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public speaking

Today I had a talk at a school in south London to speak about Virginia Woolf in Richmond. It was the first time I’d spoken in front of a group of high school students since I left my final teaching job due to redundancy in 2017. It was also a return to a school, bar a few blurry weeks, after my father passed away in the same year. So it was a big thing. I seem to be suffering from what I call anxiety ever since 2017. It may be a different form of anxiety from what other peopple suffer, and I’m certainly not equating it to what others experience – I can only speak for myself. And at times, it can be terrifying. This morning was one of those.

Now, I had been in front of classrooms for over 17 years. It was what I was used to. It was my playground, and I had fun (for most of it). But since 2017, I haven’t had the confidence to go and speak to people as myself. People who know me understand that I’ve done amateur dramatics for years, with the last one being Don’t Dress for Dinner about 18 months ago.

This is fine because it’s not me. Well, it’s not my character, it’s someone else. Although understandably nervous before a show, I was saying someone else’s words. I didn’t have to be me.

Speaking to people as myself is something completely different. Especially now I’ve put on weight and I feel self-conscious when I’m the centre of attention. The first real rest of talking as myself was at the launch of Virginia Woolf in Richmondat the Richmond Literary Festival. Absolutely terrifying, but I did it. Started off shaky, but a few minutes in and I was away. It was as if it wasn’t me speaking, but a character. And that’s how I got through it.

Needless to say, today was nerve-racking from the morning, and I couldn’t sleep well. The morning was filled with sitting on Twitter on the sofa and not doing anything productive. Staring at the TV while watching Jeopardy on Netflix. Mind-numbing.

The journey to the school took an hour, and I listened to happy music on the way in, sweating as I went. After a panic about missing the school entrance and going around the block, I park and go in. Everyone is very friendly and lovely, and the students are a credit to their parents, their teachers and their school. We start with a cup of tea, and we watch the promotional video for the Virginia Woolf Statue campaign – a good start to get me settled. But it’s over as soon as I put it on, or so it seems. And then it’s me. I start. I notice a typo on my PowerPoint. I mention it. The talk is being recorded for their YouTube channel. I make jokes. I run out of time. It finishes. I survive.

Although it was a terrifying day, and I have another school talk next week, I can say that I beat myself and I won. Not saying this for sympathy or empathy, but this is what I experience.

For those suffering with anxiety, we can do it. And we will. It just takes a first step.

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