In 2002, when I was a 20-year-old college student, I was hired as a violinist for an orchestral ensemble that had sold millions of albums, appeared on national television, and performed sold-out concerts across the country. I had spent my rural-Appalachian childhood dreaming of the day that I would move to New York City to study music. But soon after arriving in my Manhattan dormitory, I realized that there were dozens of people in my freshman class alone who were more talented at the violin than I would ever be. I dropped my music major after only a few months. A few years later, when I was hired to tour the world as a violinist, no one was more surprised than I was. That is, until I found out that the job was indeed too good to be true: the microphones in front of me were never plugged in, and recordings of better violinists were blasted out to unsuspecting audiences.
When I was first hired for this job, I wasn’t particularly concerned with the consequences of musical fakery (I sometimes referred to the ensemble as “Milli Violini”). I already held multiple other jobs, struggling to pay my tuition. I was grateful for the good pay and steady work that the fake violin job provided. After I graduated from college, I continued to work for the ensemble. I planned to use the money I saved from concert touring to pay off student loans and move abroad.
But then, in the middle of a 54-city concert tour around America, something bizarre began to happen to me. Onstage one night, I felt I had to pee. But I knew I didn’t have to pee; I had already been to the bathroom several times before the concert began. I went to three doctors, thinking I had developed a urinary-tract infection. But the doctors all came to the same conclusion: everything was normal.
It hadn’t yet occurred to me that nothing has to be wrong with one’s body for one’s mind to go haywire. I didn’t know it at the time, but the feeling of having to pee was actually an atypical presentation of a panic attack.
The onstage attacks escalated, as panic attacks do: Not only am I going to pee myself in front of a hundred people, I’m going to throw up. My dress is going to fall off; my shoes will break underneath me, crippling me. I am going to faint. I am going to throw up and faint at the same time and then choke on my own vomit. Panic attacks are commonly described as the same flight instinct that tells humans to run from a bear. But I’ve never found that description to be accurate. What I experienced onstage was like the panic I’d feel once the bear already caught me, the panic of someone with no chance of survival, in the last moments of consciousness, when neither fight nor flight would help.
The attacks eventually invaded every area of my life until I could not ride airplanes or subways or elevators or cars or be anywhere that didn’t offer immediate access to an unoccupied bathroom. And even immediate access to a bathroom didn’t always count as a safe place. How many times am I allowed to get up during a movie? I wondered. How many times during a friend’s wedding? I parceled my life into 30-minute segments, the maximum amount of time I could convince myself that I wouldn’t pee myself, though I never actually needed to pee.
One night, while drinking a few glasses of wine, I had an epiphany: When I drank alcohol, I had to pee less. The disorder was indeed in my head. But I resisted seeking psychiatric help. For one thing, I did not want to talk to anyone, not even a psychiatrist, about having to pee. It was gross, and no one wants to be gross, especially not a young woman. I also had an unrelated intestinal illness; I feared that any psychiatrist who saw me would wrongly diagnose me as having some kind of Freudian obsession with my own bodily excretions.