In My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind, Scott Stossel—editor of the Atlantic and author of a 2004 biography of Sargent Shriver—describes his quest to understand his severe anxiety disorder. How severe? Among other things, Stossel fears enclosed spaces, heights, fainting, germs, flying, vomiting, vomiting on planes, and … cheese. Here’s a conversation with him.
How well would Scott Stossel in person line up with the Scott Stossel in this book?
I think, most of the time, probably not terribly well. People who suffer from anxiety are very good at hiding it. That can often be a contributor to the anxiety because the gap between the internal perception and the external impression can feel so large. I’ve had the experience now of many colleagues, having read extracts of the book, coming in here with their eyes wide saying, “Wow. I had no idea.”
Alcohol and prescription drugs ease your anxiety. Have you struggled with addiction? Or do you have a fear of becoming an addict that protects you?
The short answer is yes to both. One thing that has probably served as a prophylactic against full-blown alcoholism, and probably always will, is that I’m terrified of getting so inebriated that I get sick. If I were indifferent to the consequences of overconsumption, I’d probably be much more susceptible. It may well be that my anxiety is kind of a saving grace there.
Having written the book, do you now find anxiety as a concept more or less scary?
Less scary, but not for the reason you might think. One of the most consoling things about working on the book was discovering how widespread the phenomenon is. Not only are there millions of people going through these things right now, but as I read back through thousands of years of literature on this stuff, this is something that recurs again and again throughout the human condition.
You say your current therapist is the best. What makes a good therapist?
All the textbooks talk about avoidance as a classic hallmark of anxiety disorder. So you need a therapist who is sympathetic and understanding but will also push you to do precisely the things that scare you.
You had a terrible experience with a clogged toilet at the Kennedys’, which you managed to hide during your visit. Will this be news to them?
Most of them, yes. I did tell Maria Shriver in an e-mail sometime in the last year. I apologize for any cleaning or plumbing bills they incurred.
It’s one of the most cinematic, mortifying moments in the book. When you left the bathroom, you say you “nearly ran headlong into John F. Kennedy Jr.” But you held it together.
One of my colleagues, having read that passage, forwarded me a tweet. It said, “There’s no fear like the fear produced when you have clogged the toilet in someone else’s house.”
John Wilwol can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @johnwilwol. This article appears in the January 2014 issue of Washingtonian.