The Anxiety Book

One of my most memorable panic attacks struck on my first day alone in Paris. I was staying in the back two rooms of an apartment kindly lent by a family friend, in an otherwise deserted house, and a seemingly deserted suburb (everyone in Paris had departed for summer holidays). It was hot, I couldn't speak French, I was tired and under-nourished and scared. I ended up sitting on the bathroom floor (I couldn't open the shutters in the only other room), eating tinned peas with my fingers and drinking orange juice.

Sometimes I tell this story on school visits, and I do my best to make it amusing. I threw up peas through my nose! And the moral of the story is, no matter what a crappy experience you're enduring, you can always use it in your writing. But at the time, it wasn't funny at all. I was terrified.

I didn't tough it out. The next day, I fled back on the ferry to England and the safety of my aunt's house. Instead of tramping the youth hostel circuit, I went camping in Wales with my cousins, and waited to do the backpacking thing until a friend arrived from Australia to keep me company, and hold the anxiety at bay.

Looking back, I see that I've suffered from anxiety all my life. All the signs were there, I just didn't put them together until recently. I vomited before every exam and elocution performance. I felt sick before every major decision. Under stress, I always threw up or sometimes fainted: twice in hospital rooms where my loved ones were under threat. When I realised that the sick feeling, the formless dread, was there in the pit of my stomach every single day, I started medication. I took up yoga, and knitting, and piano. Things are better now.

Anxiety and depression run through both sides of our family. Four out of five members of my household are currently taking some kind of medication to suppress it (and it's probably just a matter of time for the fifth). So reading Elisa Black's memoir of her own struggles with "phobias, flashbacks and freak-outs" covered some very familiar ground. Black's book switches between her own personal journey and a chatty, accessible account of the latest treatment options and stories of others' experiences. In the end, the message is one of hope and encouragement. Black's demons haven't entirely disappeared, but she has them pretty well under control these days. With help, therapy, medication, meditation, exercise -- whatever works for you -- you and I can get better, too.


  1. I remember laughing hearing your peas story when you told it to my class but also feeling that recognition dread - I have just been writing about my o/s experiences-failures-freakouts .. if I knew then what I know now ...

  2. The wisdom of hindsight! I can't believe some the things I forced myself through, back when I didn't know better.
    Looking forward to reading your war stories one day!

    1. Oh, anxiety, my old friend. What a relief to find out that it's a real thing, with a name and all! and I wasn't just a hopeless pathetic wimp who needed to toughen up and pull up those socks. The genetic component, too, is so very real. It's good that we are talking about it now. A psychologist friend says there's an epidemic of anxiety among the young - more common than depression, but often leads to depression. (And isn't knitting the best?)

  3. I know! And such a relief, oddly, to discover that so many other people suffer in the same way. We need to look after each other.
    I am loving learning to knit. My next challenge is to make a pair of socks. Wish me luck!