The Pearlies


Recently I took part in the filming of a documentary about the relationship between music and recovery from addiction. The finished programme is in the final stages of being edited and as much as I would like to wang on endlessly about the entire process, I am not at liberty to for a few weeks.

We finished filming in late November and between then and now, I have intermittently fretted about the potential reaction. At the risk of sounding naive, it is easy to forget when you’re filming a documentary over a long period of time that at some point, a few people may actually see it. In fact, given that our programme is being shown on one of the big channels, it is safe to assume that a lot of people will watch. Hence the fretting.

As you know, I am candid about the fact that I’m a recovering alcoholic. When people ask why I don’t drink, I have no problem saying I used to be a bit of a lush. I’m not ashamed of it. Indeed, my industry is lousy with terrible piss artists, some of whom are at their most prolific whilst at work. However, writing a blog that some of my facebook friends read and having the odd awkward conversation with colleagues who ask why I’m not drinking is vastly different from talking about it openly on the telly, where people can see your face, twist your words and then take to twitter to slag you off. As the transmission time draws nearer, I’ve had several adrenaline pangs about the fact that I can’t control who sees it. Or what goes into the final edit. Or what the people I work with will think. Or how it will emotionally affect my family to see me talking about a time in my life I’m sure they’d rather forget. Despite the life affirming nature of the filming process and all the incredible benefits I’ve felt since, I am scared that the viewing public will see it and say, “that cellist is a bit of a c**t.” In my darker moments I’ve found myself wondering why the hell I put myself through it in the first place.

Then this week, I saw the final edit and I remembered.

I’ve been asked recently by more than one person why I feel the need to be so open about my problems with booze and performance anxiety. I have thought about it long and hard. Why can’t I be quiet and go about my business? Am I attention seeking? Am I trying to be the poster girl for recovering addicts? What am I trying to prove? Some colleagues over the years have told me to shut up about performance anxiety and my old methods for managing it, saying things like, ”I wouldn’t mention that if I were you,” in a ‘seasoned professional to guileless novice’ kind of a way. They clearly favour the old school method of managing difficult emotions; simply sweep them under a metaphorical carpet and pretend that they don’t exist. I suspect though that keeping quiet about performance anxiety and stealthily treating it with beta blockers and alcohol perpetuates the cycle of unwarranted shame and isolation. In fact, I would even go as far to invite those colleagues who imply that I'm being professionally careless by daring to admit that I am occasionally nervous when I play, to FUCK OFF.  It makes me furious when I’m told to pipe down because I believe it was that fear-driven “put up and shut up” sentiment that led me to drink and eventually stopped me from performing altogether. I was so full of shame and bewilderment about how I felt that the only way I thought I could manage it was by hiding it.  

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post outing myself as an ex dipsomaniac sufferer of performance anxiety. I still receive emails from musicians that read it who have told me that they too have been crippled with nerves. Some rely heavily on alcohol and beta blockers as I did. Others have stopped playing altogether. Each person that wrote to me, from music students to established musicians, added a caveat to their message that they wished to remain anonymous. 

Receiving all these messages means that I have hard evidence that I am not the only performer suffering with this stuff. My fellow sufferers' emphasis on non-disclosure proves that I am not mistaken in thinking that performance anxiety is still a taboo. 

There is a phrase that I first heard in the company of other recovering addicts, which says "It is impossible to save your arse and your face at the same time". I’m afraid, for me, that means being honest, 100% of the time. I’ve tried the “everything’s fine, nothing to see here!” approach, and I ended up overdosing on beta blockers and alcohol. A mere four years of this turned me into a lunatic. The denial part of the illness told the rest of my brain that there was no need to panic, I wasn't an addict, I was merely medicating a twitchy artistic temperament, which would surely calm down in time. It reasoned that anyone trying to perform in front of lots of people whilst riddled with insecurity would do the same. I pursued this logic to the point of stopping playing altogether; believing if I no longer had to perform, the fear would subside and I would be able to drink like a lady. I put the cello in its case and began working full time in a restaurant. It came as a shock to find that during my shifts, I was just as frightened as I always was. My journey from "pissed cellist" to "pissed waitress" was the most disappointing and bewildering of my life. Still though, I clung on to the belief that it was the cello playing that had made my drinking escalate. It took a legion of helpful people and a lot of time to understand that not every musician who is frightened of performing turns to vodka. The problem was me, not the cello, or college, or my background. It was extremely difficult to reverse the physical and emotional effects of medicating myself. I have been sober for six and half years now and I know enough about myself to understand that the second I retract into secrecy and stiff upper lippery, I’m in danger of picking up a substance again. 

These days, if I'm at work and someone asks me if I’m nervous, and I am, I answer in the affirmative. Why lie? Why must we pretend that our job, that involves playing difficult things in front of lots of people whilst coursing with adrenaline, is not sometimes bowel clenchingly frightening? Clearly, not everyone suffers like I do. Many performers love their job and thrive on the adrenaline and excitement that comes with performing. Certainly, not every performance anxiety sufferer ends up an addict. Addiction and performance anxiety are two separate problems which are unfortunately in my case, inextricably linked. I was given the opportunity to talk about this in a public place and challenge my fears in the company of other addicts and musicians in recovery. The combination of the put-up-and-shut-up merchants and the sheer volume of emails I have received from fellow musicians suffering with crippling nerves made the decision to take part an easy one.

Before filming started, all the subjects of the documentary participated in a mandatory session with a therapist who would assess our mental wellbeing. It was her job to ascertain whether or not we were strong enough to cope with the rigours of filming and the loss of our anonymity. She asked me why I felt it necessary to talk about my past on the television. She asked if I’d thought through the consequences of making myself so vulnerable. The timing of this session was uncanny really, as I’d recently been on the receiving end of around 30 000 vile tweets after the viola player in my quartet had thrown eggs at Simon Cowell, live on the final of Britain’s Got Talent. (In case you were wondering, the rest of us didn’t know she was going to do it.) The fallout of egg-gate had been catastrophic. Tabloid newspapers printed things we’d never said underneath pictures they’d stolen from our facebook profiles, all kinds of people online told us we’d never work again, not to mention the loss of work and corporate clients… was a nightmare. I reasoned that whatever came of this, it couldn’t be more chaotic and stressful than what I’d just experienced. Also, I’d met the director and producer, and in stark contrast to any reality TV person I’d met before, I really liked him. He was sensitive, he was educated, he was experienced. I didn’t feel like he was trying to manipulate a story out of me. His team of researchers and producers were respectful and polite. The man presenting the programme was a musician I admire who is in long term recovery who had recently lost his teenage son to a heroin overdose. I knew I was in safe hands.

The end of the documentary involved performing with a major London orchestra, which was a childhood ambition of mine. I have wanted to play with this orchestra from the second I knew of their existence, because they are world class. However, since I sobered up, I have made a semi-conscious decision to avoid orchestral work (apart from chamber orchestra stuff which for some reason frightens me less) because there is something about the formality of an orchestral concert that makes me unbearably anxious. The pressure of sitting quietly in a huge cello section, conforming and not freaking out in the quiet slow bits is terrible enough for me that I have avoided it altogether. Luckily thus far my professional cello playing has largely taken place in studios and with rock musicians and film composers or theatre pits so I can make a living as a cellist despite this, but I hate being limited by fear, because deep down I know that fear is bollocks. I've gone through loads of it in recovery and I'm still alive. I'm also sad for the younger version of myself who played in the National Youth Orchestra as a teenager and LOVED the vast orchestral sound and playing brilliant music in a big cello section. I know she's still in there somewhere, under the seething mass of neuroses and addictive tendencies. I wondered if the process of filming the documentary might coax her out.

The preferred route into an orchestra of a high calibre is via a magnificent extra-work audition. My childhood dream definitely did not include a controversially titled TV programme and an entourage of other recovering addicts. To be honest, when I walked into the concert hall to watch the orchestra in question rehearse as "Rachael the addict" rather than my usual "Rachael the cellist", I felt like seven shades of shit. I was reminded of that scene in Amelie where she is so deflated that she melts into a puddle of water on the floor. I'd been at music college with a few of the members, some of whom were confused about what I was doing there, which further contributed to my misery. I brazened it out, played as well as I could and spoke to lots of players, whom I'd had on a pedestal as paragons of functional musicianship.  In order to challenge my fear of playing slow quiet things, Barber's Adagio for Strings was featured in the final concert. It turns out that even musicians in posh London orchestras who do not call themselves addicts or performance anxiety sufferers, BRICK IT when they play this piece due to its occasionally epic slowness. Many of them were keen to tell me, in their restrained classical way, how "pearly" they found it. They spoke ruefully about bow shakes and keeping the shoulders relaxed, and I listened politely thinking, "But how do you control the urge to soil yourself? Do you feel like screaming expletives in the bars rest? No? Just me?" I still felt like a weirdo, but all the same, the experience was pretty empowering. To go into a world famous orchestra as a cellist who wants everyone to like me and my playing and say, “Don’t mind the camera crew; they’re focusing mainly on my MASSIVE DRINK PROBLEM”, felt like a ballsy move. I may have committed career suicide, but fuck it, at least I was honest.

After the performance with the aforementioned bigwigs, I felt great. Really, better than I had in ages. I felt confident, and strong, and not like an ex lush loser. I felt accepted by a section of the music industry I’d been terrified by. Mr C and some of my best friends were in the audience, biased and whooping. We went to a twenty four hour diner afterwards where I was so excited I could barely eat my club sandwich (which is my favourite thing. Like, if I was on death row, my final meal might be a club sandwich).

Soon the documentary will be aired. I was in such a daze when I watched the edit that a mere six days later, I can barely remember what I do in it. I play the cello a lot, say “fuck” within the first minute and spread marmite on a toasted bagel whilst describing a panic attack. That's all I really remember. The programme features several other recovering addicts who had their own musical demons to battle. They are all brilliant, compelling and brave people, as you will see if you watch it. We composed a piece together and performed it with the aforementioned London orchestra. After we'd played, we looked at each other in our best black garb as the audience gave us a standing ovation and remembered where we'd all started. At rock bottom. As moments go, it was up there with marrying Mr C under a big tree in Central Park. So whatever the reaction is, I am glad I didn't keep quiet.