The Anxiety Book. Elisa Black. A Review
*Published by Hachette 2016.
I purchased Elisa Black’s ‘The Anxiety Book’ as an airport treat for myself after calming a massive panic storm which was brewing. That calm after the storm or the almost storm is sometimes (but not quite) worth the storm. I did have a near death experience once, the euphoria after that didn’t match the post panic survival or cancer all clear ones I have had.
When reading ‘self-help’ (hate that term) books – I tend to come at them with a paradoxical mixture of massive hope and cynicism. Usually the opening chapters hint at this being ‘the one’ that it isn’t my fault I have gone so wrong in my desperate journey for the truth, for healing, for freedom …. that if I just trust and read on, then a magical and perfect cure will be waiting for me. This typical opening (oddly) strengthens simultaneously both the cynicism and the hope. For the very sick and fragile, sometimes hope is all one has, hence the tendency to look for it in dumb places.
It was refreshing (and nonsensically disappointing) that Black did not opening with any such platitudes, promises or sweeping statements. Instead she opened with a terrifying and captivating childhood story, an innocuous event of a child slipping in the mud. Told from the eyes of an anxious child, it was a terrifying story of ‘the drowning hole’.
I found myself hovering over and rereading descriptions of anxiety that capture my personal horror so very well:
“Anxiety is not a worry from time to time, a niggle over something forgotten or mislaid, or a personal slight regretted. It is a full-body, overwhelming, life-wrecking, mind-jacking anguish. Anxiety is too small a word.”
Black goes on to weave her personal story in with some of the latest ideas and research. The accent feels more on her personal story, but partly this is because it is so well weaved you forget how much you are learning. I am an avid (some might say obsessive compulsive) learner, so I was pleased to learn several things I did not know.
I learned of a fascinating link between disgust and anxiety and a little about the role of epigenetics in anxiety. I learned that we often forget an anxiety attack due to the state we are in at the time and that this is a double edged sword; helpful in getting on with life, not helpful in the way each attack is as bad as the last (or worse) as it all seems fresh and new.
Part way through I felt a criticism building in how she spoke to and about herself. How harsh and rough she was with her inner/former self. I wanted to call her out, to defend her ‘Hey Elisa don’t talk to Elisa like that she is my friend, she is smart and funny and I like her’. Then I realised …. well aren’t we all, us “sufferers”, more than a little bit horrible to ourselves? Was this not simply more honesty, albeit painful and confronting?
There was also some useful and again confronting information about the anxious parent, parenting the anxious child. A description of her 5 year old asking “Will I die Mummy?” as the night approached, tore through me as I recalled the terror of my own child at 5 that the roof might suddenly be lifted off in a tornado in the night.
At the end of this book do I feel I have ten steps to follow or road map out of my personal hell? Well no I don’t. Do I feel I have been offered false hopes? No. Do I feel I have sat down and talked with someone who gets me, someone who shows me that even my darkness can be appealing, and potentially useful? I surely do. I needed that company this weekend when I ended up in A and E due to a resting heart rate too high to measure for nearly 15 minutes.
Another thing I feel after my personal journey of the last few months is another chip away at the stigma. More realisations that mental illness is more similar to physical illness than the stigma would have you believe. I dream of a world where illness is illness and the mental/physical demarcation is considered old fashioned and out dated. Where mental illness gets the same respect, support, empathy, funding, research etc as physical illness. Where if I am having a bad day with my mental illness I don’t feel I have to pretend it was one of my physical ones. When then the empathy understanding flood on in. I feel Blacks book takes this dream in the right direction.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this book.
Meanwhile go kindly in the direction of your dreams.
Yours as ever,