Not This Again

Step 10: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.


Between my first and second years of grad school, I participated in a summer program called Greensboro Light Opera and Song. The stories from those six weeks are legion and could fill an entire book. In this intensive program, my anxiety reared its head whenever I walked into a rehearsal or class. One day I worked with this coach, whomst we shall call Dr. Henry. In the classical singing world, coaches help with language, stylistic choices specific to certain composers and time periods, and performance decisions, whereas voice teachers focus on vocal technique.

I went in ready to sing a difficult piece called “Mi Tradi” from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. The first thing one generally does in a coaching, after some small talk and introductory information, is sing the piece all the way through. I was nervous, having never worked with Dr. Henry before and generally having more than my share of performance anxiety. So to try and keep myself loose, I started swinging my arms. Anxiety causes tension, and tension is no bueno for singing.

I made it all the way through the piece and looked at Dr. Henry. He asked why I was swinging my arms. I explained about the tension. He replied, “Are you aware that as the song went on and got more difficult, your arms moved faster and more rigidly?” I don’t know if y’all are good at forcing yourself to relax, but I approach it with the Type A manhandling posture that I use for virtually every task. OK, Marebs, I think, You’re going to relax. Here we go. OK NOW STAY EXACTLY LIKE THAT AND DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING DON’T EVEN BREATHE. Healthy? No. Effective? Also no.

Dr. Henry proceeded to tell me about his own struggles with tension as a young pianist. He said that he was so nervous, his right quad would seize up and his leg would start bouncing. It got to the point where he was unable to effectively use the piano pedal because he couldn’t control his leg. Then one day, he let go of his obsessive perfectionism and his leg loosened up.

I used to believe I would have that moment as a singer. And maybe I would have, had I stuck with it full time. I’ve generally found that, for me, unlearning anxiety and its physical manifestations has been gradual. I have a monthly voice lesson, during which my voice teacher and I work to undo the habits of fear. It is painfully slow, but it is there. Because for me, it’s about trust, trust of my voice that I will have to build. My voice is like an enraged toddler whom I must coax to come out with the promise that it is safe to do so, possibly even fun. Like a defiant toddler, it responds with a metaphorical screech of I don’t believe you and proceeds to lock itself in its room and throw things. Bless it.

This fear is not limited to my singing life, it’s just the most obvious place it manifests right now. It goes much deeper than that, and so the recovery process has been as much spiritual and emotional as it has been physical and mental. As much as I would like to have a one and done moment of epiphany where I magically no longer struggle with performance anxiety, I don’t think it will work like that. It’s something that pops up all over the place, and I’ve had to learn to identify and call it out. It is not only detrimental to my well-being and flourishing, but also to my relationships.

Step 10 is about continuing to take an inventory and promptly admit when we are wrong. I’m not going to discount the dramatically miraculous here, but I will say that, for most people, spiritual and emotional habits are not unlearned in a moment. At my church, we just finished a series on freedom, looking at the Exodus. Each week, the pastor reiterated, “It took 40 days to get Israel out of Egypt, but it took 40 years to get Egypt out of Israel.” While Israel had been physically taken out of bondage in Egypt, they didn’t know how to live as freed people. They had to learn the habits of freedom.

On the AA website, the reflection on Step 10 states, “For the wise have always known that no one can make much of his life until self-searching becomes a regular habit, until he is able to admit and accept what he finds, and until he patiently and persistently tries to correct what is wrong.” Remember from Step 4 that this inventory process is done with the full knowledge of God’s love and acceptance, and is therefore fearless. There is a saying in AA, progress not perfection. We can’t work this all out on our own, then emerge into our relationships with all of this perfectly sorted out. I wish it worked like that, but it doesn’t.

I am fortunate to have in my arsenal a rude therapist. By rude, I just mean uncomfortably accurate in his assessment of my true motivations. He calls me on my bologna, aka the nice stories I tell myself that keep me in the same patterns that brought me to his office in the first place. Sometimes it’s hard to assess my motives and actions because I’m too close to them, and more often than not, my ego is mixed up in there. Just like Dr. Henry was able to notice my arms swinging at manic speed, I can’t always clearly perceive my actions and motivations. Good friends and trusted mentors can help us here as well.

Even though our path to recovery starts with a moment of epiphany, our old patterns and temptations often follow us. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the patterns are symptoms of something deeper and more basic: fear, loneliness, anger, pain. It takes time for our knee-jerk reactions to change. As much as I want to manhandle my way into immediate change, it’s about as effective as forcing myself to relax. Maybe I can imitate the behavioral change for a while, but the old spirit still lives inside of me. So I have to keep going back and looking for those same dusty patterns. Maybe the more we do it, the quicker we are to admit when we are wrong, and the more humble we become.


If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, check out the resources on the Alcoholics Anonymous website, or call this National Helpline for Substance Abuse and Mental Health. 1-800-662-HELP (4357)


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