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Stefanie Preissner: 'Each uploaded photo fooled my 800 closest friends that I was happy'

In her first book, Stefanie Preissner looks at growing up and the ways in which her life has changed.

Stefanie Preissner Screenwriter, playwright and actor

IN FEBRUARY 2014, I was on tour in Australia. I had written a show called Solpadeine Is My Boyfriend for the 2012 Dublin Fringe Festival. The show was about how one girl copes when her boyfriend emigrates to Australia and her primary relationship becomes one with the over-the-counter painkiller, Solpadeine.

The show got a great reception at Dublin Fringe and subsequently toured all over Ireland – it was also translated into Romanian for its European premiere in Bucharest, but the real coup was being invited to the World Theatre Festival in Brisbane. So many Irish people living in Australia at the time meant an increased demand for Irish arts out there.

The irony of benefiting from the loss of my friends and boyfriend was not lost on me. It’s the pinnacle of most performance artists’ careers to tour their work on other continents, and I was honoured to have been asked. If you looked at it from the outside, I had a hit one-woman show, I was in a different hemisphere, I was getting great to good reviews, I was in high demand and tanning beautifully. It was every theatre-maker’s dream.
Or at least it seemed that way, going on how I was reporting it on social media.

For a time, on this trip, the reality and the online version were the same. I was uploading as I went. People from home were texting me: “OMG it looks so fab, you’re having a ball,” “So jealous of your tan. Congrats on the reviews.”

But then something happened. I had a panic attack in the dressing room after a lunch-time performance. You know when you run or jog and then you stop and your chest is kind of burning, as if you’ve had a shot of straight whiskey, and you can’t catch your breath? It was like that, but I hadn’t been running.

It came out of nowhere. Sitting in front of the mirror, my knuckles turned white around the seat of my chair. I’m not sure exactly why it happened and it hasn’t happened since but, at the time, it was crippling. My chest felt like it was corrugated iron, all crumpled up in spasm, and I couldn’t get air into my lungs.

I don’t think I was any more stressed than I usually was, I hadn’t had any major problem or grief or trauma in the days or hours leading up to the event. I was missing home a little, concerned about the reviews and the reception of the show, I guess. One review had called me “a very large girl” and maybe I was more affected by that than my water-off-a-duck’s-back response had let on. But to this day, I do not blame any one thing for the panic attack. I’m still baffled about how it happened and often wonder if I’ll be somewhere one day and be caught off-guard again.

I was given the name of the doctor in the medical centre near the festival hub and was seen to within the hour. The kind doctor spoke to me about panic attacks and how various hormones swim around your body and how, sometimes, the levels get messed up and turn you into the kind of shaky, quivering mess I had presented to him. He said I needed to take it easy, be gentle with myself and get my supports around me to help me relax.

I spoke to my producers, and decided the best option was to go home. We thought it better to err on the side of caution because the doctor had said I had been lucky the panic attack hadn’t triggered an asthma attack and that I should really try to reduce my stress. On this recommendation, fearing a surprise asthma attack, we called it quits. I felt really awkward and embarrassed about it. I had trained for years to be an actor and now, on what was only my third professional show, at twenty-five, it looked like I wasn’t able for it. I felt pathetic.

Remember that game show The Crystal Maze where you get locked into the game when you fail and all your friends watch you for a minute and then leave you there on your own? That’s what I felt was going to happen. I had travelled with a stage manager who was supportive of my decision to go home. He planned to travel from Brisbane down the coast to visit some friends and family anyway, so he didn’t care. He offered to go with me to the airport but I declined.

I had been there two weeks at that stage and had done all the performances of the show I was committed to doing at the World Theatre Festival. I was booked to speak at some events and to meet other presenters who were interested in buying my show for their festivals, but those meetings never happened.

I made a decision the following day at Brisbane airport not to tell anyone that I was coming home. I ran to an airport shop and took photos of some postcards and saved them on my phone. I would later upload them to Facebook to make it look like I was visiting all of these Australian landmarks. Looking back on it now, it seems a pretty resourceful and clever thing to do, but it betrays how insecure I was about my online image.

I look at myself today and know beyond all reasonable doubt there is no way I would think twice about what other people think of my decision to leave a place where I wasn’t comfortable. That’s a change I can definitely cope with.

When I arrived in Singapore after the first leg of my flight, I uploaded the first lie. I tagged myself at Ayers Rock and uploaded the photo of Uluru that was on the postcard. Straight away I got a response: “That looks like magic. You’re so lucky. #jealous.” I calmed immediately. It was working.

By the time I got to my house in Dublin, I had virtually visited the Great Barrier Reef, Sydney Harbour Bridge and some island that I can’t guarantee isn’t New Zealand.

Each uploaded photo fooling my 800 closest friends that I was happy, joyous and free, navigating the Australian Outback like Bear Grylls, turning a gorgeous shade of leather and eating witchetty grubs for sustenance. The reality was that I was in bed, in Dublin, with no prospect of any visitors because for me to call for company and support would uncover the lie and ruin the illusion. Because my housemates happened to be on holidays at the time, I stayed like that for a week.

After a week, the jet lag had worn off and my original flight to Ireland was about to land. As the wheels touched down in Dublin airport, I pulled my duvet over my head and took two painkillers. How was I meant to deal with everyone asking me about all of the places I had visited, and all of the things I had seen?

Stefanie Preissner, Munich-born but Mallow-raised is the creator of hit comedy-drama series Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope. She has also produced a series of short documentaries, and her one-woman theatre show, Solpadeine Is My Boyfriend, enjoyed sell-out runs in Dublin before touring internationally to Bucharest, Edinburgh and Australia. Why Can’t Everything Just Stay the Same? is her first book and published by Hachette Books Ireland.

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About the author:

Stefanie Preissner  / Screenwriter, playwright and actor

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