For sixteen months, my own personal doomsday has been slowly approaching. With the launch of my book, I knew I was going to have to face up to something I’m terrified of.
I’m not talking about deep water or heights or snakes. I’m talking about something that has held me back from opportunities and shaped my life choices.
For 32 years, I’ve avoided public speaking.
At university, I immersed myself in my own personal study of Not Speaking in Public. When the time came to get up in front of the class and talk about our graphic design projects, I’d quietly slip out of the room, get in my car, and drive to the cinema. Watching a two-star romantic comedy alone in the dark was so much more appealing than standing before sixty sets of eyes.
I was always amazed that nobody noticed I was gone, and despite my Houdini act during public speaking occasions, I finished university with top marks.
I was smug that I’d gotten away with it. Bwah-ha-ha! I win! I thought.
From there, I became so good at side-stepping public speaking that I practically invented my own dance. Left, right, avoid! Right, left, avoid! I applied only for jobs that would allow me to hide behind computer screens all day, and I somehow even managed to avoid any obligations to answer the phone (my fear also extended to telecommunications).
I was smug that I got away with that too. Bwah-ha-ha! I win!
Avoidance is a funny thing. The more you do it, the more stubbornly you stick it out. A simple refusal—a one-time “No”—somehow turns into a lifetime of “No’s”. I accepted this limitation as a part of me, like a missing leg. “I’m scared” was my disability, and one that I believed to be legitimate.
Like any disability, it put limitations on my life.
Part of the appeal of self-publishing my book was avoidance. If I was the master of my own publication, then I wouldn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do, like radio or talk shows or reading events. Instead, I could quietly promote my book from behind my laptop screen. I knew it was going to be a challenge to get the word out digitally, but my determination to avoid public speaking was so strong that I became a social media whiz to compensate.
And then (thanks to my superb social media skills) my book sold to five publishers. I told you all that I was excited because that seems like a fitting reaction, but the truth was, in between all the celebrating, I was filled with gut-clenching dread.
Publishers sent over proposals with words like, “Book store events,” and “Live radio” and I could hear the squeak of the spotlight turning on me, ready to flush me out from my dark hiding place with stark white light. I didn’t know how to talk about this, as I was afraid I’d get accused of looking a gift horse in the mouth. On the odd occasion that I would mention it out loud, I was told, “Psht! Puh-leez, Torre. You’ll be fine.”
First world problems, I know.
And yet the thought of the world ending in December 2012 felt genuinely comforting to me. Death—the ultimate way to avoid. Boom! We’re all dead! Game, score, match! I win! Bwah-ha-ha!
But we didn’t die. The world kept turning, dammit, and the dreaded launch date approached. Just before returning home to Melbourne for my Australia/NZ launch, I got sick in Thailand with something that could’ve been a tropical bug or a flu, but was most likely nerves. I was shitting myself. Literally.
On Feb 27, I was scheduled in to appear on ABC RadioNational on a popular program called Life Matters. It was to be broadcast around the entire country. Live.
The game was up. I was about to lose.
But the results were shocking…
I woke up that morning in a state of perfect calm.
I drove to the ABC studio in a state of perfect calm.
I went into the recording studio in a state of perfect calm.
And all throughout the interview, I was calm—perfectly so.
If you’d like to listen to it, here’s the interview.
I didn’t embarrass myself and melt into a pile of my own goo. My throat didn’t close over and suffocate me. Nobody laughed and called me stupid. My insides did not spill out into the room. I was just me as I always am, but on radio, talking to a lot of people. No biggie.
Once I lost my option to avoid, it was easy.
In fact, it was a whole lot of fun.
Since then, I’ve done five radio interviews, and the experience was the same for each one: easy, exhilarating, fun. Last night, after a successful interview with ABC774, the presenter Lindy Burns said to me, “That was great. You’re a natural talker.”
Me? Really? A natural talker? Huh! Who would’ve guessed? I never would’ve known this if I hadn’t been forced into facing this fear.
For 32 years, I’ve been pointlessly avoiding public speaking. Why? In a way, it’s like playing a video game that scores points when I successfully escape the bad guy—the public speaking. Only it’s a fictional baddie in a make-believe game that I invented when I was a child. There is no way to win this game. What felt like a win was actually my own loss.
Is there anything that you’re avoiding?
Torre DeRoche is the author of two travel memoirs, Love with a Chance of Drowning (2013) and The Worrier’s Guide to the End of the World (due out September 2017). She has written for The Atlantic, The Guardian Travel, The Sydney Morning Herald, Emirates, and two Lonely Planet anthologies.