A stand-up comic who suffers from social anxiety… It’s a counter-intuitive statement that almost sounds like the start of a joke. Only, that for 22-year-old Aakash Mehta, it’s a reality that he faces each time he encounters a social situation, which as a stand-up comic who performs at least twice a week, is quite often.
The Grant Road resident says, “I am absolutely confident as long as I am on stage. I have performed in front of more than 750 people and felt no sense of nervousness. The illusion breaks the moment I step down the podium, however.” The nerves begin to bundle up when a happy audience greets him off stage. “I become tongue-tied, avoid eye contact and get awkward.”
He first felt the stab of social anxiety on his first day of junior college. “When I stepped into class there were almost 100 people there. I would feel threatened all the time, thinking everybody in the room hated me,” he says. His defence mechanism was to turn brash, arrogant and rude. “I acquired a notorious reputation. The fact that I behaved like a douche made me unapproachable, and I ended up with a very limited friend circle. However, the ones I was close to understood my problem and didn’t drag me for a party.”
In the everyday, Mehta says he doesn’t step out of home unless “it’s with a sense of purpose”. “I avoid parties. If I do attend one, I need at least two people who I’m close to, to be around me to serve as anchor.”
Finding comic relief
Four years ago, a friend he terms as a “pretty girl” suggested he take up comedy as a career while complimenting him on his sense of humour. Egged on, he participated in an open mic competition at Kaleidoscope, the annual festival at Sophia College. Making people laugh, he realised gave him a high, even though it would put him in the very situation he was trying to avoid — facing strangers. “This is the odd bit. Technically,” Mehta says, his voice [the interview is being conducted over the phone as he is in Baroda this week] revealing a shrug, “I shouldn’t be comfortable on stage, but for some reason when I am holding a mike, it is the most relaxing feeling.”
A law student, (he is in the final year) Mehta realises that his passions directly challenge his social anxiety. “I have deliberately put myself in situations where I can fight this feeling. It has given me confidence,” he says.
City psychiatrist Dr Kersi Chavda says Mehta is one of the rare few who turn a weakness into a psychological defence to cope with fear.
“Social anxiety, or social phobia, is a morbid fear of moving out of a comfortable environment or being uncomfortable in the company of strangers. Symptoms normally include a racing heart, excessive sweating, dry throat and mouth, trembling, and in worse cases, panic attacks and palpitations,” he explains.
Using a phobia as a defence mechanism to cope with fear is not easy. “For instance, if I’m scared of heights, I’ll scale a mountain to prove myself. Of course, you need to love doing it. Which is the case with Mehta, where he loves comedy but it also serves as a coping mechanism. It’s not easy. Hats off to him,” says Dr Chavda.
Mehta addresses the issue on stage but limits it to two jokes a session, for fear of experiencing the anxiousness at that very moment. “When it comes to using personal material on stage, there is a thin line between being funny and being sad. I tried talking about my personal feelings post break ups, and I ended up being sad on stage.”
And when the audience doesn’t laugh, or he finds himself amidst strangers, “I get all sweaty, my hands tremble, the voice gets unstable. It’s just horrible.”
Reaching out for help Mehta reached out for help, when anxiety merged with the pressures of board exams, and ‘he began to contemplate suicide’.
Initially, he didn’t tell his parents and didn’t want to see the doc. “I believed that if I visited a doctor and told them what was going on in my mind, I would be labelled weak. However, when I started feeling suicidal, I realised I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I needed therapy.” A three-month course of mood-stabilisers helped him relax. “But then comedy happened, which became the most life-saving medicine.”
Five months ago, Mehta returned to therapy, seeking a more permanent solution for the anxiety, which he still encounters. “I visit the doctor twice a month now. I have been practising breathing techniques. I meditate daily and now, I am on a bare minimum dosage of anti-anxiety medication,” he says.
He realises that social anxiety is not something to be ashamed of. “There’s nothing wrong with me as a person. You wouldn’t be apologetic if you were born with a faulty kidney; this is similar.”