Review: My Age of Anxiety, by Scott Stossel

17737025>>Published: January 2014

>>Finally got around to it: March 2015

In short, I have since the age of about two been a twitchy bundle of phobias, fears, and neuroses. And I have, since the age of ten, when I was first taken to a mental hospital for evaluation and then referred to a psychiatrist for treatment, tried in various ways to overcome my anxiety.

Here’s what I’ve tried: individual psychotherapy (three decades of it), family therapy, group therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), rational emotive therapy (RET), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), hypnosis, meditation, role-playing, interoceptive exposure therapy, in vivo exposure therapy, supportive-expressive therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), self-help workbooks, massage therapy, prayer, acupuncture, yoga, Stoic philosophy, and audiotapes I ordered off a late-night TV infomercial.

And medication. Lots of medication. Thorazine. Imipramine. Desipramine. Chlorpheniramine. Nardil. BuSpar. Prozac. Zoloft. Paxil. Wellbutrin. Effexor. Celexa. Lexapro. Cymbalta. Luvox. Trazodone. Levoxyl. Propranolol. Tranxene. Serax. Centrax. St. John’s wort. Zolpidem. Valium. Librium. Ativan. Xanax. Klonopin.

Also: beer, wine, gin, bourbon, vodka, and scotch.

Here’s what’s worked: nothing.

***

A funny thing happened to me while reading Scott Stossel’s My Age of Anxiety: I started feeling panicked. Not all the time, but in spots, such as when the author offered up an especially humiliating anecdote involving himself, Martha’s Vineyard, and a plumbing situation extracted directly from the deepest, darkest corners of my nightmares.

As a socially anxious person who suffers a great deal from the tension resulting from incidents of second-hand embarrassment, many of Stossel’s stories had me squirming as I read them. At the same time, however, while reading I realized that as much as anxiety in various forms has impacted my life, what I’ve dealt with so far is child’s play compared to the ordeals faced by some. Which I suppose is one of the strength’s of Stossel’s book—it both illuminates and to some degree quantifies the many different experiences and forms of anxiety, and a life led beneath its umbrella.

My Age of Anxiety is part academic analysis, part historical text, and part memoir/tell-all regarding the many up and downs and idiosyncrasies of a life built up and around a multi-headed core of anxieties. Stossel holds nothing back—he disarms the reader with total honesty, diving into his and his family’s histories dealing with neuroses of all shades, with special attention given to his mother’s overprotective, often smothering nature.

From a very young age, Stossel was routinely assaulted by his anxieties (one of the most prominent being emetophobia—a pathological fear of vomit and throwing up). These anxieties and fears, and their impact on his life, are the through-line around which he discusses the very nature of anxiety and its historical development in the psychoanalytical community; the evolution of pharmacological care and treatment; and the philosophy surrounding anxiety and whether it is a result of nature, nurture, or some impossible to pin-down combination thereof. Indeed he states that anxiety “is a function of biology and philosophy, body and mind, instinct and reason, personality and culture,” with no single villain to target or wound to cauterize in order to quell the noise.

The academic aspects of the book are strong. Stossel goes into great depth with respect to the evolution of anxiety—from Freud’s belief that anxiety is a riddle, the solving of which would “throw a flood light on our whole mental existence,” to detractors claiming that anxiety is nothing more than shyness given gravitas, to its eventual inclusion in the DSM—and the cultures and industries that have developed around it. However, it’s the personal accounts that I was most interested in, specifically the well-tread-but-still-interesting details regarding famous creatives who’ve suffered with anxiety and thrived either as a result of or in spite of their condition. The supposed ties between anxiety and creative genius are nothing new, but Stossel grounds them in modern society, referencing the uptick in evidence of extreme anxiety (social or otherwise) in creative types as being related to the work of another author, Barry Schwartz, who discusses in his book The Paradox of Choice (an excellent read) how the possibilities now open to us, as individuals, create a certain amount of anxiety due to the difficulty inherent in deciding our fates for ourselves, and in the increased public image that is so often associated with creative success of any kind.

Overall I wouldn’t say I enjoyed reading My Age of Anxiety so much as I found it illuminating. Stossel’s bare-all approach is both the book’s greatest asset and its most obvious weakness. But I can only cite it as such through my personal experience with the book, which involved being unexpectedly affected by the honesty with which the author relays his history. On a purely informational level, it’s a fantastic read—thoroughly researched and well organized. Definitely recommended, but be warned: it might trigger more than you expect.

 

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