We have met and spoken to a fair amount of creative people in our years doing interviews, and a common thread running through most of the stories we hear is that of unstoppable fear and unabashed risk-taking. But what about people who suffer from anxiety? Is that a death sentence in the creative world? In a field where rejection is commonplace, does the fear of failure stop writers, artists, actors and others from pursuing their passions? In most cases, we have found it doesn’t. Many creative types suffer from some kind of anxiety. But it does make it harder to chase your dreams when your fears are holding you down?
In our most recent episode of The Passionistas Project Podcast, we spoke with author Pamela Skjolsvik. She has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction, has had several pieces published in literary journals, has written a book called Death Becomes Us (available on Amazon), has a second book (Forever 51) out on submission and a third in the works. And yet, she struggled with anxiety so strong, she would panic when trying on clothes in a dressing room.
Death Becomes Us came about because of a random wrong number to a funeral home. And while the book is an exploration of people who work in the death industry, it is, in reality, a book about Pamela’s journey to overcome her own fear of death and learn to engage with the living.
In order to rise above the things that scared her most, she took part in a cognitive behavioral therapy study and put herself in the most awkward situations to prove that what didn’t kill her, made her stronger.
Here’s an excerpt for our interview talking about her therapy:
Passionistas: While you were writing the book Death Becomes Us, you were diagnosed with a social anxiety disorder. So talk about therapy you did and how that helped you as a writer.
Pamela: It was a cognitive behavioral therapy through Southern Methodist University. It was a research study. I guess it was started out of Harvard. I couldn't get a job when I first moved to Texas but I got accepted into this research study. And there's probably eight of us when it began. And it was all exposure therapy. So basically we had to tell him what we were afraid of, things that made us super uncomfortable. And rated them. And then each week we had to do these things. And they took us out in Dallas and made us do really, really weird stuff.
I mean like it started out to introduce ourselves in front of each other, which was really painful for a lot of us — flushing, heart racing and you feel like you're going to get attacked. And then it just got progressively more intense. I had to go out in a Starbucks and just stand up in a Starbucks and start reading for no reason. And it's basically to show yourself, that it's like a science experiment, that you're not going to die. You're going to do the craziest thing. You think it's just going to kill you if you do it, if you go through with that and then you realize, “oh that was uncomfortable but I didn't die.”
And then I had to I had to go to an Ann Taylor store and I had to pick out clothes that did not fit me and put them on. And then come out into the store and ask people what they thought of my outfit. Because I hate trying on clothes. That was one of my things that I didn't like to do. And I lived through that. And then I think the last thing I ended up having to do was approach a table full of men in a bar. And say, “hey I'm a writer and I'm doing a reading tomorrow night. Would you mind if I read three pages to you all as a practice?” And I was like I can't believe I'm doing this. But they're like. “Okay.” And I did. And then they're like, “oh, are you on Facebook?”
So, everything that I thought was just going to be horrible actually turned out to be not so bad. So, I guess what that taught me is to not be afraid to try weird things. And to view a lot of what life throws at you as sort of an experiment. Look at myself as a test subject. OK I'm going to Starbucks. And I'm going to talk to a stranger. I'm going to be in the line at the grocery store and talk to people. Because before I was like, “Oh please don't talk to me. I don't want, you know, I can't do it.” But now it's like whatever.
Passionistas: Do you feel like doing that study helped me with the job at the library since the job at the library is all about talking to people?
Pamela: Yes. I've done for my anxiety I've tried Klonopin and drugs to see if it'll help in the end they just make me want to sleep. So to say the cognitive behavioral therapy was the one thing that really helped me. And now I don't really get freaked out in social situations. I'm not going to go to a party. I just know that that's part of my personality. It didn't make me a social butterfly but if I do find myself in a social situation I don't feel like I'm going to be attacked.
Passionistas: Is there some tool that you learned that you apply if you're in that kind of situation and you are starting to feel stressed out?
Pamela: For me it's looking at myself as the subject and talking to myself and saying, “you're okay. You can get through this.” I mean before was that whole fight or flight thing would kick in and I'm like, “oh god, I gotta get out of here.” But now I'm like, “you're okay. You're in line at the Kroger. Yes they are a little close to you in the back with their cart. But you're going to be okay. And you're only going to be here for another 15 minutes.”
Passionistas: What was the chronology with the Dallas Fort Worth Writers Club? Was that before or after the therapy ended. So did it help you with that, too?
Pamela: That was part of the therapy. Week two or three they said you have to join a social group and you have to go meet people socially. So I'm like OK. I'll find a the writers group. So I joined the DFW writers group. And that is a read and critique group. So you go and you read your pages a bunch of people critique it and then you die a little inside. And then you go of. So the first time I did that I did want to... I wanted to die. But, I forced myself to keep coming back and then it just got easier and easier each week to do it. That's helped me immensely. Yeah I have an MFA in Creative Nonfiction but the actual going to a writers group and listening to all different types of genres and different levels of writers and giving instant feedback has been extremely helpful in my writing journey.
Listen to Pamela’s entire interview at The Passionistas Project Podcast. And find out more about her and the book Death becomes Us at PamelaSkjolsvik.com.