Anxiety, Agoraphobia and Altered Esthetics

Every now and again I’ll wake up in the wee hours of the morning, not to roll over and doze back to sleep -- but wide awake, my mind racing and full of thoughts. I’ve come into contact with other creatives frustrated with insomnia -- but insomnia isn’t exactly what this is. There’s a clarity and sharpness about these wee hours that’s unrivaled in the busy clutter of the day. Often I’ll wake up with a letter formatted, a poem aptly carved, a grant narrative more fully fleshed out, or a blog pre-written, emerging from webby corners of thought that need sweeping out. Over time I’ve learned not to fight this, and I’m not the only one. Apparently these “waking hours” are a past product of a bimodal sleep rhythm and have served as the golden hours for many artists over time, responsible for some of history’s great works of literature and philosophical inquiry.

(This post is neither of those things.)

Rather, it is a personal exploration of a dusty topic, shelved for a little too long.

I have a happy memory of an art opening at Altered Esthetics, circa 2006. The show was one of our classic videogame art shows, Level_13. A Mario mural by Lauri Svedberg adorned the wall, a circle of pixelated sculptures centered the room, and Caly opened the evening with some 8 bit glitch. I didn’t wear a black outfit and a beret, nor did I sip wine. Nothing against berets or wine, but instead I wore a Rainbow Brite hoodie, comfy pants and fuzzy slippers. Professional? Questionable. But that wasn’t the point - I was comfortable and the show was warm and open, as was the creative space we had cultivated.

There are certain things I’ve come to terms with as a community organizer, and they seem to be things I must re-evaluate and re-commit to on a regular basis. A commitment to convening and inviting folks to the table, even when the topic is challenging. Sending meeting reminders and reminders and reminders. Project management. (A not to distant memory that you were often *that kid* when you did group projects in college and high school.) But it’s not a bittersweet equation, it just involves an acknowledgement and appreciation that everybody has a different skillset and brings something unique to the table. Some of my favorite projects were ones in which I had little creative role at all, and instead worked within my skill-set alongside a group of talented individuals to make something remarkable happen. Big Funny, Rock Ink Roll, actually Altered Esthetics in general.

But there are other things that were a harder pill to swallow that seemed to be necessary parts of the equation. Public speaking. Shameless self promotion. Small talk.


Oh god, the networking.

Especially when I was on the board of the gallery I felt obligated to go out to other events - making appearances is part of the protocol, after all. But openings in particular were challenging. For one, it’s hard to actually see the art at a crowded opening. But then, there was the crowd itself.

j-me box head

j-me box head

So while working a crowd was one thing - there were always things to be done, places to tuck away and take a mental moment. As I learned more about myself, I came to know better when I had the energy to put myself out there and when it was a better option to stay home. I learned more about what exactly a panic attack was and how to avoid triggers. It was a weird thing to dissect, and a weirder thing to admit. I can be quite calm at as an event organizer... but what is it about other people? Was Sartre right this whole time?!

The longer I worked in the arts, the more that I met other people that felt *exactly* the same way. We found each other in crowds. We had conversations in bathrooms, relieved to find somebody else feeling a little bit out of place and awkward. Not quite introverted, not quite extroverted, but not quite good at whatever this social scene experiment was - but mostly, little by little, we discovered we weren’t alone. But I watched as these anxieties manifested themselves in a variety of ways.

I’ve left events early with artist friends that have spent all their social energy and need to remove themselves from the crowd.

I’ve worked with curators that have missed their own openings because their anxiety was so severe.

I’ve worked with more artists than I wish to count that stopped creating art or music because they couldn’t handle the social requirements involved, and that is a fucking tragedy.

I've had friends who have decided that enough was too much, and that one is almost too heartbreaking to list.

I once worked with a board member who was set on making sure artists had marketing skills so they could be better about self promotion. I countered that especially for some of our most talented artists, that wasn’t a part of their skill-set, nor was "getting themselves out there" a part of why they were creating. “Well, they should know how to do this” the board member said.


The older I get, the better I know myself - and all my flaws. I can be dry and humorous on occasion. I can be warm and thoughtful. I can also bring the awkward pretty hardcore. But I haven’t had a panic attack in more than five years, and I’m quite proud of that. I re-affirm my commitment to being the hardworking girl behind a spreadsheet and I’m far more comfortable with that role than I am schmoozing in a crowd, and I’m okay with that too.

Okay so - is there a point to this late night ramble? Telling these bits of my story is a rather long context.

I think if we want to be really successful as an art community - and I believe we’re getting a lot better at this already - we need to be more willing to accept everybody at their level. That includes cultivating a better understanding of anxiety and depression (among others,) and creating a variety of engagement opportunities for everybody active in this field, along with a willingness to accept those that for whatever reason may not engage in a traditional sense. There are more than 40 million Americans that suffer with an anxiety disorder annually and over 20 million suffer from some type of depressive illness. ( From my experience in the arts I would also hypothesize that a disproportionately higher number of artists suffer from these things, however I don’t have the statistics to back that theory up.

Statistics or no, here are a few small suggestions on how we can be a continually more understanding and welcoming creative village:

  • Artists, consider providing other opportunities beyond crawls and openings for friends and patrons to visit your studio. Regular open hours, drop-in windows, etc. Not everybody can handle a crawl and the truly shy might not call for an appointment.

  • Share your stories, your personal struggle or achievement, your awkward moment... There is safety in numbers.

  • Keep inviting your artist / caretaker / socially challenged friends, and try not to take it personally if they don’t make it out. It’s (usually) nothing personal.

  • Extend the welcome by including quiet spaces at your events for artist or guests. Places for conversation, thought, (nursing!)

  • Be kind and tend towards forgiveness rather than judgement. The adage “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about” is apt here.

  • Do what you need to do to be comfortable and don’t let anybody guilt you about your choice.

  • And last but not least, it’s cliche but important. Be yourself. Let your freak flag fly! People are often compelling and relatable because of their flaws, not in spite of them.

And now, I sleep.

Some resources of interest: