I’m Really Big

Ruth Garbus on performance and staying "balanced on the beam of healthy self."

I had a wild experience with an intuitive cranio-sacral energy healer a few years ago that involved the sensation that I was blowing up like a balloon. It started in my hands and spread all over my body and I said “I feel really big!” and laughed a lot, and she encouraged me to say that over and over again and I did until I was sobbing. And afterwards I felt like I had taken magic mushrooms and I sang out into some trees on a hiking path. I was whole, suddenly. Expanded and spacious. In and part of the world.

In July, I did three performances that felt like I had leveled up as a musician. They were the best performances I’ve ever done. I felt free. Raw, loose power and freakishness were finally there with me on stage.

The first performance was at a small DIY community space, the second was at a bigger venue, the third was a big memorial concert with lots of bands.

At the memorial, a fire hose of energy pressed me down and made my voice tremble as it came through, from the heady mix of what I’d call adrenaline and what I’d call excitement and what I’d call an infinite chasm opening up to G-d. This is what it feels like to have great power moving through me and maybe you, too, and if I was a better singer I’d be able to master the art even better, a tiny, tiny being on a quantumly huge whale, riding and riding gracefully without a saddle, just a little rein.

And then I hopped off the stage, excited. Compliments came, some gushing with tears. And I was enamored with myself, disgustingly. It was a memorial for chrissakes.

This is the thing about performing for me: one side of the coin is angels speaking through me, and the other side is grotesque, humiliating, egoic trash. It’s hard to feel OK about it. Like, is this really good for my soul? I can feel sick from it… like, soul-sick. It has made me doubt whether music is a healthy endeavor for me. Success of any sort can feel like a drug that I should quit. 

When I described all this to my therapist, I did an impression of myself in this character — the one inside who eagerly seeks out attention and reactions. My impression was characterized by an over-the-top, flouncy pink tutu type of attitude, flipping my hair and casting showboaty eyes about the room to see who’s watching. My therapist responded by saying, “Oh! That sounds like a little girl.” And I realized she was right. I feel like I’m six when I’m in this character.

“What’s happening at that age?”

She said that around age five or six kids start to understand that they have an impact on the world. She said that what’s supposed to happen at that stage of ego development is that the kid starts to understand that if they do something, it has an effect. So, whether it’s “good” or “bad,” they learn that they did it themselves and that there was a consequence — a reaction. They learn that they are real and that they take up space.

This was thrilling and fascinating to hear because I was suddenly able to make sense of a bunch of different experiences I’ve noticed myself having. Like, in addition to the embarrassing ego thoughts, I have this issue (it’s getting better but still here) where I struggle to perceive that I am affecting other people. It’s hard to describe, but it’s kind of like on some level I don’t know I exist. Like maybe I didn’t get some certain type of attention when I was around that age, and it sort of left a hole in my self/ego that still needs some filling. 

When she explained the developmental stuff, I felt like I could understand the thoughts and feelings that I have judged so harshly in a new way. Maybe my experience of soul sickness can be transformed into soul healing. Maybe I can be less critical and afraid, and more motherly and affirming. When I get compliments and positive feedback, and I have these feels that feel uncouth and grossly self-satisfied, instead of “Arrogant! Vain! Self-obsessed! STOP IT!,” I can think of it differently. Like that little girl inside is being taken care of and thus I am healing. 

I don’t think all performers deal with this. But for those of us who do, I say that to be recognized by an audience, to impact people with my expression, is part of my soul’s healing journey. I don’t think it’s bad for me anymore, necessarily. It’s still a challenge to stay balanced on the beam of healthy self (that’s part of the work of being an artist for me), but this idea — that my ridiculously arrogant thoughts and feelings might actually just be coming from a very little girl in tiny pink plastic high heels and a toy handbag — has been a source of great comfort and ease. 

I’m really big. And so are you. 

You can catch Ruth live this Sunday, September 10, at the Orindal Records showcase at 2220 Arts + Archives in Los Angeles.

Ruth Garbus (she or they pronouns, b. 1981) is a musician living in Brattleboro, VT. Primarily a songwriter and vocalist, Ruth has released numerous solo albums, EP’s, and singles. She is also a member of the groups Earth Flower and Gloyd. Their latest record, Alive People, is out now.