Jordan Raskopoulos: What Does Anxiety Feel Like For A Performer?

Oct 11, 2019
Originally published on October 11, 2019 11:18 am

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Erasing The Stigma.

About Jordan Raskopoulos' TED Talk

Comedian Jordan Raskopolous wanted to push past the stigma of mental health and talk about her anxiety disorder publicly. She says she, like everyone else, just needed the right audience.

About Jordan Raskopoulos

Jordan Raskopoulos is a comedian, musician and digital content creator. She was the lead singer of The Axis of Awesome, a musical comedy group. Jordan hosts This is About, a narrative non-fiction podcast on ABC RN.

She came out as transgender in the viral video 'What's Happened to Jordan's Beard' in 2016. Her roller derby name is "Judge Booty."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and to introduce our first guest, we should probably start with her TED Talk because this was at TEDx Sydney in 2017 with 4,000 people in the audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JORDAN RASKOPOULOS: Rock 'n' roll. Come on, Sydney. Let's make some noise.

RAZ: And bounding onstage like a rock star was Jordan Raskopoulos.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RASKOPOULOS: Make some noise if you love TEDx.

RAZ: Now, Jordan was clearly in her element.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RASKOPOULOS: Make some noise if you hate public speaking.

(APPLAUSE)

RASKOPOULOS: Yes. Make some noise if the idea of giving a talk in front of thousands of people is your nightmare.

(APPLAUSE)

RASKOPOULOS: Yes. It's not for me.

Yeah, hi. I'm Jordan Raskopoulos. I am an Australian comedian. I'm principally known as the lead singer for the worldwide sensation The Axis of Awesome musical comedy group.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The Axis of Awesome.

RAZ: Jordan has toured all over the world with her bandmates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Welcome The Axis of Awesome.

RAZ: She's been on TV a bunch of times.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RASKOPOULOS: Hi. I'm Jordan.

LEE NAIMO: I'm Lee.

BENNY DAVIS: And I'm Benny.

DAVIS, NAIMO AND RASKOPOULOS: And we are The Axis of Awesome.

RAZ: So yeah, Jordan was completely confident when she hit the stage in Sydney.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RASKOPOULOS: I know. I can drop my voice a little bit, get a little more conversational, talk to someone in the front row. Hey. How you doing? TEDx, am I right? Rock 'n' roll. I can raise my voice to a crescendo and let silence hang for three seconds, and then speak quietly, purposefully and softly, and I have your full attention. I do not get stage fright, so people find it really odd when I tell them that I have an anxiety disorder.

There is a level of anxiety going on with me at all times unless I am performing. Like, my brain races constantly and thinks through ridiculous scenarios, you know, trying to predict how things are going to happen. I think if I do the wrong thing, it will be a disaster.

RAZ: Jordan says this dilemma - full confidence on stage but extreme anxiety and depression off stage - is something she's lived with undiagnosed for a long time.

RASKOPOULOS: Mental health is health, but even speaking about and having anxiety or depression or any form of mental health issue - people are very reluctant to do that because society kind of saw someone who has mental illness - well, that equals crazy.

RAZ: It's estimated that one in 14 people around the world have an anxiety disorder, and more than 300 million suffer from depression. And yet talking about mental health in many parts of the world is still a little bit taboo. So many people dealing with common disorders feel alone or disgraced or crazy.

So today on the show, we're going to talk about erasing the stigma, how we can think about this massive health crisis in a different way, and we'll hear ideas from TED speakers that might just change the way we talk about it. And for Jordan Raskopoulos, how she was going to push past the stigma and talk about her anxiety publicly was obvious. She just needed an audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RASKOPOULOS: When people describe the sensation of stage fright, they often say things like, I'm nervous. I might be lost for words. I might forget what to say. People are looking at me. People are judging me. I think I've talked too much. Everything is racing in my head, and I feel like I'm going to freeze.

And I know those feelings. I just don't get them on the stage. I get them when I'm talking to someone and I don't know what their name is. I get them if I go to a party and I turn up too early or too late. I get them in most conversations, particularly conversations with people I don't know very well. I get terrified when I have a chatty taxi driver.

(LAUGHTER)

RASKOPOULOS: I'm terrified of checking my email, and I am absolutely petrified about talking on the telephone. Yeah. I don't get stage fright. I get life fright.

RAZ: I mean, I certainly know what it feels like to be anxious, you know, at a party or an awkward social situation. But to have to deal with that kind of anxiety in a cab or a grocery store day in and day out - I mean, it sounds just overwhelming, like, even debilitating.

RASKOPOULOS: Oh, absolutely. It's exhausting, and often, it affects, you know, executive function as well. Like...

RAZ: Yeah.

RASKOPOULOS: ...Not just being at the grocery store, but getting to the grocery store, you know, having to will myself out of my house to go and encounter the great aisles and awkward conversation at the end - although now that we have the automatic checkouts, you don't have to talk to anyone, so grocery shopping is a little bit easier.

RAZ: Did you always have episodes of anxiety and depression? Is this something that you can remember for as long as you have been alive, or did it - is it something that kind of developed in your teens or 20s or...

RASKOPOULOS: Yeah. I mean, I can definitely remember these experiences but can only label them as anxiety or depression in hindsight. I wasn't equipped with the language to articulate the things that I was feeling, and the language that people around me used to describe my behavior is what I presumed was what I was experiencing. So when I was reluctant to leave the house or go to school or something like that, I would be labeled lazy, and so I presumed I was a lazy person. If I was reluctant to hug my grandmother, then I was labeled cold and unloving.

And those behaviors didn't come from a place of a lack of love. They came from a place of anxiety. But when you are anxious and you cannot perform to other people's expectations and they don't help you with that feeling of anxiety or acknowledging that it exists, you feel shame. And you feel shame about yourself, and, you know, shame is a one-way ticket to depression.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RASKOPOULOS: It has only been in the last couple of years that I have spoken to people who have a similar relationship with anxiety as I do. It's quite common amongst performers, actually, and I have one friend who describes herself as shy loud. Yeah, and I quite like the phrase shy loud. It's perfect. And it was only in the last year that I actually became acquainted with the ideas of situational anxiety, social anxiety and high-functioning anxiety.

Now, the thing is, when somebody's anxiety is high-functioning, that means that they work in society. In fact, we work really well, us shy louds. We have such a heightened sense of worry and such a fear of failure that we are often very high-achieving and perfectionist. The problem is that our level of worry is so high that even simple tasks require a huge amount of mental energy, and completing multiple tasks at the same time is very difficult, which is why situations where there's a lot of stimulation, like a party, can overwhelm us and make us shut down.

I put out a tweet a while ago when I was feeling quite low of, I know everybody else thinks that they're a worthless piece of [expletive], but I am a worthless piece of [expletive]. You can bleep that if you need to bleep that. But that's what - you feel what you feel so truly when you are in it.

RAZ: But what's interesting is, like, you're talking about this now very clear-eyed, you know, almost sort of, like, standing on a balcony looking at yourself when you are experiencing these feelings and knowing that those things, those experiences, those feelings may not actually be the truth. You can say that now, but, like, tomorrow or next week, you may - that may be your truth.

RASKOPOULOS: And that's almost what drags me back into it, you know? It is that - you know, you - when you're feeling healthy, you can be rational, you know? And you can - and what is scariest from being at this point where I'm probably - my mental health in the last six months has been the best it's been in years. But there's just a daily fear of, at some point, this raft that's keeping me above water is going to sink again, and I'm going to go back to that place. And I'm so fearful of that because it's just - it's so difficult to escape from.

RAZ: Do you feel like when you're at your healthiest, like now, do you have a sense of why? I mean, is it just the way that the stars are aligned, or is there something that you do?

RASKOPOULOS: Yes. It's all of that. You know, I think there's a big part of having, you know, healthy routines, making sure I go to therapy, making sure I start things, making sure I leave the house, making sure I exercise, making sure I talk about my feelings.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RASKOPOULOS: I also have allies. I have friends. I make sure that I don't go to social occasions alone, and if they see me struggling in a conversation, they will introduce themselves to share the load, often starting by asking the person's name just to make sure that I've got it. They also know to recognize when I need to evacuate and help me get out.

The other thing that I've noticed is the strength that I have because of my anxiety. I deal with such a heightened level of stress and worry that I am often very, very good in situations when people are typically stressed and worried - very good on stage, quite good at public speaking. I'm a very good improviser. I am quick-witted, but I am also really, really good at taking charge in a moment of crisis.

RAZ: When a friend or somebody that trusts you is dealing with anxiety, what do you - how do you help counsel them? Like, is there anything you can say to them or do for them that is helpful?

RASKOPOULOS: The most helpful thing - it helps me and what I offer to other people - is to kind of pick up the slack that they can't deal with. I cook for people and bring them food, or, you know, go for a walk. And I spend time with them, and I'm patient with them, and if they don't want any of that, I remind them that I'm there. But the legwork is - we have to it do ourselves. So I think for me, it's making that journey easier by taking care of the little things that I can for them.

RAZ: I mean, I feel like somebody like you, who is, you know, a public figure - and there are lots of people who love what you do and you - I mean, it's important for somebody like you to talk about this, right?

RASKOPOULOS: Yeah.

RAZ: To talk about things that make you feel vulnerable - I mean, it's super important.

RASKOPOULOS: Yeah. There's been such a stigma about talking about it for, you know - there still is. I think the world would be a much better place if, A, everyone went to therapy, and B, everybody talked about their problems because together, we can feel less alone, and together, we can help one another overcome the problems we have. And if we buy into the saccharine world that kind of media pretends exists, that only separates ourselves and individualizes ourselves into our own misery. You know, if you believe that everyone in the public space doesn't deal with the problems that you deal with in your brain, how more alone you must feel.

RAZ: That's Jordan Raskopoulos. She's a comedian, singer and YouTube content creator. You can see her full talk at ted.com. On the show today, Erasing The Stigma, talking about mental health openly and without fear. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.