Scampering through Cape Cod, searching for an outhouse, looking out for Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Secret Service…
So I’m staying at the Kennedy Compound because I’m writing a biography on Sargent Shriver, the guy who started the Peace Corps. Bill Clinton is there, sailing with Ted Kennedy. Arnold is there. I’m out walking around town when suddenly the anxiety hits. Anxiety leads to a certain gastric distress so I’m rushing back to the house, sweating, looking out for celebrities and the secret service, wondering if I can make it back. I get there—and the toilet breaks. Sewage rises around me, ruining my pants. I mop it up with towels just as the dinner bell rings for some sort of fabulous Kennedy soiree. I sneak out and race up the stairs, half-naked, wrapped in a towel and run straight into JFK Jr. “Oh hi, Scott,” he says. He was totally unfazed. We had met the day before.
That’s a terrifying story. Funny though.
I owe the Kennedys a bath mat. They found out after the book.
Do interviews make you anxious?
Yeah. Live is worse, TV or radio, because it’s going straight out there. I tell stories in the book about running off stage, using prescription pills and alcohol to cope. Eventually, I learned to medicate appropriately.
An entire section of the book is titled “DRUGS.” What does “medicate appropriately” mean?
There are anti-pharmaceutical camps that say, at best, drugs mask symptoms and, at worst, create dependency. No drugs, suffer through. Sort of a Pharma Calvinism. On the other side, there are the Doctor Feelgoods. If a pill helps, take it. Pills for everything. I’m somewhere in between. I’ve taken meds for over 30 years now, so obviously I’m not against the use of drugs. The critics are right to raise questions but, truth is, drugs can be a life saver at times.
How do you avoid addiction?
That’s a good question. Luck? There’s no history of addiction in my family. I have a fear of vomiting so it also makes me fear over-drinking or being out of control. I’ve never used marijuana or heroin. Just prescription drugs. It’s still a risk and I still worry. I’ve probably been functionally dependent at times.
But not addicted.
So far, knock on wood. When my first book came out I had to do a tour. I would take a little bit of Xanax or Inderal—which is a beta-blocker—but it wouldn’t be enough. So I’d add a little alcohol—and it worked! People said I did great. I was proud of my ability to self-medicate. I don’t recommend mixing alcohol and prescription medications, but it was effective.
I worked late nights in psychiatric crisis and got to a point where I couldn’t turn off my brain to sleep. One of our ER docs finally pulled me to the side, wrote me a script for Ambien and said, “Half, dissolved under the tongue, chased by a bit of wine.”
Did it work?
Oh yeah. And I had tried everything else.
It’s awful when your thoughts are racing and you can’t sleep. Insomnia feeds anxiety, which causes more insomnia. It’s such a vicious cycle.
But you’re right, you have to be careful that one pill doesn’t become two and a few pulls of wine doesn’t turn into half the bottle. Sounds like anxiety helps you avoid addiction to anxiety meds.
That’s right. I fear losing control. So yes, being anxious about addiction keeps me balanced with meds.
You talk about turning anxiety into a positive. How so?
Fear produces the fight or flight response. If we’re being chased by tigers, this is actually very helpful, pushing blood to the limbs, acceleration of the heart. But when it misfires you have a panic attack and stew in your own misery. In general, though, being an anxious person steers you away from risky behavior. Anxious people tend to be more conscientious, more creative. So we can steer that creativity toward better ends. Anxious people also respond better to social cues.
What’s the public response been so far?
Three categories. I’ve heard a lot of thanks from the anxious community, people saying I put into words the way they feel. Much more response than I expected. People feel helped, I believe. Then there are people who have a loved one or friend who suffers with anxiety and they say the book has helped them to understand. The third category are zealots who bombard me with messages about how they were once anxious like me but then found some foot bath or vitamin or secret treatment that healed them completely and now they’re happy and perfectly calm.
The book is sort of self-help. But not in the obvious bait and switch marketing sort of way.
When I first met with my publisher about the book, we talked about creating a nice dramatic arc where I get cured at the end—wouldn’t that be great? But it wouldn’t be true. Sometimes you rise above and other times it drives you to your knees. You learn to cope.
Quick hit before we go. Give me a straight-shot help for an anxious next door neighbor or brother-in-law in need.
Go to the resources first. ADAA is a good place to start, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Just read the material there, see what you think. They can help you find a therapist in your area. Quality sleep and exercise really do help. Appropriate use of medications can be a lifesaver. In the moment, just let the anxiety wash over you. Breathe deep, from the stomach. It will pass.
SCOTT STOSSEL is the editor of The Atlantic and author of Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver. His essays and articles have appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe and many other publications. He lives with his family in Washington, DC. He is the author of My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind.