I want to focus the rest of my January posts on the power that learning of other people’s memories have on us. Over my next posts, I will highlight some of my favorite memoirs, and the vivid memories that really stuck with me long after I finished the book. This time around, I want to talk about the essay featured in the current issue of The Atlantic titled, Surviving Anxiety. It is written by the magazine’s editor, Scott Stossel. It is an excerpt from his upcoming book, which is now on my reading list.
Scott suffers from severe anxiety and several different phobias. I don’t share his extreme level of anxiety, but I do share some of his phobias, like public speaking and vomiting (of which there is a related phobia that I also share, that being vomiting while flying.) He also suffers from digestive issues, which I can certainly sympathize with, as I have experienced numerous digestive issues mainly tied to my gluten intolerance. He writes a compelling and moving account of how these conditions have impacted his life, both negatively and positively. He talks about the pros and cons of the many treatment options he has endured. He bravely shares humiliating episodes where his anxiety or digestive problems rear their ugly heads.
Scott shares a particularly embarrassing bathroom episode that occurred at the Kennedy compound. (The author was writing a book about one of the Kennedy family members and was spending some time there along with a mix of celebrities and dignitaries.) Scott feels his bowels betray him at the worst moment, when he is not near a public restroom. He runs back to the mansion, trying to avoid other guests and secret service members. He makes it to the restroom but then the worst case scenario happens: the toilet backs up and overflows. He is covered in sewage. Talk about bad timing: just across the hallway from the bathroom, guests are gathering for cocktail hour. Scott cleans up as best he can, then has to wrap a dirty towel around his waist (his pants were ruined) and sprint to his second-floor suite. He makes it, but not before encountering JFK Jr. That experience could make anyone with anxiety want to crawl under a rock and never come out.
He also writes about how he went to therapy for his vomiting phobia and his therapist wanted to use exposure therapy to “cure” him. Meaning, she wanted him to take ipecac and deliberately make himself throw up. After at first refusing and putting it off for several sessions, he finally agrees to do it. But after taking the dose, he doesn’t actually throw up, he just retches. It was an agonizing experience that only strengthened his vomiting phobia. (Ironically, after cheering on her client during the exposure therapy, the therapist herself had to go home because she got sick from watching him try to vomit!)
These memories are written in excruciating detail, with every anxious thought and feeling captured. They struck a chord with me and rolled around in my mind for the rest of the day. My takeaways: you never know what is really going on in someone’s head. (Obviously, as editor of a well-known magazine, Scott has been able to manage his anxiety to a certain extent and still be a successful person.) Also, all of these anxious thoughts and feelings and phobias sound crazy if you haven’t experienced them, but from the response the article has received, there are plenty of anxious people out there who completely understand. I am one of them.
What memories from other people have had a meaningful impact on your life?