We have a gig in less than an hour and there is a bear on stage.
I’ve been a musician for just shy of twenty years and an outwardly functioning human being for almost double that; functioning in the sense that in that time I’ve somewhat miraculously kept myself fed, watered and free from major scarring. I even tie my own shoe laces (though I do wonder if there’s a statute of limitation on this – I’ve been wearing the same Etnies for as long as I can remember and I’ve not re-tied the laces since day one). The point is, outwardly, as far as society is concerned, I function.
Inwardly it’s a different story. At current count there are thirty seven different warning lights flashing, smoke is billowing from several important looking dials and the rabbit that usually steers the ship lost the manual in 1996. The point is, I get anxious.
As I said, there is a very real, to me at least, bear on stage.
I don’t know how he got there, but I guess I should be used to this by now. He’s always nearby, hiding in bushes after dark, riding an overcrowded tube, standing in the corner during social situations nursing a dry martini (because anxiety is a slick bastard). Frankly, after two decades worth of stalking by Winnie’s angry cousin you tend to get a little weary. I don’t think I can play tonight. The gig is over before it’s begun.
I rally myself, try and remember some of the things that help. Loud noises, it’s been said, are supposed spook bears. Send them running. I summon every last frozen shard of calm from the pit of my belly and scream. But he stands there. Being a bear.
The bear, I now recall, is deaf.
If he’s aware of my protestations, his chubby furry features don’t show it. He picks up the microphone, either mocking me or preparing to bust out a rendition of Bare Necessities. If he really is deaf, the latter may be a welcome distraction from the anxiety. I sigh, resigned to the cold embrace of the coming panic attack.
Bears are only so tall. I measure in at six feet. He’s got the reach, sure. And his claws look pretty lethal. And yeah, maybe I’ve never thrown a punch in my life, but I’m pretty convinced I could take this bear in street combat situation. With evolution on my side, I can pick up a chair with the aid of opposable thumbs. If the circus taught me anything, it’s that bears are vulnerable to a skilfully wielded chair, or is that a lion? No that’s silly. You can’t wield a lion. Which end would you hold– get a grip, I command myself. I can do this. I can beat this bear.
Except, the bear is invisible.
I have no chance. He’s got everything. The reach, the claws, he’s one dry martini away from rubbing his victory in my face. I can duck and weave until they call time at the bar, I still can’t see him. I’m powerless. I feel my stomach open up, hope draining to the floor leaving me shivering. Breath involuntarily escapes from my lungs. I gasp, willing the warm air back into my chest.
I’ve trained for this very moment. A weekly, hour long phone call with my sensei. She gives me counsel, trains me in the art of counting to ten. I begin listing advantages, no matter how small. Positives in my favour. I feel strengthened by my brandishing of logic against the invisible, street fighting bear with hearing problems. If I focus, I can still breathe. This is a plus. I’m still able to move. This makes me seem like a more functional human being to the crowd around me. Another plus. And I’m smarter than the bear. Yes, that’s it! I have a reasonable education. He was raised in a cave on salmon and honey, a notoriously poor diet for brain development. I. Can. Outsmart. A. Stupid. Bear.
Except, the bear is telepathic.
He knows all this before it’s even conceived. He knows my every move. He must do, because he’s always there. One step ahead, the furry idiot. If only, I think to myself, he were just a regular, mountain dwelling bear. This time of year he’d more than likely be asleep.
Except this bear never sleeps.
This insomniac, telepathic, fist-fighting, deaf, invisible bear. He’s just here. All the time.
Enough! I scream, with my inside voice. No use in upsetting the locals. You’re just a stupid bear, you hold no dominion here, this is not where you belong!
The bear yelps in pain. Mortally wounded by my mind bullets, shot with all the force and accuracy I can muster. Is this it? Do I win? Is the bear finally defeated?
With that, the bear grows to over thirty feet tall and starts throwing much smaller bears as projectile weapons.
I think I made it angry.
“You alright man?” A friend asks. He knows about the bear. He has one too. We help each other hunt from time to time.
“I, uh… not feeling so good today.” And with that, I look up. Warm lights suddenly guard the entrance to the empty stage. The friends in the crowd around us patrol the room, two hundred foot soldiers. Vigilant. This is our castle. When you are here, you are safe.
“It’s ok.” And he’s right. It is ok.
Except an icy hand rests on my shoulder. I freeze in place. I know the cold words about to be whispered into my ear, soft enough that only I can hear. I feel their chill before they’re even uttered. I know these words because I hear them most days.
There is a bear on stage.
Written by Lucias Malcolm, vocalist/guitarist in Call Me Malcolm. CMM’s latest album I Was Broken When You Got Here lyrically discusses mental health, while also being one of the best ska-punk albums of the last 5 years. We strongly recommend checking it out.
Luke will be joining us on the Shout Louder podcast at Manchester Punk Festival talking about mental health in the music industry. It’ll be live with an audience at 12:30 in Font Bar on Friday 19th April.
This is part of our #MentallySound series, exploring mental health in music.