Author: Chancee Forestier
As minutes slip by, my heart begins to throb against my chest, oxygen thrusting against the narrowing walls of my trachea. Every time my worried brain is reminded of my inevitable turn, my stomach tightens into a fragile sheet of glass and plunges into a million shards. With haste, I pick up the fragments of my worries and try to puzzle them back in place, only for them to slip through my flesh into agonizing splinters throughout my body. Too quickly, another student finishes their presentation…only one more before my surrender. Repeating my introduction in my mind, I begin to imagine all the possible faults and stutters my body will betray. “Chancée… Mr. Peterson just called you,” my neighbor repeats. I begin to curse in my mind. My cheeks become angry with heat while my heart furiously hammers against my sternum. My knees bring me to the podium, I position my note cards in front of me, with the first one clearly marked “LOOK UP” in my mother’s handwriting. All I can do is stare at that reminder, my mind starting to blank as my extremities are tingling under the stare of my classmates. The heat beneath my skin swiftly become hives strangling my chest and throat. Hands twitching, hopping from one foot to another, I stutter through my presentation, adding an army of “ums” between myself and my audience. I retreat back to my seat with heavy disappointment for yet another botched verbal presentation. The innumerable hours of research, rewriting, and practicing was outperformed by my horror of speaking in public. No one, not even I, could pay attention to my actual work as we focused in on my visible battle.
How will I ever have an impact on this world if I can’t explain what nourishes my thoughts and passions? Who will listen to someone who does not know how to speak? Who will follow a leader without a voice?
Most people are surprised when I disclose that I’m an introverted homebody that needs to be coaxed out of her house. Some even think my shyness just can’t be accurate since I have proven to be a fearless and passionate leader in sports. However, what my non-believers don’t understand is I am far more comfortable leading by example and following my actions with my voice rather than purely depending on vocalization of my opinions. Many people confuse others’ bravery with what would qualify as being brave themselves. Being fearless is short from being courageous. Courage itself comes from terror and the conviction that you will attempt something without secured success. For me, that panic has always been communicating my thoughts in front of a crowd.
Attending a large undergraduate university left me feeling lost amongst the masses- a camouflaged sensation I found rather comforting. I have always preferred the cold dark corners of a room to the saturating heat found in the middle of a crowd. The corners allow you to observe, listen, and learn from the mistakes of others, while keeping your hands clean. Being a listener also allows others to feel more supported and heard, in this world of who can scream louder. I have always loved being an empath, people are drawn to me, they want to share their stories, and I want to hear them. Overtime however, I realized if I could learn how to speak up in front of a group of people, I’d be able to spread other’s stories to a wider audience and fulfill my passions surrounding women’s health. My strength of being an empathetic listener, intermingled with the courage of public discourse, could service the people I strive to safeguard. Therefore, I restructured my perspective on this safety quilt of being unseen as an obstacle I wanted to challenge head on. I need to be heard.
The first instrumental change was deciding to sit front and center in every class. Though there were hundreds of students packed into an auditorium, I would fight my way through that crowded heat. The first time I did sit in the front, it quickly became evident I had created a domino effect of irritated students. They believed they had earned their spot earlier in the semester and thought the conflict had resolved. Me, an outlander, had stolen Kelly’s spot. She looked at me with disgust, but continued the selfish trend by taking Ricky’s. Ricky took Ming’s, Ming took Shondas. Poor Billy, who liked to sit comfortably at the end of the row, was kicked to the back. This never-ending battle of “seat stealing” that I had invoked led to my alarm being set five minutes earlier with each passing day. Those glares became an unexpected lesson of their own, as I learned to take on my peers’ criticism as a soft blow rather than a world shattering opposition. My improving grades only motivated me further. Sorry Kelly.
As I became more comfortable being in competitive proximity with my future medical peers, my second challenge was to speak up in front of a large class. It was a mental tug-of-war between my arm remaining glued to my side versus the desire to hold my hand up high in order to answer or inquire the professor. Soon after the blood rushed to my face and chest causing my well known hives, tingling gushed from my right arm to the tips of my fingers. It was that same tingling sensation I experienced just prior to jumping out of a plane. The pins and needles had come back with just as much force as my body tormented my mind with its skepticism. Finally, my heart took the reins and I jumped into the driver’s seat of my education.
Passion for female general, sexual, and reproductive health is the nucleus of my interests. In order to have a larger impact on the community I want to defend and protect, I knew I would eventually need to use larger platforms to spread feminist-based education surrounding women’s wellness. I took the plunge and signed up for a course in public speaking. Though in the scheme of courses that I have under my belt, it might be considered an “easy A” in comparison to my science-heavy coursework. However, this class changed my life by empowering me with the strength to spread my voice. It was a complicated love-hate battle where I was filled with anxiety every week as we spoke in front of our peers. This anxiety was exponentially increased, as we were asked to watch and critique videos of ourselves after each of our speeches.
Reliving my terror and watching first-hand what others had to cringe through was devastating, but motivating; quite simply, I couldn’t get worse.
By the end of that semester, I no longer cornered my voice into the shadows; I took the angst in my gut and used it as fuel to evoke even more emotion into the subjects I am passionate in.
To say my fear has been conquered is unrealistic. Every time I start preparing for a podium, the heat swims beneath my skin and the unrelenting knots in my stomach pains me. However, I stand straight with my chest out to facilitate air going in and out of my lungs. I secure my hands behind my back so I can tap my fingers without distracting my audience. Most importantly, I remind myself to embrace the moments of silence rather than trying to shield behind intermittent “ums.” Finally, the rhythm will come to me, the same cadence practiced a hundred times the week leading to my presentation. It strengthens me as I to take calculated steps rather than directionless paces of doubt.
A quiet reward I treat myself after talking in front of a group of people, is to go to a mirror, pull down my shirt, and watch the rash dissipate from my torso. Though I have learned ways to keep my voice strong and my mind clear, my body never seizes to recoil from the gaze of a crowd. However, I refuse to allow my voice to be muffled by my fears.
My advice to anyone who also deals with anxiety over public speaking is to jump into that pool of uncertainty headfirst. You already feel like you’re drowning anyhow, why not learn the strokes that will allow you to swim back up for that breath of fresh air. You may even save a life or two en route.
So go ahead, speak up. I promise I’m listening to you with an open heart.