My Age of Anxiety

I was flipping through the Observer magazine yesterday when I came across this article, by Harriet Green, which begins with black, bold lettering: “Welcome to the era of anxiety”. It goes on: “Generalised anxiety disorder is the world’s biggest mental health problem. But do we really have anything to worry about?”

On the facing page, the author holds up a sign that indicates she is worried about the credit crunch, global warming, drinking too much, her sex life, the price of her house, and, of course, being worried.

I waved the magazine excitedly at The Man (who has, if you’ll notice, graduated from being The Boy as his beard has reached an epic stage and he could no more be mistaken for a boy as I could).

“Look!” I cried, pointing. “Who does this remind you of?”

We had a good giggle.

But, as Green points out, “I accept many of my concerns seem unserious. And in public I make light of them, happily casting myself as a kind of female Woody Allen. But when I’m at home those ridiculous concerns can take over.”

Mine took over in spring of 9th grade, when I suddenly and seemingly spontaneously lost the ability to sleep peacefully, something that up until that point I had had no trouble doing at all. My body shook, my head spun, and I lived in a sort of bubble of terror.

To confound matters, I had just acquired my first boyfriend (which is not a term, at the age of 14, that necessarily means the same as it does later, and in this case it meant someone to make out with in the library stacks and hold hands with between classes, more a social rite of passage than a romantic affiliation) and I remember thinking, as I lay awake at night wondering if I was ill or just an insomniac: I have to get to sleep. I can’t be sick. If I don’t get to go to school tomorrow, I don’t get to see him.

To be in darkness was unbearable; I left the light on all night (almost a sin in our solar-powered house) and sometimes, when I thought I could hear the silence crawling into my ears and playing in my head, I put a CD into the boombox and listened to celtic guitar, or medieval chanting, at a volume just quiet enough to not float through the floor and into my parent’s bedroom. I was just old enough to recognize the shame in waking them for such a trivial matter, but just young enough, too, to wish that I could.

This was when I discovered that nights are twice as long as days, and a thousand times as lonely. By dawn I would drift into a state of half-sleep, and the singing of the alarm clock an hour later sounded like relief to my soul.

To comfort me, my father told me that when he was little and trying to get to sleep, he used to get the feeling that the corners of the room where forever receding; but by nighttime I felt alone again. I didn’t try to make a connection with my mother’s famous highway panic-attack, which crippled her driving confidence for years (only recently has she begun making the trek down to Orange County again on her own), or the stresses (mostly social) of my first year in high school.

Instead, I sought rescue in routine, and a host of obsessive-compulsive activities. I started sucking on “Moonlight Mints,” homeopathic, supposedly-sleep-inducing sweets my mother had picked up in an airport at some point, each evening, trying to convince myself that they were in some small way making me weary.

If the sleeplessness passed, the worry certainly never did. Five fretful years later, I found myself in a doctor’s office. I had passed from innocently anxious to severely obsessive-compulsive and back again. On the eve before I started a new job, I awoke with a jolt to all my old symptoms: the walls of my room seemed to be receding before my very eyes, I couldn’t be sure if I was nauseous or not, my heart beat fast. I went upstairs (I was staying the summer in my parents’ house) to the living room and flopped down on the couch. I fell asleep re-reading the same dull passage in Cosmopolitan about how to make your guy lust for you even more, but all summer long I battled with sleeplessness and shakiness, until one panicky evening, my father suggested that I might be suffering from an anxiety disorder.

“What?” I said.
“You know, panic attacks, that sort of thing,” he said. “Look it up.”
I went online. I couldn’t believe this had never occurred to me before. Every single one of my symptoms was named as an indication of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I felt instantly, physically better just knowing this.

I told the doctor that it wasn’t the worry, so much, but the physical symptoms, that I needed help with. I wanted some kind of reassurance that this was normal:

“I’m just amazed at how physical the manifestations are,” I told him. He was a physician’s assistant I had never seen before, our family doctor being on holiday, and he looked at me kindly.
“There’s no need to be embarrassed about it,” he said. “It happens to a lot of people.”
“Oh,” I said, trying to decide if this made me feel better or worse. I wanted to tell him about the way the room spun, the way my stomach churned and my heart raced how I shivered even in the heat of a California summer, but part of me worried (yes, worried) that he would tell me how unnatural this was. It had certainly not occurred to me, however, to be embarrassed about it.
“Sure,” he went on soothingly. “It even happened to me, when I was going through a really stressful time. You are talking about loose stool, aren’t you?”
I wanted to laugh with relief.
“No,” I said.
"Ah," he murmured. And I fancy that, despite his advice to me, he was slightly embarrassed now.

He gave me some pills, which I took home and promptly stashed away. I was genuinely afraid to take them. I read the possible side effects (always a mistake). I flipped through my copy of Overcoming Anxiety for Dummies so often that the pages started to look tired, trying to convince myself that what the doctor had prescribed me would help. Finally, egged on my parents, who I think were growing weary of having a 19-year-old worry-wort wandering the corridors at night, I swallowed the first pill. I awoke in a panic several hours later.

“Um, I think I’m having a bad reaction to the pills,” I told my parents, holding out my hand to show that it was trembling.
“I think,” my father suggested delicately (bless him), “that you might just be worrying about them.”

A few weeks later I wondered why I had made such a big deal of it.

But Harriet Green adds another perspective to her article, which I take to heart because, well, it’s really aimed at people my age: “we are entering a new age of anxiety. As the economic situation worsens, so fretting in the general population rises. In the past year, oil prices have risen by 50%, basic foods such as rice have soared by as much as 70% and house prices are plummeting at a faster rate than we’ve seen in a long time. Those in the know are starting to whisper that we’re heading for the mother of all recessions.” Or, as Merryn Somerset Webb, editor of MoneyWeek, so comfortingly puts it: “People are anxious, and they are right to be…People under 40 are not used to losing jobs or being made redundant.”

In other words: this is a hell of a time to be a newly-indoctrinated adult. Adulthood, I’ve recently learned, is hard enough (who knew that paying your own rent could be so painful?—let alone paying for, say, a second degree from, say, a foreign university?). But being told that in the current climate, we’re right to be anxious adds another layer to it entirely. A new age of anxiety? But I thought I’d already had my age(s) of anxiety.

So I’m starting to think that what remains to be done is follow the advice of Tom Hodgkinson (editor of The Idler, who, if you’ll remember, was partly responsible for the pig-roast in a London traffic island): “Anxiety will drive us back into our comfort blankets of credit-card shopping and bad food—the system deliberately produces anxiety while simultaneously promising to take it away,” Hodgkinson is quoted as saying in Green’s article; he “encourages us to take matters into our own hands and simply shed the burden.”

Yesterday, we went and pulled up all our potatoes and had a gorgeous Sunday roast, complete with chilled rosé and a peach-and-shortbread pudding. Of all the places I’ve lived (and, granted, there haven’t been so very many), England has perfected the art of the Sunday: shops close early still, and the most famous tradition (apart from churchgoing, which frankly I can take or leave) is centered around eating, and, in our young lives, good friends. I know I’ll always have a battle with anxiety—and maybe it’ll be a bigger battle because of the environmental and economic climate, I don’t know. But I do know it’ll be an easier battle with things like long, lazy sunday lunches to look forward to.

"Let us be lazy in everything, except in loving and drinking, except in being lazy."
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing