I've always loved public speaking. In middle school I ran for Student Council president and gave a big speech in front of all the 7th and 8th graders. I ended up losing to one of my best friends, but I loved giving that speech to a packed out gymnasium.
In high school my mom drove me to speech competitions in Montgomery, Alabama.
"You're still talking too fast. You need to slow down," she'd tell me at lunch after a competition. 20 years later and I still remember her advice. When I speak today, I handwrite the word "SLOW!" in the margins of my notes to remind me about pacing. I still think I talk too fast.
During college I gave mostly speeches in fraternity meetings. We'd have 70 guys packed into the living room of our tiny chapter house on a Sunday night, and I'd go off about a service project or making better grades or recruitment. Those were off-the-cuff speeches but were still a lot of fun.
In college, I actually got my first B in my speech 101 class with Mrs. Darnell. I think that was because me and Chris from London sat on the front row and talked a lot during class. Plus, I think college professors like fraternity bros about like stoic cats like yappy dogs. I still resent that B.
In the first few years of my career, most of my speaking was in sales meetings. We'd be sitting in a conference room in an elementary school in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, or some place like that, and I'd pitch the school's PTA board on why they should choose our fundraiser. I didn't like the "chase" of the sales process, but I loved the thrill of putting on a tie and presenting in a sales meeting.
After I moved into our corporate office, I spoke at some of our big company gatherings about how to represent our brand or give better customer service. Those talks were always my favorite.
Public speaking is something that can be polished and improved. Like anything else, it's a skill. So you can imagine how I felt when it just quit working.
In 2012, my friend Jennifer asked me to be a guest on her TV show. She was the host of a 30 minute show that aired weekly on the local Christian TV station here in Atlanta. A religious channel on DirecTV had picked it up, so it had a small national audience as well.
She described the show as being similar to The View with a Christian bent. Each show, she'd facilitate a conversation around a pre-selected topic with four guests, and she asked if I wanted to be one of those panelists for a few episodes.
Much of Christian media is saccharine, cliche muck, but the format of Jennifer's show sounded unique and fresh. It was unscripted, filmed in one take (with two commercial breaks), and wasn't super-preachy. It was really just Christian people having a conversation with cameras going. The show was also mostly unedited. That meant that whatever the panelists said made it to air. If you said something dumb, tough luck.
It was an unpaid gig, but that didn't matter to me. I love random opportunities that feel bigger than me, so I told Jennifer I was in.
The first taping was in early 2012. Like lots of studio-produced shows, they filmed multiple episodes in one day. They told us to bring several shirts for different episodes.
I drove across town to a TV studio off Interstate 85 that was surrounded by furniture stores. After checking in with the receptionist, I went to a back room to meet with Jennifer, the host, and the other panelists.
There was a young pastor, a PR consultant, and a firefighter/worship leader. Everyone was really friendly as we reviewed the topics for the day. Jennifer did a good job curating interesting topics for her show. Some of the show topics included marriage, singleness, fear, social media, immigration, influence, secrets, decision-making, and more. I was a little nervous, but I knew Jennifer stuck with mostly non-controversial topics, so I wasn't worried about having to answer any awkward questions.
After a bit, we made our way into the studio which was exactly as I'd pictured it—very dark, all-black, control room illuminated with a million monitors and switchboards, and enormous cameras on wheeled contraptions. Here's a picture of us in the studio...
I think we recorded four episodes that day and everything went great.
The other guests had been on the show before so they were very comfortable. I was a little nervous about the format, because there was no set speaking order amongst the panelists. Jennifer would ask a question and then it was a free-for-all. But I jumped in and made a few points, so I felt like I held my own. Here's a clip from one of the episodes of me awkwardly talking about singleness and being in lots of weddings...
About a month later, Jennifer invited me back to film four more episodes. I was a return-guest this time around so my confidence was up.
We began filming the first episode, and I didn't feel like myself. The other panelists were jabbering on and making really good points when Jennifer swiveled her chair towards me and asked a question. I looked her in the eye, took a breath, and...
Nothing. No words.
It was like my brain was a TV and someone had pulled the plug. Total black.
I stared at her awkwardly, blinking and unable to say anything. I'd been in hundreds or thousands of speaking situations in my life. This was a first.
My chest tightened as a sense of panic set in. My embarrassment burned through my body hotter than the 2000-watt studio lights hanging overheard. I could feel the lenses of the cameras glaring at me like sinister power tools preparing to drill into my naked soul.
I became aware of what was happening, and my brain began frantically searching for an answer to her question. I was like a man racing down a mile-long row of locked filing cabinet drawers, pulling on each of them, desperately grasping for one that would open.
My several seconds of awful silence felt like a decade. Finally—mercifully—one of the other panelists made a joke to vanquish the awkwardness, and the camera quickly cut to him. Everyone nervously laughed it off, and we moved on to the next question. I didn't say a word the rest of the episode, scared to death and confused as hell at what had just happened. I just sat in my chair and smiled like the village idiot.
We wrapped up the episode and I went back to the dressing room to change shirts. I'd sweated big black armpit stains through the one I was wearing. As I changed shirts, I thought...
What the hell was that, Brett?!? What. Was. That.
I didn't have much time to think about it because we were filming again in a few minutes. I put on a fresh shirt and took my spot back on the stage.
About ten minutes into the filming I began to make a point when it happened again.
My brain went to black. Again.
Same awkward silence. Same tight chest. Same sense of panic. Same confusion at what was happening.
We filmed the remaining two episodes, and I was a virtual zombie, scared to death to speak for fear that the monster would return. I was so embarrassed.
After we wrapped filming, I pulled Jennifer aside and apologized profusely. She was incredibly gracious and said it wasn't a big deal. But I knew that it was.
I asked her if they'd be able to edit my flubs out of the final broadcast, and she told me they couldn't. I was mortified.
On my drive home, my mind raced, trying to come up with an explanation of what had happened. I had nothing. I'd never watched my mental engine quit, careen off a cliff, and burst into flames in the canyon below. So awful. So helpless.
This bizarre mental episode would repeat itself about half a dozen times over the next year.
It happened again while filming the TV show a few months later.
I happened a few times at work though I got better at brushing it off and hiding it.
It happened again while speaking about leadership to 100 high school students. That time was so bad that I had to leave the podium and walk out of the room in the middle of the talk because I was literally frozen—stuttering, stammering and completely unable to formulate a sentence. I had a friend with me who came up and finished out my session for me, impromptu.
I mentioned what was happening to a few friends, and they sorta laughed it off. They'd tell me of some "brain freeze" they'd experienced in the past, of some moment they had "lost their train of thought."
But it didn't feel like that to me.
This wasn't just a silly moment of not being able to recall a fact. This was a disturbing psychological event. Something inside me was violently sabotaging my brain at the worst times.
In the span of a few months, two decades of speaking confidence was washed away. Every time I got up to speak—at work, in meetings, at events—I feared the fanged yeti in my brain would return to terrorize me. I had no idea if or when it would strike. Every time I spoke, I rehearsed what I would do if it happened, trying my best to minimize the awfulness of it.
I remembered going to the emergency room the year before and the doctor mentioning stress as a potential cause for my problems then.
Could this be the same thing? Is this anxiety, too?
I Googled around and discovered that yes, stress can cause your "mind to go blank." I talked to a doctor and got a prescription for something that was supposed to help, but it put clouds in my mind and made me feel groggy when I spoke. I used it once but never again. I felt like I was out of options...
Brett, you're barely 30 and you're cracking up. Pull it together, man.
I decided it was time to go back into counseling. Through a recommendation, I found a new therapist in Atlanta. Like the ones before, he was a Christian counselor.
We met at his office way up in Gwinnett County for a few sessions.
Same drill: tell story, cry, commiserate, repeat.
He was a nice guy and had some good thoughts about navigating life as a single, celibate, same-sex attracted man. He also told me a bit about how stress and anxiety can affect the brain. We developed a pretty good rapport and over time our conversation began to focus on the gay thing. He offered some nice thoughts on how to live a happy life while avoiding temptation.
Eventually we began meeting weekly over Skype instead of in-person.
During a session—probably my 8th or 9th with him—the conversation began dragging along. I don't think either of us was into it. Then there was a long silence which left us both staring at each other through our computer screens, awkwardly shifting in our seats, unsure of who would speak next. I broke the silence,
"Well," he replied, "We're both driving this ship you know."
And it was in that moment I realized this therapist sucked. I mean, I was the one paying $125/hour. I was the patient. I was coming to him for answers, for crying out loud. And here he was telling me we were co-piloting this "ship" of a therapy relationship. More like a shipwreck, bro...
I ended the call and never spoke with him again.
As I thought more about it, I began to feel like I'd come to the end of his wisdom. He had nothing else for me. He'd given me all his thoughts on same-sex attraction and long-term singleness and was struggling on where to go from there. It was the first time a therapist had gone silent on me, and it brought a new little layer of despair...
Brett, he ran out of answers.
No more advice.
No profound wisdom.
No silver bullets.
You're on your own from here, bud.
This was my third counselor in the last 7 years, and none of them had helped all that much.
I was lonely, stressed, and felt like I was slowly losing my mind. What was I supposed to do next? Where did I go from here?
Of course, on the surface, everything still looked fine. I was a successful business executive with a busy social life and a constant smile.
But I wasn't fine.
I'd been in this despondent place before, and it always drove me back to God.
I'd pray and cry and throw myself again at His feet.
I'd ask for strength to get through it.
I'd beg for enough grace to keep my eyes focused on Christ and off all the crap swirling around me.
But it was around this time when I began to get mad at God. It felt like the more I tried to do the right thing, the darker it got. And that didn't feel like Jesus to me.
God and I weren't like we used to be, and I knew we needed to have a talk... 👊
B.B.P.S. - You're coming down the home stretch of BBP! Thanks for sticking with me this far!
All photos by Sterling Graves. Copyright Blue Babies Pink & Sterling Graves.
B.T. Harman is the creator of Blue Babies Pink, a Southern Coming Out Story in 44 Episodes.
B.T. is a consultant, writer, and speaker living in Atlanta's historic Cabbagetown neighborhood. He was previously a vice president for Booster, an Atlanta fundraising company, where he helped the organization raise $150 million for elementary schools.
B.T. is passionate about storytelling, leadership, good design, Seth Godin, SEC football, Chick-fil-A, Taylor Swift, archaeology, European Travel and CS Lewis.
To learn more about B.T., visit his personal site at btharman.com.