Scott Stossel’s new book on his lifelong struggle with severe anxiety is outstanding in the fullest sense of that word. “My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind” (Knopf, 400 pp., $27.95) is both conspicuous and superior within its genre. Stossel, who also wrote a fine biography of Sargent Shriver, brings his dogged fact-digging skills to this work, which is peppered with humor and humility, remarkably balanced — and generous to the point of philanthropy with his deeply personal, hard-won knowledge.
Plus, the man is a lovely writer.
If I sound surprised, I am. So many mainstream books on mental health insist on leading the reader into one revival meeting or another — where Big Pharma is a pill-pushing Satan or the best lifeguard on the beach; where the ubiquitous reference guide, “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM-5 came out in 2013), is a helpful tool or an insidious guide that unnecessarily labels thousands more people as mentally ill.
Stossel, in contrast, answers questions about the fitness of various diagnostics and treatments with the only truth: It depends.
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Let me back up a bit here. Stossel has essentially lived his 40-something years in a cocoon of barbed wire. He is terrified of countless things. For starters, he fears heights, small spaces, public speaking, flying, germs, even cheese, which as he wryly notes, is a phobia so obscure that it doesn’t have a name. The most crippling terror is emetophobia, the fear of vomiting, despite its very rare occurrence. “I have spent, by rough calculation, at least 60 percent of my waking life thinking about and worrying about something that I have spent 0 percent of the last three-plus decades doing,” he writes.
Since early childhood, when he became “a twitchy bundle of phobias, fears, and neuroses,” Stossel has tried countless medications, therapeutic approaches and hospitalizations. Some help a bit, most do not. He’s not alone; some 40 million Americans live in some version of this hell.
As editor of The Atlantic and a Harvard graduate, husband and parent, Stossel is, by anyone’s measure, successful. His TV interviews reveal a likable, seemingly together guy. Yet it takes handfuls of pills and belts of liquor for him to go on stage and form full, intelligent sentences.
And, yes, he is fully aware that self-medicating is a bad idea under any circumstances, more so when one does it for years, while dragging around a multigenerational history of mental illness and alcoholism.
This is the key to the book’s strength — it is utterly frank about Stossel’s nightmares, alongside illuminating history of how such conditions have been seen and treated over time, as experts du jour posited on nature, nurture, chemistry and troubled childhoods, and prescribed everything from deer urine (the Vikings used it) to Xanax.
(If there is a misstep, it is the decision to describe the early signs of anxiety problems in his young children. They deserve more privacy.)
Stossel’s examination of pharmaceutical developments is especially evenhanded and enlightening. Have various maladies been “marketed” to us by the pill-makers? Yes. Do the medications relieve suffering for some? Yes. Stossel is uniquely suited to make this nuanced case.
And so he does, capturing the monstrous, enslaving fears as well as the rare moments of freedom that keep him searching for a more lasting peace.
Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer living in Portland.