One man’s battle with extreme anxiety

Published Jun 29, 2014


Washington - “I can do it, but I hate it,” says Scott Stossel, sitting on a sofa in the living room of his comfortable Washington home with his wife, Susanna, and their two children, Maren and Nathaniel, playing nearby. “I sort of have to hold my nose.”

Stossel is talking about reheating pizza for a child's dinner.

It's an effort that doesn't rank high on most parents' list of remarkable accomplishments, but for Stossel, performing this mundane microwave task borders on heroic.

It's not so much a pizza aversion that vexes him as it is a cheese aversion. And it's not so much an aversion as it is a full-blown phobia. Cheese makes Stossel extremely anxious.

As does flying.

As does public speaking.

As does vomiting, though he hasn't done that since he was seven.

Stossel has lived the bulk of his 44 years in a swirl of existential dread, jittery unease and unpredictable panic attacks.

Yet he seems so calm.

Indeed, Stossel is so calm and witty and high-achieving that, outside of his family, almost no one who knew him was aware of his battles with anxiety and his lifelong struggle to contain what can be a crippling illness, one that affects 40 million Americans, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

That changed six months ago when Stossel blew his cover as a closeted anxiety-sufferer and published “My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind,” a remarkable work that filters the social, philosophical and medical history of anxiety through Stossel's personal experiences, which are alternately sad, cringe-inducing and, in Stossel's wry telling, funny. An excerpt was published in the January/February issue of the Atlantic, where Stossel is the editor.

The question for Stossel in the months since he outed himself was whether public acknowledgment of his suffering would change him. Would sharing his sense of shame about anxiety make him impervious to shame? Would it be the tonic that cured what nothing else could?

As a child he experienced excruciating separation anxiety, his pacing wearing a path in the carpet until his parents returned home. As a grown-up, he has walked off stages in the middle of presentations, swimming in vertigo. His wedding 14 years ago was a sweat-drenched affair in which he was reduced to trying to not throw up and to remain conscious.

The ride in the months since the book and article were published has been exhilarating, featuring a swell of positive reviews, appearances on “The Colbert Report” and “Morning Joe,” and an outpouring from readers who express how much the book has helped them. But it has not been without blowback, particularly from his parents and sister who, despite their admiration for the book, feel that Scott overshared about their lives and, in some cases, misrepresented their experiences.

Still, the response has been well beyond what Stossel anticipated, and even as he worries that he'll forever be known as “the anxious guy,” he recognises that his decision to be open is having an untold impact on others. And it may even be helping to lessen the stranglehold the illness has had on him for so many years.

Stossel assumed his friends and co-workers knew about his anxiety.

Not so.

Jennifer Barnett, his managing editor, has worked closely with Stossel for three years. She knew he was writing a book about anxiety but had no idea it was personal.

“I was floored and couldn't believe it,” she says. “After the first 27 pages, I had to send him a personal note telling him how brave he was and how just amazed I am at what his struggles have been and what an amazing actor he is, because he managed to keep all of that hidden and quiet.”

Darhil Crooks, the Atlantic's creative director, was shocked, as well: “My first reaction was I wanted to go give him a hug. It must have been terrifying for him because none of us knew, and he was basically unloading all of his secrets not just on us, but on the American public.”

His co-workers' reaction provided Stossel with an insight about just how effective his coping mechanisms had been. “I didn't realise how good I was at hiding it,” he says.

The book, which spent six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, is revelatory of all the methods Stossel has used to control his anxiety, including yoga, acupuncture, hypnosis, prayer, psychotherapy, and an alphabet of drugs from Ativan and Cymbalta to Xanax and Zoloft. He also confessed that he counters the acute anxiety of public speaking or flying with a cocktail of Xanax, Inderal and vodka or Scotch.

Since the book's release, he says, strangers have asked him what medications they should take.

“Please tell me you did not give them an answer,” his wife interjects, laughing.

Smiling, he assures her that he hasn't. “It works for me,” he tells them, “but it's a dangerous game, and I do not recommend it.”

But Stossel's willingness to tell all has led readers, co-workers and friends to confide about their own anxiety and depression.

“I have strangers coming to me who seem to think that I have some special authority or wisdom or solace that I can provide,” he says. “And it's sort of the opposite of what I had feared, which is that I'd come out and be this pitiable weak figure because I'd admitted to all of this weakness and vulnerability.”

He worried that people would treat him differently, with kid gloves, perhaps.

Susanna, who jokes that she comes off well in the book, because otherwise “it wouldn't have seen the light of day,” had concerns, as well. “The idea that people would pity us really bothered me. That was my main concern just because I feel like we're so lucky: We have two healthy kids, and we have jobs, and we have food and a warm house and all these things.”

So far, neither of their fears has been borne out. Susanna, who teaches at Beauvoir school in Washington, says her colleagues, too, have been uniformly supportive and that some have used her as a sounding board about anxiety.

The reaction from his family was more complicated.

Stossel's family history - including depression and anxiety experienced by his divorced parents, grandparents and great-grandparents - features prominently in his book. For his parents and sister, the ways they or the family were portrayed didn't always sit well.

Sage Stossel, a published author and illustrator, didn't realise her brother would include so much personal information, and she thinks that to some extent the family is being “thrown under the bus” for a good story. She objects to Scott's depiction of her father as a drunk and is annoyed that he revealed her own struggles with anxiety and her use of antidepressants, something she hadn't confided even to people who knew her well.

“I don't think Scott set out to do anything like that,” she says, “but . . . are we a famous family of freaks now?”

Now when she meets new people, Sage immediately wonders if they have read the book and what they think of her.

“Freaked!” was Anne Hanford's reaction when she read an early draft of her son's Atlantic article. “By the time I read the book, I was calmer but wished the factual inaccuracies could have been corrected,” Hanford, a lawyer in Boston, writes in an email. “The book contains a certain amount of 'creative nonfiction,' and I understand why: It makes a better story.”

She says her marriage to Scott's father was not an “unhappy tumult,” as described in the book.

Stossel wrote that his father, Thomas Stossel, a physician who teaches at Harvard Medical School, drank himself into a stupor five nights a week when Scott was growing up.

“His perception is his perception,” Thomas Stossel says. “I like to drink. I always have. But I've never been convicted of DUI. It hasn't affected my health. I've never been abusive.”

He describes the book as “brilliantly written” but with a laugh adds: “I thought it would have been nice if it gave us a little more dimension than sort of free-floating pathological entities.”

Scott worried about what effect the book would have on his family, and he has talked about their objections with them. “To the extent that it caused angst and distress, I felt very bad about that,” he says. But he stands by everything he has written.

Whatever misgivings his parents and sister have, they seem to not be of the family-wrecking variety. His mother says the book is “amazing” and has given her “a much better understanding of anxiety and how it manifested in various family members.” And, says Sage, the family did throw him a book party.

When Stossel set out to write about anxiety eight years ago, he initially steered away from the idea of including anything personal. But the personal became inextricable from the subject. Sometimes in ways that made Stossel shudder.

When his daughter, Maren, entered first grade she began exhibiting signs of emetophobia, the same fear of vomiting that has hounded him since he was a child. He and Susanna decided to include how they addressed that in the book. Some readers have objected, saying Stossel shouldn't have shared his children's experiences.

But Scott and Susanna wanted to confront the stigma head-on.

“Knowing that Scott's issue, and the issue that many people who suffer from this, is shame, we were very careful from the beginning not to hide it,” Susanna says. “I didn't want her to somehow internalise that this was a shameful thing we were doing. It was also to let other parents know that if they are having similar issues then they shouldn't feel ashamed, either.”

One of Stossel's therapists had suggested that the book could be the ultimate remedy for him: Stossel's biggest fear was that his anxiety would be discovered. If he simply opened up, his therapist suggested, perhaps that fear would fall away.

So has it?

“The jury is still out,” Stossel says. “I guess the early signs are auspicious, because I have come out and the world didn't end. My baseline level of anxiety has been lower in the past two months than it has been in the preceding two years. I would like to think that there may be some process of coming out and coming to terms and having a successful book out there, have all been helpful with my mental health and in reducing my anxiety.”

Yet there are setbacks, as in April when Stossel tweeted:

paging #emetophobia support network: Wife stricken by a stomach virus. Terror descends like black cloud. Upping med intake. #SwordofDamocles

It was funny, but it was also true. Anxiety does not back off without a fight. Making his fight public has changed the nature of the illness for Stossel and also changed the role he might play in helping others.

“I find myself embracing more than I would have expected being a minister to this anxious flock,” he says. “It really does seem to help people, and I can help spread the word and help generate discussion that reduces stigma about mental illness.” - The Washington Post

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