Anxiety and Germany: A History

by Jessica Murray

There is quite a lot to be said about a condition that makes you fear what you love most. Nothing positive. The most appropriate expression of my feelings about it would be a string of expletives followed by the middle finger which, ultimately, doesn’t accomplish much. So I’m left with one option, and that is, of course, to live with it.

I used to think I was nothing more than a worrywart, a fan of the dramatics. Sometimes I still delude myself into thinking that. But it’s more. It’s a systematic deconstruction of reality, a replacing of said reality with a world that is seconds away from collapse.

Living with anxiety isn’t easy, but being a performer living with anxiety is just plain moronic. Of course, I chose this. I put myself in these positions, seem to crave the uncomfortable. Naturally, the performing came later on in life. When I was younger, I had to look for other things to make me forget myself, to allow me to step out of my body and be occupied with someone else’s problems for a change. For the time being, reading provided that escape.

Even to this day, my favorite book is The Book Thief, a tale spun by Markus Zusack about a little girl named Liesel during the years leading up to the Holocaust, narrated by a personification of death himself—or herself. Death’s gender is not something that often comes into question.

It’s strange that I was so enamored by a story about a young girl who loses everything. You would think I would take to warm stories with happy endings because real life was stressful enough, but that was never the case. The story starts out with the death of Liesel’s brother, a tragedy after which she goes to live with foster parents and never sees her mother again. She has no idea she has much more to lose—more than she can ever imagine.

I don’t think I have ever experienced loss. My uncle died when I was a kid, but he lived in Jamaica and I hardly knew him. I felt worse for my father and I cried at the thought that I may lose him someday, too.

So I developed an itch. Every night, before I went to bed, I was overcome with this irritating sensation, like my body was trying to shed its own skin. So I’d hop out of bed, knock on my parents’ door, and nudge them awake.

“I’m itchy,” I would say, as if that explained everything.

My father would sigh and my mother would grumble. I was becoming too old to do this, they would say. One time they tried locking the door, but the next morning they found me curled up in a ball on the floor, sleeping just outside their bedroom. From then on they would make room for me—it was routine at this point—and I would wedge myself in between their warm bodies, the itch would go away, and I’d feel safe.

Of course, upon reflection, I realize the itch was a phantom one, a physical manifestation of my fear of god knows what. Loss, maybe. I suppose that’s what a psychologist would attribute it to. Yet I was afraid of so many things back then, so many things still. I even slept in the same bed as my parents for longer than most children, only getting rid of the habit around middle school.

Liesel, the little girl in the book, had bigger concerns. She lived in a country on the verge of a war. She didn’t have sufficient access to education, had to steal many of the books she owned, while I had shelves upon shelves of them and could acquire more at any time.

I find I carry her story with me wherever I go, as both a cautionary tale and a hopeful one.

Reminder number one: I could lose everything.

Reminder number two: I can survive that loss.

These lessons did not have any real significance in the earlier years of my life. Other things preoccupied me, like my first show ever. In fifth grade, I was in an arbitrary musical called It’s Saturday! in which I had a total of two lines, one being on an imaginary phone call to an imaginary person. It was something I was pressured into doing by my music teacher. I was shaking the entire time, throughout my audition and just about every rehearsal. I had this sick idea that I didn’t deserve to be heard, that every second spent paying attention to me was a second wasted. There were kids far more interesting and immensely more talented than I was. Then opening night came around. I stepped foot on the stage, saw the audience out in front of me, an auditorium filled with smiling parents, waiting for us to put on a show. The shaking stopped. Everything became immensely clear to me. Those feelings I’d been feeling before, they were lies, misconceptions. Out here, in the spotlight, this sureness I felt was what was true. My two lines, although quite arbitrary, were heard loud and clear.

My first high school show left a more lasting impression. It was my freshman year and I had already talked myself out of auditioning for the fall show: the theater program was too competitive, too nationally renowned, I couldn’t possibly have anything to offer. Then the announcement: the production would be Cabaret, a musical about the Holocaust based on the true story of Christopher Isherwood. I thought back to that book I’d picked up as a kid on a whim, of Liesel and her adventures. I’ll admit the musical Cabaret piqued my interest—a familiar tragedy set to catchy showtunes and witty lines. This was a story about an American, Clifford Bradshaw, who came to Berlin for inspiration to write his novel and got tied up in the politics of the Nazi party.

I auditioned in front of a legend of a man who went by Mosser mostly as a joke, and actually landed a role in the ensemble. I soon found out that Mosser’s method of training was often intimidation and fear tactics, but it produced results. Our job for the next few months was to delve into the story, delve into the world of Germany, and become these people. Luckily for me I’d been entertaining the idea longer than most.

A character in this show that I had identified with the most served as an omnipresent narrator, similar to Death in The Book Thief. He is referred to only as the Emcee, and his job is to misdirect you from the real problems.

“Leave your troubles outside,” he prompts. “So, life is disappointing? Forget it. We have no troubles here. Here, life is beautiful.”

Of course, he’s lying. Life was not beautiful in Berlin. Yet a whole country of people was in denial.

At this age, I could relate most to the Emcee. I understood his duty. Talk about everything without saying much of anything, and they won’t be able to focus on you long enough, won’t be able to see you for who you really are. It’s a simple magic trick. And I was also, for all intents and purposes, falling apart.

I was going through what could’ve possibly been bouts of depression, which I’ve never been diagnosed with but often times appears along with anxiety (a self-diagnosis). I isolated myself from the rest of the cast often, but they took a liking to me anyway. Every now and then I’d make a funny quip or give a sage piece of advice, and that was enough to satisfy them. I felt both like Clifford Bradshaw, the foreigner watching as life spiraled out of control, and the Emcee, the host whose only job was to misdirect you long enough that you missed the tragedy altogether. I was both an observer and a curator.

My first real show, the show where I found my voice, was about what happens when one’s voice is lost. This show helped me figure out that I am capable of extraordinary things, that being terrified does not mean I can’t do anything I set my mind to. Anxiety does not have to be a burden. It reminded me that fear bore caution, and that was not a bad thing—a lesson also taught to me by my immigrant parents. Had the Clifford Bradshaws of the world been more cautious, more tentative, had more fears like I did, maybe they could have avoided tragedy altogether.

I was still timid, which I didn’t much care for—timid and boring to anyone who did not look long enough. I had a universe worth of events going on in my head and was just starting to learn how to express it. Through performance, through transformation, I could become more than I was before.

These themes of transformation and tragedy followed me through the remaining three years of high school, and I carried both stories with me. Like Liesel, I was a thief, too, a stealer of histories and voices that were not my own. I felt as if I’d lived many lives.

I learned how to be more outspoken. I joined the debate club, became president of said debate club, argued with teachers and parents and students alike. I existed in extremes, either the quiet girl who no one noticed or the outspoken one you could not help but stare at. I was on a journey. I am on a journey. And throughout it all, I was still scared, scared of the future more than anything else. I thought that the louder I yelled and the more work I drowned myself in, the less I’d pay attention to that fear. With several AP classes and half a dozen other productions under my belt, I had mastered the art of distraction better than most.

It was in this era that I encountered one of the most important productions of my life, in which I ironically had no part. In fact, I was nothing more than an audience member, watching the events in front of me unfold. The show was Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and the events of it occur after Liesel’s and Clifford’s stories. It’s all about the aftermath of the Holocaust, about what happens to Germany after the war. It is post Berlin Wall. It focuses on one person in particular: Hansel, who after a botched sex change becomes Hedwig. One notable difference between this production and the likes of The Book Thief and Cabaret is that Hedwig narrates her own story. She has full agency. She tells us the story of her own transformation and her own journey, and it is perhaps the most riveting performance I have ever seen.

Hedwig, like all the characters I previously discussed, has lost everything. Yet, with a story so unlike my own, Hedwig is the one I relate to the most. As a young boy, he also shared a bed with his mother. He also had fears. Most importantly, he wanted more for himself, wanted so badly to escape from Germany and come to America.

“To be free,” his mother informs him at a young age, “one must lose a little part of oneself.”

If I had to rank my fears—a task I would never even attempt, seeing as I have too many of them—compromising who I am is probably the biggest one. Losing oneself, even in small increments, is a dauntingly relatable concept. After watching this show, something inside of me clicked. The stars aligned. It all made sense.

It’s not the loss and the tragedy that attracted me to these stories. Quite the contrary, it was the hope for more. It was this yearning that I relate to the most. I know what it’s like to want something so badly it physically hurts. It’s a comfortable emotion at this point. I slip it on every morning along with my clothes; I shed it only when I go to sleep.

Maybe that is why I am an anxious mess. Maybe I want things too badly, fear I will never have them. Maybe that’s just how I learned to be a person. I watched my parents scramble to make ends meet and worry themselves sick just so I could be comfortable. I know no other way. I am not alive unless I’m worrying about something. It’s my way of checking my pulse.

And so it makes sense that I became a performer, a public speaker, that I constantly shove myself in the spotlight. I needed that reassurance. I put on a show. I was Liesel, a little girl with fears. I was the Emcee, a trick of light to hide my real issues. I am Hedwig. I have agency, I narrate my own story, I crave applause because it somehow validates all of my fears, every little doubt I’ve had leading up to this point. The stage I’m at now is probably best described by Hedwig himself: “Think of me as a theatrical hermit crab that’s just wriggled into its new shell. How does it look on me?”

I am still learning how to be the person I want to be, still swapping out techniques, sampling different gaits and mannerisms and ways of speech. I am still formulating my character in the hopes that the final product will be happy and loved and anxiety-free.

I know that the probability of achieving all of those things is incredibly unlikely.

The most recent time that I slept in the same bed as my parents was the night before I left for college. Most eighteen-year-olds are unwilling to admit that, but when putting on a show you reach a point that surpasses shame. You have not done your job, not fully connected to your audience, unless you are completely bare before them.

I am not afraid to say I felt safe that night, felt validated. All my fears melted into the warmth of the two bodies beside me. Sleeping, breathing bodies. Their breathing reminded me to breathe myself. In and out. In and out. I will be fine. I have a lot to learn. I’m terrified, yes, that I’ll lose everything, but I know how to deal with loss. Every story that has led me to this point has taught me how to grieve, and ultimately, survive.

Quite a lot can be said about a condition that makes you fear that which you love the most. I say, it is a gift. I would not have worked so hard to become the person I am today if I wasn’t driven by that anxiety, by that fear. I may have never stepped foot on a stage, never searched for a form of validation. I would have never taken to reading or writing or theater. I would never have learned of these stories about a country I’ve never been to, never learned how to create stories of my own. I would have no purpose. I accomplished, and will continue to accomplish incredible things, and I will worry myself sick every step of the way. And that’s okay.