Monday, January 13, 2014

My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel

You may have heard about this new book. It received tremendous pre-publication publicity and thoughtful reviews in major publications. Scott Stossel is the editor of The Atlantic magazine so he’s well connected in journalism and publishing, and Stossel is a terrific journalist so yes; his new book is extremely well written.

What knocks us back most though in reading “My Age of Anxiety” is that Stossel’s story is extraordinary—it’s a memoir of his horrific anxiety disorder and his attempts to cure, manage and often mismanage it. But, here’s the big thing: his story is also very, very ordinary—anxiety disorders are now the number one mental illness, and also at the top of the list of physical complaints that Americans bring to medical doctors.

What you might have heard about Stossel is how bad his anxiety is. He has multiple crippling phobias—heights, spaces, flying, public speaking and strangest—a fear of vomiting, both the act itself and the additional fear of fearing it will happen. Yes, that’s the craziness of phobia and anxiety.

Most of us don’t have those kinds of over the top nameable anxieties. But as people in recovery it would be rare to not have anxiety at all. After all—many of us drank or drugged or ate to not feel something that scared us. Anxiety was both a cause and a trigger, and, you’ve heard this, “Take the rum out of the fruitcake and you still have a fruitcake.” When we stop using we still have fears and phobias and worries that we have had to find new ways to manage.

So I’m strongly recommending Stossel’s book as  great cultural commentary, a wonderful piece of new nonfiction, and as an example of a kind of sideways addiction memoir—you’ll see the lengths to which Stossel goes to chemically manage his fear.

But the greatest strength of this new book is the way that Stossel brings us a global perspective—history, science, memoir, psychology and raises the big question of why anxiety and why now in our modern, advanced culture. He questions the basis of anxiety and invites us to both forgive and help ourselves –and those we love—who live with this terrible, daily disorder.

Here are Stossel’s words from “My Age of Anxiety”: 

“Is pathological anxiety a medical illness, as Hippocrates and Aristotle and many modern psychopharmacologists would have it? Or is it a philosophical problem, as Plato and Spinoza and the cognitive-behavioral therapists would have it? Is it a psychological problem, a product of childhood trauma and sexual inhibition, as Freud and his acolytes once had it? Or is it a spiritual condition, as Soren Kierkegaard and his existentialist descendants claimed? Or, finally, is it—as W.H. Auden and David Riesman and Erich Fromm and Albert Camus and scores of modern commentators have declared—a cultural condition, a function of the times we live in and the structure of our society?”

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