While flying back home from the holidays, I found myself in the airport bookstore. As I previously wrote, I sometimes have anxiety when I travel and I can’t always predict when it’ll hit. My anxiety had been in the forefront of my mind, especially since it’d been acting up a bit while visiting my family back in California. But then I saw it in the bookstore: The Atlantic, Jan/Feb issue with the big, bold, title “Surviving Anxiety.” You may as well have cracked open the heavens and cued some damn angels to start singing, it felt like divine intervention.
But here’s the thing, the article hit too close to home. Not only does he write about living with anxiety, but he writes about living with the exact phobia I used to struggle with (and still sometimes do). The fear of vomiting. Emetophobia.
I wish I could say that my anxiety is a recent development, or that it is limited to public speaking. It’s not. . . . I’ve abandoned dates; walked out of exams; and had breakdowns during job interviews, plane flights, train trips, and car rides, and simply walking down the street. On ordinary days, doing ordinary things—reading a book, lying in bed, talking on the phone, sitting in a meeting, playing tennis—I have thousands of times been stricken by a pervasive sense of existential dread and been beset by nausea, vertigo, shaking, and a panoply of other physical symptoms. In these instances, I have sometimes been convinced that death, or something somehow worse, was imminent.
I thought it would make me feel known. Make me feel calm and understood and less isolated. But what Scott Stossel does so well in his article is create a visceral account of what it’s like to live with anxiety. It’s real. It’s familiar in the way you open the refrigerator and you know something’s gone bad because there’s that familiar smell, familiar. Familiar like Stossel burst into my apartment at night. Threw on the light. Pointed at me and said “I know you.” It made me sick to read it because it felt like I was back in all those dark dark moments that I’ve tried so hard to come away from. And for this I feel bad I wasn’t able to finish the article.
This is the sign of great writing. To make me feel so affected. To use real honesty. To be frank and open and to put your palms up to a reader and say hey, look, I now what I’m doing isn’t necessarily healthy but let me be honest with you anyway. But I couldn’t finish reading the article. And for that I feel I need to apologize to Scott Stossel. He has done an incredible thing.
He has done what I know I need to do: he’s worked to understand. He has researched his demon to the point of writing an entire book. A book that not only has been a project to help him with his anxiety, but to help thousands of readers. This, too, is similar in what I want to do with my writing. For this I want to support Stossel by reading his article.
Yet I couldn’t finish his article. My emetophobia was like living on a carousel with all the lights off and the music turned so loud I couldn’t hear myself think and every thought and every action I took was controlled by my fear of possibly feeling like maybe I might throw up. Over and over again. Trapped.
I have purchased his book. And I hope to read it someday as a way to understand myself a little more. And as a way to — from a distance — do a slow clap for Mr. Stossel.
Read his Atlantic article here.
Purchase his book “My Age of Anxiety” here.