Forth Wanderers' Ava Trilling on Touring with Panic Disorder

"Every time I would tell people about the tour I was told how great an opportunity it was. This was encouraging, but I couldn’t help but feel guilty—this great opportunity only brought me dread."

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Mar 11 2019, 5:49pm

Image courtesy of the author

Last May, my band, Forth Wanderers and I went on a four day album release run. During one of these shows, in the middle of our set, I had a full blown panic attack. I blanked on my lyrics, my heart was racing, and I started experiencing feelings of unreality, nausea, blurry vision, inability to focus, numbness in my arms and legs—the list goes on. It was a dissociative experience. My body went into complete fight or flight mode, and I chose flight. I ran off the stage.

I’m not sure there are many things more humiliating than standing front and center on stage, looking out at a crowd of expecting faces, and not being able to perform your own songs. I didn’t get back on stage that night because I was unable to cope with these sensations. I ran right out of the venue and into an alley outside, completely in shock. The rest of my band remained on stage, and had to quickly compensate for what just happened. Not to mention, a significant member of the Sub-Pop team had traveled all the way from Seattle to D.C to see us perform. This was terrifying, and made it extremely difficult to play the rest of our album release shows. Nonetheless I performed them, riddled with fear, because I had no other option.

When people ask, I tell them I hate touring. The truth is I don’t hate it, the last thing I want is to hate it, it’s just that it puts me in a constant state of worry. Being crammed in a car, driving seven hours a day, performing every night, and sleeping in strange places with new people is not the least bit appealing to someone who suffers from Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia (both of which I was later diagnosed with). There are tons of people who absolutely love touring, and don’t mind these aspects of it. I envy those people most of all.

In the past couple of months, my life has gone through quite a few changes. Over the course of these events, I debated whether or not to write some kind of public account of what my experience has been dealing with mental issues while in a DIY band. I hope that this piece will help others who are in similar situations, and struggle with mental health issues feel a little less alone.

Stemming from an early-age flight trauma, my anxiety mostly revolved around traveling, transportation, and sickness. I started going to therapy at a young age and began to understand what I was feeling and why (to a certain degree). As a freshman in high school, I joined four boys in creating our band, Forth Wanderers. This was my first experience writing, singing, and playing music with other people. Before then, I would express myself by writing songs and playing guitar on my own, recording myself with a small mic my dad owned. Joining the band was a challenge: these boys were already best friends, older than me, and had been playing music together for years. However, we worked well together and were able to create songs and connect with each other musically. The satisfaction of finally completing a song with a group of people, each adding our own quirky bits, was thrilling.

We were gaining confidence as a band and decided it was time for us to start performing. I had crippling stage fright from our very first show, and for about a year afterwards I would make up excuses to avoid performing. This was frustrating for the rest of my band. As expected, they were excited and welcomed any chance to perform. My hesitation and seeming non-commitment was the source of many arguments and the initial notion that I was a separate component of the band. I don’t know whether I just grew up, or just did it enough, but eventually I became better at performing, to the point where the only anxiety I experienced was a few butterflies beforehand.

We recorded and released our first full length album, Tough Love, and went on our first tour. I was 17. Having no money to rent a van, the band decided to travel in the bassist’s, Noah’s car. I was scared shitless to tour, and at the last minute ended up traveling with my father in a separate car for support. Most of the time, we had no idea where we would be staying, and I would have to ask if anyone in the crowd had a place for us to crash. The boys resorted to staying on the floor of friend’s/stranger’s houses (a normalcy of DIY touring). I would pay out of pocket for a hotel room, or AirBnb. Because I did this, I was criticized for being “bougie” or spoiled. Though I understand that part of a band’s touring dynamic is to stay together through the struggles and difficulties of touring, being 17-years-old and the only woman on the road, sometimes in the middle of nowhere and in my anxious state of mind, I wanted some privacy and a bed to sleep in. Sue me.

Touring alone was very difficult. In a way it was ironic. I was isolating myself from the rest of my band by sleeping in separate accommodations and traveling alone. I thought that by doing this I would have more control and therefore relief from my anxiety. I was free to feel anxious without my band noticing, I could stop the car without inconveniencing anyone, I could sleep comfortably. By avoiding these uncomfortable situations that happen naturally on tour, I prevented myself from ever experiencing that particular bond one might hope to experience while on a DIY tour.

Over the next couple of years we hired a manager, an agent, a lawyer, and looked at different labels. With all of this new professional support came new pressures. We recorded our self-titled album, and releasing it under Sub Pop was extremely exciting. These songs meant the world to me. In no other album had I expressed myself so vulnerably, and I wanted our listeners to feel that, hopefully relate to, or at least respect it. I think I can speak for my band when I say we were all eager to release this album, we felt it would be a turning point in our success.

There had been talk about going on a cross-country summer tour for a long time. This would be our first major tour. It was scheduled by our manager and agent together, and supported by Sub-Pop. It snuck up on me quickly. I had pushed it to the back of my mind, and often soothed myself by pretending it was something I didn’t have to worry about yet. At the age of 20, it was clear that bringing my mom or dad was less than ideal. I asked some friends if they would like to join me, but most of them had job obligations, or other things going on. My band was supportive of me, however they are not my therapists, and I didn’t expect them to know how to deal with me and my issues.

Every time I would tell people about the tour I was told how great an opportunity it was. This was encouraging, but I couldn’t help but feel guilty—this great opportunity only brought me dread. My manager told me that for this tour, we would all have to travel in a van together, as well as stay together, for financial reasons. I tried figuring out ways to get around it, to have some sort of control, but there was no alternative. We had been a band for five years, and it was expected of us, from our label, our fans, and ourselves. Feeling an immense amount of pressure, I agreed to it. I felt that if I didn’t say yes, I would regret it. I was just postponing the inevitable, right? Most of the time, touring is non-negotiable for a band to become successful and gain recognition. And the rest of my band, who aren’t burdened with the same issues I am, shouldn’t have to give this up because of me. I said yes.

At this point in my life (this all happened a few months ago), I am 21, living in Brooklyn, NY with my best friend and attending college. During the school year and the time when all of this cross-country scheduling was taking place, I had been going to talk-therapy once a week for general anxiety, and had recently increased my dosage of medication, which wasn’t really helping. I was limiting myself to hanging around my familiar area of Brooklyn, having constant panic attacks on subways, Ubers, unfamiliar places, restaurants with friends; always feeling trapped, even in wide open spaces, or places I could simply leave. I became known as the Irish-exiter. Never saying goodbye to anyone, leaving suddenly without warning—I did this at times where I felt it would be socially unacceptable to just get up and leave. The less attention I had on me the better. I resorted to lying; making up excuses to get out of simple situations. Work, school, even just hanging out with friends/family I’d usually feel comfortable around. My anxiety was worsening, my old obsessive-compulsive habits were returning and more intense than ever. I mostly made up for all of this by drinking. I was more inclined to show up if I knew there would be alcohol. I wasn’t really conscious of this. At my age everyone goes out, everyone drinks. I just didn’t realize how much I was actually drinking, and how often, and why.

As the tour approached, I started experiencing the worst panic attacks I’ve ever had, multiple times a day. I didn’t know what was happening. I felt like I was going insane. I’d feel one coming on—or worse, it would happen out of the blue—and I’d bury my head between my knees, cursing whomever or whatever that wired me this way. It felt (and still feels to this day) like I woke up and suddenly my life had changed for the worse. Like these problems couldn’t possibly be mine, I was burdened with someone else’s troubles. Yes, I’d always dealt with anxiety, but this was something different, something much bigger and much more frightening. Before this, my anxiety felt more general. I had anxiety attacks every so often, but it was something I felt was under “control” and easy to manipulate. Suddenly, it became an everyday struggle, and one that was debilitating. My psychiatrist suggested a treatment center in Midtown that specializes in panic and OCD. My family and I decided it was best if for the next month I took part in their intensive cognitive behavioral/exposure therapy program to prepare for the tour. I was immediately diagnosed with Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia, and OCD. I went in three times a week; for the first time in my life I was facing my disorders head-on instead of avoiding them. It soon became evident to me I would not be in the right mental state to go on a cross-country tour. I struggled with this dilemma every day. Should I call it off? Or should I just get over it? I learned quickly that there was no “just getting over it.” A few days before the tour, I called it off, explaining the situation as best as I could. It was not only one of the hardest decisions of my life, but it resulted in a lack of relief, satisfaction, and identity. From this, I learned that you can’t expect everyone to sympathize, understand, or care what you’re going through. Everyone has their own shit they’re battling. The truth was, I had let down a lot of people: my band, everyone who worked hard to schedule this tour, and our fans.

I am writing this not for sympathy, or as an apology, but to openly talk about dealing with these disorders as a young musician/artist trying to advance themselves within the industry. I feel that if I had read about others’ similar experiences within these years, it would have at least given me some comfort, and allowed me to feel less isolated. Learning to cope with these disorders can be a tremendously long process, and I am still in the throes of it, but I couldn’t be more grateful for how supportive my family, friends, and fans have been. I fully expect to continue writing music and pursuing it as a career; I may never enjoy touring, but I do not aim to let these disorders get the best of me.

Ava Trilling is the lead singer of Forth Wanderers. She lives in Brooklyn and focuses primarily on writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram.

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