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Battling Anxiety. mitch hedberg: a tragic story

I remember auditioning for an extempore competition back in the seventh grade. I did so well that my teachers were ready to give me the first prize right then and there. My audition was apparently so above and beyond the others that my selection for the competition was confirmed on the spot. And then the big day dawned. My name was called and I went up on stage. I looked at the vast audience and my heart started pounding hard against my chest. I saw familiar faces in the crowd, cheering me on. My wandering eyes met the eager eyes of my teachers and the weight of their high expectations set in. I was not built for this. A million thoughts were running through my head and yet none of them made sense. The host announced the topic that I had to speak on. My preoccupied brain failed to even register it. Just looking at all these people, staring at me, expecting me to do well, judging me, I wished a massive hole would open up on stage and swallow me in. But I was not so fortunate. I froze up completely, painfully aware of each passing second of silence. I tried to string some words together in hopes that I would accidentally say a coherent sentence. But my knees started buckling and a wave of nausea hit me. I stammered an apology for my incompetence and made my way down the stage, head hung in shame. The crowd offered me some pity applause and I had never felt more embarrassed.

This incident was obviously horrible for me, but honestly, I hadn’t expected it to go any other way. Ever since I was a child, I have excelled in academics and classroom activities. But when it came to going on stage and performing in a crowd of more than 30 individuals, I would freeze up without fail. An overwhelming sense of vulnerability and the feeling of being exposed in front of so many people would seize me. No matter how hard I tried to fight back, I would always succumb to this acute wave of crippling anxiety. The incident that I mentioned before was like a final attempt to deal with my stage fright and yet again I had let myself down.

At this point, I had accepted that I was simply not built for the stage. However, this anxiety would still show up whenever I had to interact with a large group of people. I knew there was something seriously wrong with me when I would literally read books way beyond my grade level for fun and still get extremely nervous whenever the teacher would call on me to read.

One random day in 2017, I stumbled upon a random stand-up comedy clip on YouTube. It was titled "Best of Mitch Hedberg." This was the first time I witnessed the work of a person who would go on to greatly impact my life. Mitch captured my attention immediately. His jokes were undoubtedly funny, but what intrigued me the most was his stage presence and appearance. I was generally used to comics being the epitome of confidence and self-assurance, effortlessly able to articulate their thoughts in a witty manner, no less. But Mitch was different. He was stammering through his jokes and stumbling on his words. He was awkward when the jokes did not land, constantly apologising to the audience as if they hadn’t been laughing at his jokes for the past hour. Even the way he looked on stage, with long hair and sunglasses, was unorthodox and unique.

This led me down the rabbit hole of his content for the next few days. There was something about Mitch that made him extremely relatable to me. He did not ooze charisma and confidence like other comics; he would not walk up to the mic acting like he owned the stage; and he was never able to give a quick comeback to hecklers. On the contrary, he looked like he was afraid of being judged and vulnerable. You could tell by the way he would speak sometimes that he was really uncomfortable in certain situations. But you know the best part about all this? Mitch Hedberg was still considered a top-class comedian, his jokes were still funny, and people still bought tickets for his shows. This meant so much to me at the time, seeing someone who functioned like me but was still highly successful on and off the stage. It was a sliver of hope that maybe I wasn’t actually doomed forever and I could overcome my stage fright one day.

Mitch Hedberg was an American stand-up comedian who released multiple specials and performed at several shows throughout his career.

But this is not intended to be a biography of Mitch Hedberg. I just want to highlight and appreciate the troubled mind of a genius who fought with his inner demons every single day, never letting his fears define him.

Hedberg suffered from crippling anxiety and stage fright but still pursued a career in stand-up comedy despite this. Even though he was successful in his career, Hedberg has always been a tragic figure for me. It is very evident that he was struggling in life, battling and coping with his anxiety. Hedburg would often resort to self deprecating humour when he felt that the audience did not find a particular joke funny. He would lash out at himself on stage, cursing his incompetence. You could see that every time he stepped on stage, he was in a constant struggle with himself. He would give up on jokes prematurely, thinking they might bomb, without even trying. He wore literal rose-tinted glasses on stage so that he did not have to see the audience. Before he started wearing these glasses, he would perform with his eyes closed, joking that the audience is always laughing at the back of his eyelids. His body would often be rigid on stage, and his hands would tremble uncontrollably. Mitch clearly lacked any semblance of self-assurance or confidence, constantly criticising himself.

Mitch Hedberg tragically passed away from a drug overdose in 2005 at just 37. He had struggled with drug abuse throughout his life, using them to deal with his chronic depression and anxiety. He passed away just one year before the advent of YouTube. Who knows what could have happened if he had the opportunity to record his comedy without an audience and put it out for the world to see. Even after his passing, Mitch continues to be an inspiration for millions like me who struggle with some sort of anxiety. His passion and love for making people laugh always triumphed over his anxiety. His persistence and determination to go back on stage night after night, in spite of the constant mental suffering that came with it, gave me hope for the future.

Mitch Hedberg was not a technically good comedian. He was not able to express himself properly and his diction was poor. He was awkward on stage and not really spontaneous. But Mitch Hedberg was a funny man with a burning passion for his craft. And sometimes, that is all that matters :)

- Sayantan Som


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