behind the scenes

Now that the play is over and I’ve had some time to process the last month and a half, I’m ready to say more. Here’s what I haven’t told you: For the duration of the show, I dealt with panic attacks and anxiety.

This was the second time I’ve dealt with this. The first time was a few years ago when I was the lead in another play in which, over the course of the rehearsal period, there were a series of unfortunate events that gradually caused my routine theater jitters to morph into panic attacks. Being in front of people has always made me intensely nervous (just reading scripture at church, I get queasy, short of breath, and shaky), but I’d never dealt with anxiety or panic before until, suddenly, I was completely engulfed by it. By the time I began to get proper medical care, it was already too late: my brain was so flooded that it was impossible for me to trust myself to be present to the role on stage. A few days before the show went up, I made the excruciating decision to step down.

I was shattered. Never before had I lost myself so completely. My mind was . . . gone. I had no perspective, no grounding, no center. I was like a different person entirely. The whole experience was utterly disorienting.

Since then, I’ve been in another play (though not as the lead) so I thought I was over it, or that the experience was just a freak incident or something to do with perimenopause or whatever. But then during the first rehearsal for Tiny Beautiful Things, I had a panic attack. I didn’t let on, but by the time I got home that night, it was full-blown. All my nervous excitement had been replaced with sheer, gut-wrenching terror. I felt trapped. Frozen in place. Like someone was pointing a gun at me and I couldn’t move.

Right away, I knew I had to rethink whether or not I could proceed.

The very next day, I met with the director. “You can do this,” she said, squeezing my hand. “I absolutely believe you can, but I will never ask you to do something that doesn’t feel right to you.” 

This play is lowstakes, she said. In fact, she had just three priorities for the play and they were, in order of importance:

1) Healthy actors. 
2) A fun and safe rehearsal space.
3) The play.

“What if we get two weeks into rehearsals and I have to back out?” I asked.

“Then someone else will take the part. Actually, I’ll go ahead and privately arrange for you to have an understudy.”

“What if we get to opening night and I can’t do it?”

“Then the play doesn’t happen but so what — it’s just a play.”

“Do you want me to keep trying?”

“Yes. If you want to.”

I wanted to. 

line memorization

I contacted my medical provider who put me on antidepressants and helped me figure out a schedule for the anti-anxiety medication that would keep me stable enough to function. I found a local therapist and began weekly, and sometimes twice-weekly, therapy sessions. (The therapist confirmed I was having panic attacks and that the situation was, what she called, a “trauma echo.”)  

it’s grueling

The next several weeks were touch and go.

I was riddled with crippling self-doubt. My legs shook. Panic melted my insides and I’d freeze, awash in terror. I moved gingerly, afraid any sudden movement might make me shatter. I didn’t talk to people (except for a couple close friends and my therapist) because I didn’t want anyone to know what I was dealing with. I didn’t do publicity for the play, and the director held off attaching my name and face to the show for as long as possible. I ate like I was sick — toast, tomato sandwiches, granola, and not much of any of it. I stopped running since being short of breath triggered the panic. I stopped working at the bakery because even with the anti-anxiety meds, I couldn’t shake the soundtrack of impending doom, a feeling that was intensified by the repetitive work of sheeting out pastry dough. Even watching TV shows or movies made me queasy, so I mostly quit those, too.

It was a horrible feeling, knowing that the play revolved around my role and I might not be able to do it. 

photo credit: Tiffany Showalter Photography

As Sugar, I said the following words daily for over a month:

How you get unstuck is, you reach. Therapy and speaking with friends and support groups will help, don’t hold it inside. Get it out, talk it out, cry it out. But know this, no one else can make this right for you. You have to reach for your desire to heal. True healing is a fierce place . . . and you have to work really hard to get there.

But when was the “reach” too big? Just because something was hard didn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, but just because something could be done didn’t mean it should.

How far was I willing to push myself? When was too much too much?

photo credit: Tiffany Showalter Photography

A friend asked me how I felt about needing prescription medications to do something for fun, something voluntary. It was a good question, and one I asked myself many times over the last few weeks. Because I definitely wasn’t having fun. Unlike the rehearsals for other shows, there was no joy in it, just sheer terror.

Why was I doing this if it made me so miserable?

But here’s the thing. I knew I loved acting (or I did at one time). I knew I wanted to do the role. I was being handed an enormous gift: a compassionate, actor-centered director, a fantastic, meaty role that I cared about, and wonderful castmates and crew. If ever there was a time to work through the pain of that earlier experience and regain trust in myself, now was the time. I had medication and a no-nonsense therapist. I had the time and freedom to hunker down and work through this issue.

And I had my husband. 

Typically the one to rail against my harebrained ideas and high-energy vibes, my husband never — not even once — suggested that I quit. Instead, when I’d cry that my head was going to explode and I couldn’t do it, he’d remind me that I have a pretty big head. When I’d bellyflop on the floor and wail that I felt like I was crawling out of my skin, he’d crouch beside me and knead the backs of my thighs. Late at night when I’d whimper, What if I can’t? he’d say, But you can. He’d remind me that I had a different director this time. She thinks you can do it. Listen to her. And as I’d stoically gather my things to head out the door to rehearsal, he’d do his best impression of Shia Labeouf and roar, “JUST DO IT,” and then grin. 

Each night after pre-show warmups, our director had us gather around Sugar’s office rug, plant our feet on the floor, put our hands on our chest, close our eyes, and repeat each phrase after her:

I take from the earth (I take from the earth) 
All that I need (all that I need).
I take from the heavens (I take from the heavens)
All that I need (all that I need).
And when I have it all inside me (and when I have it all inside me),
I give it away (I give it away).

And with the last line, we’d open our eyes and extend our hands. 

Each day, I’d find myself thinking about that meditation, craving the moment when we’d stand in a circle and repeat those words. This show wasn’t just about me; it was about the people who came to see it as much as it was about the people performing. Theater was about connection. In each show, I was giving myself, in a very real way, to others.

The switch from viewing theater as Performance to Gift was huge. I’d done the best I could and now it was time to let it go. 


heading to a show, twice-wrapped in my Kate Clothes

Producing this play — swallowing huge swaths of text whole and then delivering the words back into the world — reminded me of childbirth. Each day as the evening rehearsal or show approached, I’d feel myself pulling inward, steeling myself for the 90-minute mountain of words and emotion I’d have to scale. Each performance left me exhausted and drained, relieved, sometimes sad and sometimes exhilarated, always proud. I could do this. I was doing this.

How incredibly satisfying to finally be doing The Thing that I honestly didn’t know I could.


Did I mess up? Yes, many times. 
Did I blank? Yes, but only for a millisecond, and then the words would appear, hanging before me ready to be spoken.
Did my brain flood? No. Medicine is amazing.
Did I mangle the words? Yes, and then I adlibbed and kept going and it was fine.

There is still so much I don’t know.

Will I forevermore deal with crippling panic and anxiety when it comes to performance? I don’t know.

With this play, did I successfully prove to myself that I can be present on stage even in the midst of self-doubt? I don’t know. 

Next time, will I need medication? 
Will there be a next time? 
Do I even want to act again?

I don’t know.
I don’t know.
I don’t know.

celebrating with the cast and crew

I debated sharing this story here. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. I don’t want people to worry. I don’t want people to feel awkward watching me in future shows (if there are future shows). It’d be so much easier to just skip this whole topic and move on to more cheery, fun things like making mead (coming soon!). 

But! If I allow people to believe that acting is all rainbows and butterflies then I’m lying by omission. If I’m gonna talk about stuff, then I have to actually talk about it. I’m not a superhero. No one is. Hard things are hard, and we owe it to each other to tell the truth.

Keeping this scary part of my acting experience a secret does me a disservice because HOLY HECK LOOK WHAT I JUST ACCOMPLISHED, and it does the people who know me a disservice because it implies that I’m more “together” than I really am or that the things I choose to do are easy for me.

To quote Sugar one more time, “We have to let the people who love us see what made us.”

This play both wrecked and made me.

after the first show: me and the director
photo credit: the assistant director

I did it.


This same time, years previous: on eating meat, jammy oat bars, sixteen miles, the commitment march on Washington, at home, crunch week, chomper, the quotidian (8.29.16), tomatoes in cream, it all adds up, they’re getting it!.


  • Rose Shenk

    Thanks so much for your candid words about a complicated, difficult, and ultimately rewarding experience. It was an honor to share a bit of that experience, both on the outside—watching the show several times—and on the inside, through your blog. I’m grateful for Sarah and John who helped lead you through it. Your performance was a gift.

  • Mama Pea

    Feel sorry for you? Heck, no. You have the strength of steel. Bendable perhaps, but not breakable. Now I feel my own repetitive act that has recently been scarring the begeezus out of me and causing me to think I’m about to fall into the big, black abyss is something with which I can deal. Our mental health is as important (maybe more so?) as our physical health. Thank you so much for sharing this post.

  • Carol S-B

    Wow. So well written. Your transparency of prose: lucent. I know I will come back and read this again and again: your words, how they interweave with Sugar’s words.
    The resonance through so many of your past blog posts (difficult meetings, I think of the Gun Control one for example and it hits like a punch).
    Thank you, Jennifer Jo.
    I used to say, about teaching dancing to adults, “It fills me up and depletes me in equal measure”. I feel like the balance was different for you this time, and I am grateful (so grateful) for your perseverance, and the light you bring to your writing.

  • Lois Kauffman

    This is true transparency, This sharing helps all of us heal. THANK YOU!! Sharing your truth helps me with my own struggles.
    This is a huge gift that will come back to you, and I hope, make it worth it. !!!

  • katie

    Thank you for this. And just I think that’s what this is all about, this is where it all really becomes real — when we try things we truly don’t know we can do. And who we can go to and count on while we’re trying. The humans I love value the trying and rally the support when someone else is going for it. I don’t feel sorry for you; I am thrilled for you, for what you’ve done and for embracing the uncertainty and yet unanswered questions. Wish I could have made it to the show.

  • Marcella Kottmeier

    Bravo Bravo bravo!! Talking about mental health is how we bring it into the light. You have not only helped yourself but you have helped all of the people who are struggling in their own lives. Your decisions to reach out for help and your support system are a gift you have also given yourself and an example to others. Congratulations on your success, baby steps and all. I remember my brother teaching me the silent scream when I had to get up and speak at my fathers memorial. It certainly helped me settle before turning to a group of 300+ people! You will prevail. Thank you for your amazing blog!

  • Pauline in Upstate NY

    You are so strong. You are so brave. You are so loved and supported by your family. You are blessed. It was hard. You did it anyway. It scared the crap out of you. You decided to try it anyway. Maybe another time you will make another choice, but you will make that decision from a place of strength, knowing that if it truly felt right to say “yes” to trying the hard thing, you have “yes” in your wheelhouse. I love this post, Jennifer. We should all talk more about the things that are hard and not always show only our “wannabee” face to the ones we care about. We are all broken. People better with words than I have said (and I will no doubt get these not quite right) that “when our broken places heal, then they are stronger than they were to start with;” and “the broken places are where the light gets in.” Amen to that. Thank you for trusting your readers enough to share this.

  • Corinna J. ClymerOlson

    I appreciate this post, J. I agree with your wisdom. I wonder how this learning/growth/challenge will assist you in the next challenges. Sometimes our learning cycles look similar but are just a little different because we are further along in time or development or something. I see learning and growth and development like a slinky, ya know? Not just a circle/cycle in the same plane…

  • Sadie Showalter

    Thanks for sharing this journey I thoroughly enjoyed your acting and the whole cast. One would never have had any idea of the trama you were dealing with. Thank You

  • Becky

    I love that you so openly shared this. We don’t talk about mental health enough, so thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for sharing. So much respect and admiration.

  • Diane

    Soooooo happy for you to have made this journey ! Thanks for sharing the ups and downs of it. Success is not an easy ride ! You did it !!! Enjoy it !!!

  • Noel Levan

    1. Thank you for your courage. 2. I send thanks to your husband for his support, compassion and humor, and support (yes 2x). 3. I now, having read of how the repetitive act of the bakery engagement negatively threatened an attack, I realize that years ago I experienced panic and never revealed it; and it was brought on by a repetitive act. 4. I have confidence that you will rise to the occasions as they come, and engage whole-heartedly, or not at all. I am very glad for your presence in so many ways. Thank you.

Leave a Comment