My voice caught firmly in my throat. When it finally made its way out, after what seemed like at least a decade, it trembled mercilessly. I sounded like a fifth grader giving her first book report.
I certainly had everyone’s attention now. This was the last thing they expected to hear from me, and my awareness of the pitiful wavering only made it worse. Wide-eyed, I began sweating and frantically scanning the room, as senior executives looked up from their laptops. Some glanced at me sideways, while others nodded silent encouragement. I cleared my throat and started over for the third time, forgetting every talking point of my introduction and jumping straight to the content on slide ten.
Funny, I had always thought “choking on one’s words” was a metaphor.
The invitation to participate in this meeting, with this audience, was effectively an endorsement of one’s presentation skills, and mine were never something I had to worry about. I’m direct, fast on my feet, and articulate; I thrive under public-speaking pressure. Not only that, but at one point or another, I had told each and every person in that room what I really thought, but only because they had asked me.
As I listened to myself eek out each syllable, I wavered between certainty that I would snap out of it at any moment and temptation to indulge in the relief that would come from humbly excusing myself. Where would I have the best chance of salvaging what little dignity remained: carrying on or bowing out?
In the end, it didn’t get any better. Too rattled by my first-ever botched presentation, I never actually recovered, each minute worse than the last. It was a maddening out-of-body experience, and I sat there helplessly, watching my face turn a horrible scarlet hue and hearing myself stammer out each word. When the time for questions finally came, a couple of executives asked me ones they already knew the answers to—softballs intended to ease my struggle. My awareness of these acts of mercy, however, only exacerbated the situation, so it wasn’t long before they kindly put me out of my misery by asking no more questions. My face burning with shame, I thanked them for their time and quickly exited the room, mistakenly believing it was over.
Instead, I have been obsessing about that day, reliving it over and over again, with its theme song—that one by Eminem about the time he lost the rap battle—playing in the background on repeat. It’s a catchy little tune about severe performance anxiety and begins with him vomiting his mom’s spaghetti all over himself before he goes on stage and completely fails at his craft.
My mom has always sworn that things we had once taken for granted drastically change the older we get. The woman I know is terrified by bridges, glass elevators, packed concert halls, highway driving and airplane flights, among other things. But she swears up and down there were days, years, she lived the high life, her daredevil qualities being just another thing that made up her character.
My obsession centers on whether this was just a one-time thing, explained away with the wave of a hand and the assurance that “everyone has an off day,” or, instead, whether this is just the beginning of a progression toward a paralyzing fear of public speaking. I haven’t exactly put myself in the position to test which might be my reality, having actively avoided almost all public speaking engagements since “the incident.” I am still thanking every religion’s god for the snow day that canceled the one recent speaking appointment I couldn’t avoid.
If I’m honest, my actual concern isn’t for my career or professional relationships, but rather, that these potentially diminishing presentation skills are simply the result of time and age. What if one day I reminisce about the years I spoke eloquently in front of large groups of important people, swearing up and down that I used to be articulate and confident in spoken expression?
That would be the day I lose myself.
Nicole Schowalter is an extreme extrovert with a story for everything. Her inherent optimism balances her propensity to “catastrophize.” Every day, she tries to embrace this dichotomy. Writing helps.