of my friends took note of this information, and then moved on with their regularly scheduled lives. They took naps on their brightly patterned towels. One lucky winner played the role of the Nap Fairy and tip-toed around the class, tapping heads to “put people to sleep.” They ate their lunches and traded apples for cookies. They hugged stuffed dolls and made up their own songs at playtime.
I lay down on my towel and looked up at the classroom’s ceiling, processing my personal takeaway from the lesson:
Yes, the dinosaurs died.
But Mrs. Kennedy never explicitly said that they weren’t coming back.
I did not nap that day.
Why didn’t I just ask if this was possible? Why didn’t I tell someone that I needed help? I guess that, even at five, I knew that what I was feeling had a different vibe to it. Once I started thinking about the dinosaurs and the uncertainty of their return, I couldn’t stop the thoughts from coming. We learned about what to do if you got lost at the park or at the mall – find a police officer or a kind adult. We watched movies about fire narrated by cartoon animals and made escape plans with our parents. But no one up to that point had ever covered dinosaurs with us. Was the Dinosaur Plan like the Fire Plan? Maybe, except … No! They would all be OUTSIDE of the house! It was enough to break a kid’s spirit and inspire lunchtime cookie hoarding in case this was, in fact, the day the dinosaurs came back. This was also one more thought to support my strengthening belief that the world just wasn’t safe.
My anxiety was born of a long-held view that the world was dangerous; containing situations and people I wasn’t capable of handling. I especially struggled with things that were uncomfortable or unknown. I worried that people I loved would get hurt or sick and then they would die. Some of these fears did have a basis in reality. When I was young, I lost both of my grandparents to cancer within a few years of one another and my dad nearly died in a horrible car accident. To be upset by these events was natural. The difficulty for me was that instead of coping and gradually moving on, I got caught in an endless feedback loop of worry and obsession, as usual keeping as much of it to myself as I could.
My attempts to disguise my fears were not always effective. I went through about a year of intense separation anxiety where I was so scared to be apart from my parents and the safety of my house that I often couldn’t make it through a school day. Sleepovers or birthday parties? Forget it. More often than not, I would wind up crying and calling my mom or dad to come pick me up early. I would begin each event in an excited, hopeful mood, but fear and panic would soon wash over me and I could only be calmed by sliding into the backseat of the family car. I felt embarrassed, but the compulsion to escape back to what I was familiar with always won out.
I ate my feelings, too. Food was a comforting hobby, pleasurable and distracting. I also hid myself in books. I melted into other people’s stories and lives, successfully shutting off the inner workings of my own mind. This wasn’t all bad. I became a strong reader and writer. My third grade class threw me a party for reading one hundred books in a year. They went so far as to send me out of the room on a fake errand so that they could set things up. Even now I’m touched by this adorable treachery. My friend’s father made homemade desserts. I was so proud to be recognized and accepted for doing something I loved so much.
So I went through about two decades of a life as a high-functioning anxiety-ridden person. Maybe this sounds familiar to you. I got through high school and college. I got a job. Things were basically okay, however major life changes like graduations, moves, or breakups tended to wreck me. Facing the unknown still caused major distress. My parents knew my patterns and would often ask was I eating right, was I spending enough time with my friends, was I making sure to go to my therapy appointments. For the most part, I did these things, and, in between tough times, managed to accomplish a lot. I combined my love of poetry and music and slowly became a songwriter, eventually proudly releasing independent music. I ventured out to perform at open mics and piano bars. I made great friends. I smiled a lot. I tried my best to be sweet and polite and positive.
I didn’t always feel sweet or polite or positive. I started to realize that, even though I did have a real desire to be kind and connect through music with people in a happy, buoyant way, I also had just as big of a wish to write songs that explored all of the ugly, raging, terrified feelings I still fought with from time to time. You know, the kinds of songs that make people at the restaurant you’re playing in stop dead in their tracks, come right over to you, and ask, “Would you mind playing something more upbeat?”
(This has actually happened to me. Many times.)
I feared what would happen if I came clean. I thought that writing the songs I really wanted to write might isolate me from others. I pictured playing shows to crowds who would smile at me kindly yet sadly and then go home thinking that my set was a huge downer. That scared, negative part of me asked, “Who wants to listen to pop songs about eating disorders, depression, and anxiety?”
It turns out, a lot of people do.
I wrote a song about my fear of graduating college, about losing the safety of my small school community as I walked out into the “Real World.” I wrote about trying to distract myself from anxiety and depression by obsessing over the size of my body. I wrote a song that personified addiction and discussed how seductive checking out of real life can be. I started talking onstage about why I decided to write these songs, and I got the best responses I had ever received. People came up to me after shows to tell me their own stories or to say they understood. A dance teacher choreographed a piece using one of the songs. A writer devoted an entire blog post to another. The sentiments that I thought would alienate me from others wound up connecting us instead.
Then, in late 2014 I wrote a song called Everything Will Kill You. The song was inspired by all the times that I’ve fearfully prepared myself for tragedies that have never actually happened. Every time I played it live, I would preface it with the Dinosaur Story. One night during a songwriting circle, my friend and fellow songwriter Mike Clifford dubbed that terrified preparation a “Dinosaur Plan.” I held onto that title because it helped me to laugh at myself.
In the spring of 2016, I was chosen as one of fifteen singer / songwriters to be part of the pilot episode of a TV show called The Song. Each participant was invited to play an original song during filming. I offered up one of my more positive songs. The one they wanted was Everything Will Kill You. Once again I had doubted that my most personal music had a place in the world, but, once again, people let me know that it did. I have never been more pleased to be proven wrong.
For years, my shame kept me stuck and imprisoned, and caused me to deny myself the love and connection that could have helped me. I got lucky, though. I took a chance, started pulling the curtain back on all that I was feeling, and got more acceptance than I ever thought was possible. I still struggle with anxiety, and with a tendency to isolate myself when I’m going through a hard time, but my new identity as a songwriter is a constant reminder that I have another choice. Music is my bridge to other people, other perspectives, and a much truer vision of who I am.
No dinosaurs in sight.