Review: “My Age of Anxiety” by Scott Stossel

My review ran in The Seattle Times Jan. 17, 2014:


Scott Stossel’s new book on his lifelong struggle with severe anxiety is outstanding in the fullest sense of that word. “My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind” (Knopf, 400 pp., $27.95) is both conspicuous and superior within its genre. Stossel, who also wrote a fine biography of Sargent Shriver, brings his dogged fact-digging skills to this work, which is peppered with humor and humility, remarkably balanced — and generous to the point of philanthropy with his deeply personal, hard-won knowledge.

Plus, the man is a lovely writer.

If I sound surprised, I am. So many mainstream books on mental health insist on leading the reader into one revival meeting or another — where Big Pharma is a pill-pushing Satan or the best lifeguard on the beach; where the ubiquitous reference guide, “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM-5 came out in 2013), is a helpful tool or an insidious guide that unnecessarily labels thousands more people as mentally ill.

Stossel, in contrast, answers questions about the fitness of various diagnostics and treatments with the only truth: It depends.


See the rest of the review on the Seattle Times Books page.

File this under: “Better not to know.”

You might not be aware of this, but if you get one of those scope things done that sends a long hose and camera into your house’s sewer pipe, the resolution is good enough to see actual spiders. Big ones.

Photo courtesy of "SewerVision," winners of the Imaginative Name Contest

And the fervent assurances from the sewer guy  (“They LOVE the dark! They NEVER come up!) are probably not really true.

Oh, and they give you a DVD of it to keep, just in case your cable goes out some night and you don’t feel like reading.

Escapist reading has its uses.

If you wait long enough, your favorite theories will be proven by some researcher, somewhere. If you’re very lucky, the research will be explained by a talented reporter.

Some years ago I returned to college as a full-time student. It was the first time I’d studied for exams in more than 20 years. Okay, if I’m honest, it was probably the first time I’d ever studied for exams, period.

I discovered a technique, by accident, that helped me retain information. The week before exams, I read through my notes from textbook readings and class lectures.  I read those notes for 30 minutes or so, then took a break. During the break I read a trashy period-piece novel with very detailed descriptions of places, furnishings and clothing. It had a plot so predictable that it took almost no thinking to absorb what was going on.

I aced the exam.

Now perhaps I know why it worked. As reporter Ben Carey explains in The New York Times:

The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.

It’s not exactly what Carey is describing, but close. For me “background associations” were not the physical rooms in which I studied, but the places I saw in my mind while reading the novel.

This is cool stuff. Read Carey’s piece, here.

And the next time you have to read and learn material, try switching locations. If nothing else, it will acquaint you with new coffee shops.

Give Mom a check, and she’ll spend it on rent.

This post by Paula Span on The New Old Age blog in The New York Times is intriguing. It makes sense, but who knew Social Security had this effect so quickly?

(I’ve excerpted, then edited it down. See the whole piece here.)

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, almost 70 percent of elderly widows lived with an adult child; by 1990, that proportion had plummeted to 20 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

Economists Robert F. Schoeni of the University of Michigan and Kathleen McGarry, now at Dartmouth College, investigated this phenomenon, using more than a century of Census data showing where elderly widows resided…they pinpointed the year the big change began: 1940. After that, the graph depicting the percentage of widows living with children resembles a ski slope: down, down and down some more, until by 1990 more than 60 percent of widows lived ALONE.

So what happened in 1940? The economists, testing various hypotheses, found a far simpler explanation.

In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act. In 1940, the monthly checks began to flow. And even those tiny checks — Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, Vt., got the first one, for $22.54 — were enough to allow widows, who had historically high poverty rates, to remain in their homes. As Social Security benefits rose and reached a larger proportion of the elderly, the trend toward remaining at home accelerated.

The single greatest factor driving this immense cultural shift, in other words, was economic. Once elders no longer had to move in with their children to survive, most opted not to.

“When they have more income and they have a choice of how to live, they choose to live alone,” Ms. McGarry said. “They buy their independence.”

All the news that fits. And solves.

I’ve only read some of the stories and ads in three sections in Sunday’s New York Times (Book Review, Business and Week in Review) and here’s what I’ve already learned:

Most new fiction is deeply flawed. A five-line letter from Ronald Reagan to his old actress friend Kitty Carlisle Hart is worth $6,100. Whales and dolphins are as smart as we are, and probably nicer. Congo is still the rape capital on earth. Congress still has absolutely no balls when it comes to regulating Wall Street. Our cellphones are built with materials that are obtained at human cost. Author Danielle Steele and legal pot growers in Colorado work harder than the rest of us. Camile Paglia says “female Viagra” pharmaceuticals will not cure the sexual malaise blanketing America.

It seems so clear:

Send sexually disappointed whiners to witness real problems in Congo.  Sell collections of witless Presidential missives as e-books in order to fund the increased cost of cruelty-free cellphone manufacturing. Deploy the hyper-prolific Ms. Steele to the pot-growing operations for one week. Swear in Ms. Paglia, stand her up in front of Congress, and let her spell it out for them: No balls, no glory.

If that last thing doesn’t work, vote for a whale or a dolphin next time.

High-risk sleepwalking

When I read “Raiding the Refrigerator, but Still Asleep” by Randi Hutter Epstein in The New York Times, I immediately had two questions:

1. Whoa! Do people actually binge eat in their sleep?

2. Do people do this in poor countries, or just in places where there’s a lot of extra food sitting around?

Epstein’s good reporting and respectful treatment of this makes one take it seriously:

“Consequences of nighttime eating can include injuries like black eyes from walking into a wall or hand cuts from a prep knife, or dental problems from gnawing on frozen food. On a deeper level, many sleep eaters feel depressed, frustrated and ashamed. Upwards of 10 percent of adults suffer from some sort of parasomnia, or sleep disorder, like sleepwalking or night terrors. Some have driven cars or performed inappropriate sexual acts — all while in a sleep-induced fog.”

There’s another thing I wonder about: Why don’t such nocturnal wanderings include chores? Does anyone fold laundry while sleepwalking? Clean out the spice cabinet? Give the dog his ear drops? Vote on health-care legislation?

Wait, nix that last question. I know the answer. 212 members of the US House of Representatives sleepwalked through a vote on March 21. Fortunately 219 of their colleagues were wide awake.

Onward science soldiers!

If you thought the so-called War on Drugs was pretty much lost, take heart. Here’s some news about a guy who might just get us pointed in the right direction.

One of the more arresting quotes has to do with alcohol abuse and defining a problem drinker:

“The measuring stick is known as ’3-14′ — so if someone is having 3 or more drinks a day, or 14 per week, that should raise a red flag, and physicians should be much better equipped to intervene and offer treatment options if there is a problem. Ideally, Dr. McLellan said, that treatment would be available in the medical system itself, not segregated in rehabilitation and detox programs, with their high failure rates.”

What we know still hurts us

The question of when a woman should begin annual mammograms is getting a lot of ink, air-time and, yes, close scrutiny in Congress, not a gang I reflexively list under the heading, “People I trust with my personal health-care decisions.”

(I’m trying not to veer into paranoia here, so I won’t dwell on my impression that such waffling never seems to happen around, say, male health problems.)

Most women I know, hear, or read about are quite peeved (or at least, unsettled) that there is such sharp disagreement in the medical-expert world over this. I share their peevedness, and at the same time, I keep thinking about how reluctant we often are to use good preventative-health info when we DO have it.


Thanks to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, we know that that drinking gets rolling early in our lives, immediately boosting the odds for all manner of regrets, from car crashes to quickie marriages at the Vegas Elvis Chapel.

We know that booze is harder on women, and not simply because we tend to be smaller than men. To paraphrase the NIAAA folks, we’ve got less water inside us, so that Strawberry Mojito gets to the brain faster and makes us stupid sooner.

We adult women are more likely to get certain cancers and bone disease from too much alcohol. It takes surprisingly little alcohol to wreck our skin, addle our brains permanently, and cause us to mix up our meds. And although it is rarely written about, over-cocktailing by women is pretty much a direct ticket to picking dangerous/disappointing partners and ensuring a rotten sex life.

Okay, okay, so where does all this blogdignation get me? It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the progress made on many health fronts, including awareness of the risks of alcohol abuse. Nor do I think the folks who set health-screening standards should throw in the towel because we American women often thumb our nose at the solid wellness info we do have. I’m not even lobbying for Congress to get out of my doc’s exam room, exactly. (They’d just sneak back in anyway.)

I guess I’m just wishing that while the experts screw around with the mammogram-timing standards, we use some of the down time to pay attention to the solid life-saving facts that have already smacked us right in the kisser.

God is in the details…and the DNA

We humans hunt, gather, mate…and we instinctively reach out for something bigger than ourselves. We’ve evolved over zillions of years and all these behaviors seem to be wired into us, according to a tantalizingly short New York Times article, “The Evolution of the God Gene.”

Archaeologists in Mexico are the source for this provocative view. Their fascinating work has turned up more than worship spaces from 7,000 B.C., it has fueled the idea (for the NYT reporter Nicolas Wade anyway) that our need to believe in some kind of creator figure is not just the result of learned social norms…it is part of our cells and gray matter.

As Wade points out, this could shake up the religious and atheist alike. One side wants religion to be divine-inspired, the other regards it as superstitious voodoo. Wade goes on to assure both sides that there is no need to feel threatened, that this notion of a “God gene” doesn’t refute either position.

This passage also caught my eye:

“The ancestral human population of 50,000 years ago, to judge from living hunter-gatherers, would have lived in small, egalitarian groups without chiefs or headmen. Religion served them as an invisible government. It bound people together, committing them to put their community’s needs ahead of their own self-interest. For fear of divine punishment, people followed rules of self-restraint toward members of the community.”

That’s as cogent a description of religious community as I’ve ever seen. I’m going to save it in a file somewhere, like a good poem.

Here’s why I like it:

Religion is more often seen as a personal and elected thing in our society, but in fact it really is still an “invisible government.” Even if you do not believe that bad acts will send you to Hell, even if you never set foot in a house of worship; even if you do not believe that there is any greater force that influences the universe, you are still tethered to this government.

After reading the article, my mind wandered to a dear friend of mine who was raised as a Roman Catholic and who left the Church decades ago. When asked if he believes in God, he firmly says, “No.” Yet the rules he lives by are remarkably similar to, say, the Ten Commandments.

Also, I don’t want to speak for Jesus, but I’m pretty sure that if he came back, he’d give my friend a hearty high-five for all the clothing/feeding/caring for the poor, halt and lame that my buddy has done, all while politely eschewing God with a capital G. For that matter, the good this friend quietly does in his own small sphere is none other than the tikkun olam, the “repairing the world” that my rabbi endorses.

Yes, yes, I know. These things can be said to be morals or ethics, not religion. (In fact, I bet that’s how my friend labels them.) True. But it makes sense to me that this God-ish DNA is behind them, whatever labels we slap on.

More than once I’ve rolled my eyes at said friend when he does the no-God-for-me riff. Now I have a different way to think about this.

Somewhere back in time, when flippers gave way to feet and our ancestors plodded up on land and started considering condo development, they also developed wiring that drives us to create the invisible governments we need.

I buy that.

The Children’s Hour

New research on how parental approval affects a child over time grabbed my attention. I’ve always believed that whatever self-confidence and related successes I enjoy come out of the nearly blind admiration I received from the adults in my family.

This boosterish view of me was oddly juxtaposed with other aspects of our lives together. It was a mood-altered, money-challenged, dirty-fighting environment, fueled by steady supplies of junk food, lived out in rooms and cars full of cigarette smoke. It was also a solar system that revolved around Planet Kim. My parents and older sister agreed on little, but they came together over their mutual regard for the smallest member of the household.

A therapist I knew years ago said I should be angry about this childhood. That a truly loving family would have provided a more stable, responsible home. But as my father used to say, what I got was lots better than a sharp stick in the eye.

I can count on one hand the number of times I was yelled at during my childhood. They spent what money they had on the books, summer camp, party dresses and bottles of Coca Cola I wanted. If another adult failed to see my obvious charm and talents, they were waved off in disgust. “Tell that piano teacher to go shit in her hat,” my mother said.

All three brought me along wherever they went, laughed at my jokes, took all my questions seriously.

My father was particularly good at this last thing. He was the weakest link in the chain, unable to go the distance as a dad-in-residence beyond my 11th year. But he listened when I confided to him, at about age 9, that I was pretty sure my ears were loose. He took me by the hand and we dropped in to see a buddy of his, the physician who lived down the hall. Another divorced guy living it up in a one-bedroom bachelor pad apartment.

Dr. Leonard set down his glass of Scotch, found his reading glasses, and examined my ears. “They could be tighter, but you’ll be fine,” he said. My father nodded solemnly. “Good news,” he said.

Now and then I wonder what I would have made of my life had I grown up with law-abiding married parents, regular encounters with all four food groups, better school attendance and fewer mid-day James Bond movies.

I might be more accomplished; rich and famous even. Or, I might be a fearful, lonely woman living alone in a very clean house, worrying about ear loss. I’m good with this.