Dread on Arrival

My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind BY Scott Stossel. Knopf. Hardcover, 416 pages. $27.

The cover of My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind

I always used to feel sorry for myself, having suffered four debilitating episodes of clinical depression and many years of moderate-to-severe dysthymia. No longer. In fact, I feel rather fortunate not to be Scott Stossel, editor of The Atlantic, whose lifetime of psychic agony—suffering is too weak a word—is chronicled in excruciating, enthralling detail in My Age of Anxiety.

The torments of Job were nothing compared with Stossel’s. Two-year-old Scott would throw “epic tantrums” in which he “lay on the floor, screaming and writhing and smashing my head on the ground, sometimes for hours at a time.” A few anguished years later, his afflictions began assuming their permanent shape. Constant emetophobia (fear of vomiting) set in, along with an almost equally frequent and tormenting fear of losing control of his bowels. Neither of these terrors has ever left him in peace, except briefly.

Nor has acute separation anxiety. In first grade, when his mother started taking night classes, he fled all babysitters. For several years after that, he paced his bedroom agitatedly every night, convinced that his parents had abandoned him, until his father came home from work around six thirty.

The dreary litany of fear expanded throughout his childhood—disastrous first days at swimming lessons, baseball or soccer practice, and sleepaway camp, all culminating in inconsolable outbursts of tears, driven by the panic that he was being abandoned. In most cases, he never returned. The onset of actual separation from his parents—going off to enroll for his freshman year in college—went no better. As Stossel recounts, he spent the short trip “sobbing in the backseat, consumed by anxiety and anticipatory homesickness, worried that my parents would not love me after I went away to college—‘away,’ in this case, being a mere three miles from my parents’ house.”

His social phobia was also intense and unrelenting. In high school and college tennis and squash matches, he would be seized by fear of the crowd’s attention (and also of vomiting), so he would deliberately lose and flee the court. Nearly every meeting, public appearance, and social occasion brought on a panic attack. His fear of flying nearly cost him a mate:

On my first airplane trip with Susanna, who was later to become my wife, my anxiety got so bad soon after takeoff that I began shaking and gasping frantically, and then, as Susanna looked on in bewilderment, my stomach cramped and I lost control of my bowels. I had planned the trip—three days in London—as a romantic vacation, an attempt to woo and impress her. This was not a good start. Nor was the rest of the trip much better: those parts of the vacation that I did not spend sedated into near catatonia by massive quantities of Xanax I spent quaking in mortal dread of the return flight.

As that passage suggests, Stossel manages to describe the most painful and embarrassing experiences in a style that is candid but not melodramatic, heartrending but not self-pitying, wry but not cute. The book is not quite, like Kate Millett’s The Loony-Bin Trip or William Styron’s Darkness Visible, a work of art. But it is an extraordinary literary performance nonetheless.

It is also—I hope I don’t sound like a publicist—extremely useful. The history of nearly every psychic disorder Stossel has ever experienced, every drug he’s ever taken, every form of therapy he’s ever tried—and he’s experienced them all, taken them all, tried them all, this side of psychosis—is canvassed. Every theory, from Hippocrates to Freud to psychogenetics, is given a respectful hearing. Dozens of great men and women reveal their secret sufferings, some of them—like Darwin, Samuel Johnson, Freud himself—at considerable length. Stossel’s own family is not spared.

One thing does, perhaps, get off too easily: capitalism. Early in the book, Stossel alludes to “the getting and striving of modern capitalist society,” but he quickly attributes this struggle’s causes to the simple “consequence of being alive” and “the caprice and violence of nature and each other,” as though drastic inequality and radical economic insecurity were merely the human condition. Late in the book, buried in a footnote, a few sentences speculate that “life in a capitalist economy produces anxiety and uneasiness [and] can be psychologically corrosive. . . . Perhaps the human organism is not equipped to live life as society”—“society,” really?—“has lately designed it—a harsh zero-sum competition where the only gains to be had are at the expense of someone else, where ‘neurotic competition’ has displaced solidarity and cooperation.” That’s it. He devotes more space to the etymology of panic (the slightly crazy god Pan) and the physiology of blushing.

This is a failure of moral imagination. During two of those depressive episodes, I had to take a lot of time off from my day job. Without the paid disability leave negotiated by my union, I would have wound up financially, and perhaps literally, underwater. It may be decades before we find the “anxiety gene.” But we could make a serious dent in the prevalence of anxiety tomorrow (or the next day) by raising the minimum wage, enforcing existing labor law, and aggressively pursuing full-employment policies. As Keith Payne, a psychology professor, wrote recently: “The professional class may be stressed in their way. But the powerless are stressed in the way that kills.”

Still, only a dysthymic leftist would fault Stossel too harshly. In an age inundated by memoirs and psychic self-help books, My Age of Anxiety is the rare memoir that tells an entirely compelling story and the rare self-help book that really helps. You, and many thousands of readers along with you, will laugh until you cry.

George Scialabba is a contributing editor of The Baffler and the author of For the Republic (Pressed Wafer, 2013).