The greater central Florida area, along with its myriad of local bookshops and literary events, offers an outlet for those times when a reader wants to step beyond the little voice in their head. Aural literature is a live experience that is oftentimes performative, utilizing other forms of media to present the work in a way intended for more than just solitary reading. (aural)ando is a series of interviews with local literary organizers and active zine curators who work to showcase this growing niche of aural and performative literature; along with works from performers past and present. Welcome to Anxiety: Population 20 Million is an art performance literary series and zine founded and hosted by Amanda Vocks that aims to break the stigma of mental illness through art while also exploring what it means to be human.

An Excerpt from Welcome to Anxiety
“Table” by Sad Lady Cowboy

“Untitled.” Keanna Stokes.

Text summary of the interview

Welcome to Anxiety: Population 20 Million is an art performance series started by Amanda Vocks, with its inaugural event dating back to April of 2014. One of the first of its kind, Welcome to Anxiety allows for both literary and visual art components, many performers showcasing their voices primarily through a canvas with dialogue simply as an extension of the piece but not as the work itself. In this edition of the (aural)ando series, the submissions you will find are just that, art pieces (visual and musical). Although an art performance series, Welcome to Anxiety is also a zine that is both available in print as well as online at welcometoanxiety.com; here readers can find poems and other literary pieces from the series.

It’s not novel that “something” would start from a personal place or an eccentric experience rather than nothing, even more so for an art and literary based reading series. However, Welcome to Anxiety also stems from much more than just a desire to create amongst like-minded artists or share ideas. Vocks shares, “I have had anxiety for as long as I can remember. My mother found out she had cancer when she was pregnant with me. It has been said to me that I have been exposed to anxiety since I was in the womb.” She continues with that when she was fourteen, her mother passed away and she never met her father, so losing her mom was a pivotal moment in her life; “it created a lot of anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and general unstableness.” Panic and depression were also unsought emanations from having to grow up on her own, she ‘froze’ at fourteen, unable to mature and switching into a protective survival mood that sustained her for years to follow.

November of 2013 she read for the first time at Literaocalypse, a piece about OCD and her experience with it. The piece simultaneously acknowledged her mother’s passing with the day prior being the 13th anniversary of her death; “…it was pretty significant to me that the day I read was after this huge hallmark.” It was after this monumental reading that Vocks says she pushed forward into having new experiences and living life, as well as beginning a deep journey of self-care. “When I was twenty-seven years old I realized it was time to stop being frozen. I realized it was time to become Amanda.” This was the growth that led to writing about experiences, all of this led to Welcome to Anxiety.

“Untitled.” Jessi Hoskins.

The following April the words, “I’m going to perform this”, became very real. Vocks had of course been writing about all she encountered within herself since her first reading however, this was different. It was more. It was the performance of a piece that, “went from birth all the way up until that current moment” in her life showcasing the start and road of OCD, even including her experiences with OCD from the day of the performance. This was the first Welcome to Anxiety. The art performance series was initially a way for Vocks to heal and to see where she was emotionally, it then became that after each event she’d find herself reflecting on the stages of getting over grief, where did she land?

Although young, the effect that Welcome to Anxiety has had in the last three years thanks to Vocks is insurmountable, helping many more people than expected (especially since originally it was solely to aid in her healing processes). Welcome to Anxiety is about more than just sharing works that mean something to you but about allowing that dive deeper into the trenches of trauma within a safe space without the rules of academia, allowing agency for everyone to take part in a collective healing and act(s) of self-care however they may see fit. Many participants are performers, yes, but the number of active listeners is also great. Sitting and hearing others speak on their experiences can be the restorative healing that any individual needs, it is a symbiotic relationship. Unfortunately, those people in our lives whether close friends or dear family, just may not understand what we’re going through or how their language and pseudo-empathic advice can be ableist. In this space you don’t have to rationalize your pain, mental illness, trauma, etc. “Seeing first time performers get on the stage, hearing the honesty about their struggles, seeing their bravery gave power to Welcome to Anxiety.” Vocks remarks that one of the biggest moments for her was when a performer drove from St. Augustine to come to the event having seen it on their Facebook feed: “I was honored by that, to realize that people were starting to feel comfortable sharing at my events and opening up. I’ve even received emails after…maybe I have actually been a benefit to the community…to think I’ve helped even one person express their things the way I’ve been able to…” That is the goal now.

Vocks remembers her late mother as an avid helper, and plans to continually honor her life by doing the same and helping her community. “What else can I do? I want to help people.” For those who are not familiar, a program known as ‘Teach-In’ allows for volunteers to come into grade schools and give presentations to a class regarding their professions or something new. Vocks took part in one of these last November and spoke about Welcome to Anxiety in an adolescent friendly manner. One of the 7th graders spoke on his brother’s bipolar disorder when Vocks prompted them with a question asking how familiar they were with different forms of anxiety or anything relating to anxiety. That student drew a picture expressing the feelings his brother experienced when he lashes out at home as a result of trying to process his emotions. Galvanized by this experience as one of the few, Vocks hopes to start a Welcome to Anxiety summer program for children to write about their anxieties and struggles, or targeting high schoolers who are on their way into college. I’m certain that whatever the future of Welcome to Anxiety may be, it will be even greater than it’s beautiful healing past.

Welcome to Anxiety has always been about more than just art and literature. At its core it’s about channeling creativity and establishing moments of self-care and reflection. Its space is intangible healing masked in community and love that needs no explaining or must be questioned. The strangers in the room are as familiar as friends, you are welcome, you are valid, and you are safe. Your mental illness, trauma, and experiences are not stigmatized, are not exploited into victim blaming. Here, it’s okay to be one of 20 million. Have a seat, welcome to anxiety.