It’s so difficult to write this.

Here I am in Stratford, working for the company I have wanted to work with for 20 years, knowing I am happier than I have been in a long while both professionally and personally. I feel professionally fulfilled, I have love in my life and I have many supportive friends and family all over the world. But still there is a shadow that sometimes moves between me and this happiness and it struck recently a few hours after writing my last blog.

If you read my last blog, I was so looking forward to performing and that everyday of technical rehearsals were bringing us closer to our audiences; this is what I and my fellow cast members live for. I remember leaving the last blog on a positive note.

I was on stage as my servant character and we were discussing the best way to move a carpet and there was a lull while the director, Simon Godwin, brought together all the technical elements of the scene. And suddenly that awful feeling of panic began in my solar plexus. I am so used to that feeling but this time it came more swiftly and suddenly than I have experienced over the last few years. I have had panic attacks for the last twelve years of my life. It is a fact I live with. But every time one comes it is an awful surprise.

And there is nothing like having a panic attack in front of people that were strangers to you a few months before. Some might even not know that you have anxiety attacks  - it is not something you advertise. Over the years I have learnt techniques on how to make them feel less intense; ways to make that extraordinary awful feeling swerve away from abandoning terror but still they come and I have to deal.

Byron Mondahl wearing a purple T-shirt with hands folded in front of him
Byron in rehearsals for Hamlet
Photo by Byron Mondahl © RSC – Image Licensing

At least this was tech rehearsals and not a performance. Although I have had a panic attack on stage twice before. Once right at the beginning of King Lear when I was playing Cornwall and once during panto. There is nothing quite like having to maintain control over your body and mind with an audience watching you. Sometimes it helps as you have a completely different focus and sometimes nothing you do has any impact on the anxiety and you just have to ride it out while people watch.

There is always this awful shame that arises. Like somehow you are weak. That you need to hide everything you are going through. And when everyone sees or experiences just how weak you are then they will not want to cast you again and there is this feeling that your career is over. Each panic attack feels like dying anyway. The shame is the awful added bonus.

The flooded River Avon
Photo by Byron Mondahl © The artist – Image Licensing

I was taken away to a quiet area and one of my fellow cast members helped me as he has some experience with anxiety himself. He spoke to me, calmed me down just by his calm understanding presence and breathing with me whilst telling me that it will go away, that I will be fine. A presence like that is invaluable. You need to be anchored in the world again and not look into fearful faces because that can tip you over the edge. It slowly subsided like they always do and all I was left with was time for a good cry. The crying always happens at the end. Like a stopper has been uncorked.

I never meant to unburden this in a blog about acting. But mental health is a serious concern in our fragile, often brutal career choice. I know that I continue to act because I love my job of playing someone else - finding truth in that to share with an audience. But I have also known the times when I have been homeless, evicted, starving, hopeless, doing soulless temp jobs to pay the rent. These are the realities of our lives. It is not all about fulfilment. Somehow we have dreams to dream and yet live in this world of practical concerns.

It is a sheer act of will that keeps you in this industry and to step in front of an audience every night is an act of courage far beyond what people might expect. Age has something to do with it. When I was a young actor I always assumed that because of your experience you would become less vulnerable and more assured. This is not the case. There is no where I am more vulnerable or more alive. But every time you go on stage you risk your creative choices to judgement and rejection but also to acceptance of your truth.

And I also know that I was not having a panic attack about a carpet. There usually is no immediate reason for a panic attack. I was probably just tired from our gruelling tech sessions and slightly fragile as I was in a new theatre space and I had to move home in Bristol…an accumulation of many weeks’ tensions. This is how it goes.

And as you have a very public panic attack so many people come forward to tell you quietly that they understand where you are at. And they sit next to you in solidarity, offering advice and understanding when you are sitting on the brink of that awful feeling. And you don’t feel alone. Four people said to me that they have been there. And they were people in my near circle all working within this industry. The shame subsides and the fear does too. And you pick yourself up and you go back to the work you ultimately love doing. And you know that you are surrounded by people who have been there and will help you through the next one. You hope there never will be a next one. But you also know that for now, it just is.

So many people are affected by this and we need to start talking more about the effects of anxiety on us in this incredible, fragile, unnerving industry. Maybe this is my start…

Paapa Essiedu on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stage during rehearsals
Photo by Byron Mondahl © The artist – Image Licensing
Byron Mondahl

Byron Mondahl

Byron Mondahl is an actor who enjoys thinking about and writing about the elusive art of acting. He is from South Africa where he first began acting but has lived in the UK since 2005 when he studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He has taught English in Taiwan, and also lost six stone and transformed his life for the better. Follow him on Twitter @ByronMondahl

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