Thursday, March 13, 2014


I'm not afraid of flying, so I seem like a bit of dink when I see someone else who is nervous during a flight.  I'm one of those guys who sits in the airplane seat and immediately starts falling asleep.  (I admit, I would make a lousy pilot.)  In the unlikely event that the airplane ever hits a bit of turbulence, I just fall even deeper into sleep.  If you ever read about some horrible plane crash and find out that I was on it, chances are I was very, very asleep.  (Unless of course people start yelling and screaming, in which case I would be very, very annoyed.)  

In any event, I picked up a copy of a book about anxiety, panic disorders, phobias and other mental disorders and read it on my vacation.  Nothing says rest and relaxation like reading a chapter about pooping your pants, sweating and vomiting uncontrollably when public speaking!  The book is My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossel.  

Scott Stossel is first and foremost a journalist, and he's also the editor of the Atlantic magazine.  He is also a great writer.  The book is a strange (but effective) combination of a history of medicine, psychiatry and disorders, both real and imagined, throughout the last few hundred years.  This would otherwise be a clinical look at such things as panic attacks, separation anxiety and the fear of almost everything, except that there is a twist—Stossel confesses that he has been diagnosed, or has suffered from almost every type of anxiety that there is.  He is admittedly anxious, takes perscription medicine and alcohol in order to publicly speak, and has undergone therapy for over thirty years, with varying degrees of success.  And he also soiled a bathroom once during a weekend retreat and bumped into John F. Kennedy junior while wearing minimal clothing.  The book is weird, hilarious, and extremely interesting. 

What I really liked about the book is that the author knows logically that having phobias is kind of stupid, but he cannot control his body's reaction when his brain triggers the "flight or flight" response.  For example, we all logically know that it is not logical to be deathly afraid of cheese, or walking outside of the house, for example.  So why do people like Stossel get queasy stomachs, uncontrollable sweating, and occasionally throw up?  I'm not the bravest person on the planet, but I did jump out of an airplane, and I was no where near the level of anxiety that Stossel goes through on a daily basis.  Imagine going on vacation, and your entire time is spent locating and not venturing from the public bathrooms.  The personal stories from Stossel's life are fascinating, disturbing, and Stossel's self-depreciating sense of humour gives an otherwise sad and depressing look on life an ultimately uplifting sense that anyone, even he, can at least live with (if not overcome) these debilitating disorders.  If you are wondering why you are anxious, depressed, or have phobias, or if you are like me and want to gain a greater understanding of why some people behave really strange, I recommend this book.