Stephen Colbert
Phil McCarten/Invision for the Television Academy/AP
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August 30, 2018 11:29 AM

The term “stage fright” didn’t apply to Stephen Colbert when he was just starting his career in comedy. The Late Show host had crippling anxiety — except when he was performing onstage.

Colbert, 54, spoke candidly in Rolling Stone about the anxiety and nervous breakdowns he experienced soon after he and his wife, Evelyn McGee-Colbert, wed and had their first child in 1995.

“I had a bit of a nervous breakdown after I got married — kind of panic attacks. My wife would go off to work and she’d come home — because I worked at night — and I’d be walking around the couch. And she’s like, ‘How was your day?’ And I’d say, ‘You’re looking at it.’ Just tight circles around the couch,” Colbert said.

The comedian said that he was medicated for his anxiety, but didn’t feel that it was effective.

“I was actually medicated. I mean, in the most common, prosaic way. Xanax was just lovely. Y’know, for a while. And then I realized that the gears were still smoking. I just couldn’t hear them anymore. But I could feel them, I could feel the gearbox heating up and smoke pouring out of me, but I was no longer walking around a couch,” he said.

At the time, Colbert was 29 and doing a show at Second City comedy club in Chicago that he had created with his best friend, who had since moved to New York. Colbert said he felt a “weird panic” at the time that he wouldn’t come up with anything good enough ever again.

“I would go to the show, and I would curl up in a ball on the couch backstage and I would wait to hear my cue lines. Then I would uncurl and go onstage and I’d feel fine. Which occurred to me at the time: Like, ‘Oh, you feel fine when you’re out here.’ And then as soon as I got offstage, I’d just crumble into a ball again. Nobody ever asked me what was wrong!” he said, laughing. “It went on for months.”

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Soon after, Colbert realized that performing was what made him calm and happy, and to focus on doing that.

“I stopped the Xanax after, like, nine days. I went, ‘This isn’t helping.’ So I just suffered through it. I’d sometimes hold the bottle, to go like, “I could stop this feeling if I wanted, but I’m not going to. Because I know if I stop the feeling, somehow I’m not working through it, like I have got to go through the tunnel with the spiders in it.’ And then one morning I woke up and my skin wasn’t on fire, and it took me a while to figure out what it was.”

“I wake up the next morning, I’m perfectly fine, to the point where my body’s still humming. I’m a bell that’s been rung so hard that I can still feel myself vibrating. But the actual sound was gone [because] I was starting rehearsal that day to create a new show,” he continued. “And then I went, ‘Oh, my God, I can never stop performing.’ Creating something is what helped me from just spinning apart like an unweighted flywheel. And I haven’t stopped since. Even when I was a writer I always had to be in front of a camera a little bit. I have to perform.”

Colbert said that comedy saved his life.

“I’m so grateful. Comedy was my savior as a child. And still [is],” he said. “Last night, I went home and murdered a pint of ice cream and I watched three episodes of Veep. Season Two. It was fantastic.”

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