In 1986, twenty-two years before my autism diagnosis, I had a chance to meet one of my musical heroes, George Michael.
A close friend of mine, a record producer I shall refer to as Robert, had been working on some recording projects with George, and knowing I was a huge fan, invited me down to the studio where he and George were about to embark on an all-night recording session. Robert was also going to tell George about my songwriting ability, and, who knows, perhaps I could even get involved with their project.
I hadn't met George before, and the prospect of spending hours with him in the close confines of a recording studio thrilled and terrified me in equal measures. At around 10 pm that Friday evening, Robert called to say that George was on his way to the studio and that I should make my way over. Immediately, the panic set in. My stomach began to churn with anxiety, and the excuses began as to why I couldn't attend the session. Ridiculous excuses such as “I didn't have any nice clothes to wear and wouldn't want George to think I was scruffy”. And that “I would only want to meet George when I was as successful as him, so that we could meet as equals!”. What I really meant was that my lack of self-confidence could quite easily turn me into a tongue-tied, whimpering, panic-attack-mess within a minute of being introduced to the great man.
Social fear was not new to me. Anxiety in one form or another has been a disabling constant in my life for as long as I can remember. The prospect of hanging-out with George Michael was not, in essence, any different from those angst-filled mornings at the school gate when I was a child. No different from being too scared to enter a room full of people at family gatherings; always hiding behind my mother. And even though, by 1986, I had been a professional musician and songwriter for six years, had played countless large gigs, and had several singles released internationally on major record labels, I could not conquer my fear of people or the anxiety that comes from feeling that I am not good enough; that people will think I’m stupid, not worthy of their time. In fact, not worth anything at all.
Somehow, I had survived the music industry’s treacherous career ladder through sheer will-power, a love of music, and blind, youthful ambition. I had muddled my way awkwardly through meetings with important music industry figures, tough audiences, and intimidating band members by relying on my musical ability and saying as little as possible. But George Michael…. He represented an altogether different level of social anxiety. I’d like to say that I eventually overcame my fear and spent a wonderfully social and career-changing night in the studio with George Michael. But I didn't. Much to my lasting regret, I declined Robert's offer and stayed home feeling like an utterly pathetic fool for turning down such a great opportunity. I was deeply saddened to hear of George's death a few years ago. According to my friends who had known him for years, he was a thoroughly decent person, and of course, a supremely gifted artist.
I could quote endlessly about how “there is nothing to fear, but fear itself”, or how we should “feel the fear and do it anyway”, but empowering words alone cannot heal the cause of self-destructive emotion buried deep within our subconscious minds. Years of Cognitive Behavioural therapy and medication might work for some people, but not unfortunately for me. Because, for whatever I may have achieved in life: my career, my marriage, and as a father of beautiful daughters, I still feel that I am not good enough; that I am still not worthy of anyone’s time, that I am still not worth anything at all. Where these feelings come from, I may never discover. Somewhere, no doubt, in the foggy-grey between nature and nurture.
I gave up years ago seeking a cure for my social anxiety. Perhaps the best I can hope for now, in fact, the best that anyone can hope for, is to learn self-compassion. To accept that none of us are perfect. After all, we all have our demons, even the late, and very great George Michael. At least we still have his music.
Article by Steve Slavin.
Author of: Looking For Normal - How an autistic boy became a successful musician, husband and father.