Book review: Little Panic, by Amanda Stern
I am always in the future somehow, separated from my body, and it’s from there I feel sad for the moment I’m living. Soon this moment will be gone; it will turn into another moment that will go, and I think I must be the only person who feels life as though it’s already over. This is the weight I feel every time the sun goes down. No matter how hard I try to stop the feeling, I can’t. Even if I run from it, it meets me wherever I land.
Children’s book author and novelist Amanda Stern grew up in the Greenwich Village of the 1970s, a different place than the posh, fashionable neighborhood it is now. That’s not to say it was a cesspool of danger and violence, it seemed much more family-oriented than its trendy, fashion-centric role today. But Stern was anxious and panic-prone from the outset, and her world overlapped with that of six-year-old Etan Patz, who disappeared in 1979.
This was a pivotal moment for missing children in America, maybe because the story was so surprising, unlikely even. In the heart of busiest Manhattan, where it’s tough for things to happen unobserved, and a neighborhood with plenty of familiar regulars, he managed to disappear during a roughly ten minute window on the morning his mother let him walk alone to the bus stop for the very first time.
Etan’s disappearance ushered in the area of missing children on milk cartons and heightened anxiety for parents and children alike. I’m not sure why this was the turning point, but I remember growing up the decade after with a palpable anxiety and no shortage of scary, confusing stories. Imagine that atmosphere on someone prone to a debilitating panic. Stern had that anxiety from as far back as she can remember. It only gets compounded as life experiences and impressions of the world beyond her house accumulate.
My dad tells us stories about people who go missing and three days later they find them dead. The news tells you what happens. The radio too. People disappear without a trace and are found strangled in Boston. If you go on the subway, people push you onto the tracks and escape as the train splurts out your bloody guts.
She begins her story with elementary school, with an affecting anecdote about her struggle to learn to tell time when it seemed to come so naturally to her classmates. Her initial failure to grasp the concept gets compounded with her well-meaning friend’s frustration, doubts about her intelligence, and the very idea of what time means to her (an interesting topic she returns to throughout, especially as a “countdown”). With each escalating episode she describes, she perfectly shows how anxiety snowballs against all reason.
All the days that lie ahead of me are filled with each of these exact hours, and I worry this sadness will always wait for me, no matter how old I get or where I live. Every time the sun goes, it tells me about all the days I’ve lost, and the one I’m losing now, even though I’m not finished living it.
On top of the spiraling anxiety and panicky moments, Stern also dwells on thoughts of death and impermanence – that if she’s not there to help her mom she might die, or that when she returns home from an anxiety-filled weekend at her dad’s, her house, mom and stepfather will have vanished. She tells these stories so clearly, imparting all of the child-logic details that made them make sense to her, and as ridiculous and fantastical as these worries sound, you feel alongside her. She’s an eloquent and effective writer, with that rare ability to write articulately from a child’s perspective in language that’s both simple and lyrical with an adult’s reflection.
I have a bad feeling. I try to block it out, but I can’t. It’s grabbing me and whispering in my ear things I don’t want to know: No one in the entire world has what you have.
What’s incredible about this book is how critically Stern looks at herself. She tells her story progressively, interspersing chapters with passages from psychologists’ and evaluators’ reports about her psychological and educational testing. Until she was 25, she didn’t even have a name for what was “wrong” with her. She bounces from school to school, looking for her place, dabbling in cocaine, troubling relationships and toxic friendships as she tries to figure out how to live in a world that doesn’t seem to have much patience for sensitive, anxious types.
Something troubling is how her family addressed her issues, which they seemed to think boiled down to a learning disability. Her mother is a well-intentioned presence but one who ultimately ends up doing her more harm than good by not correctly addressing the underlying problem or being honest about truths that may have helped her overcome certain worries, instead of contributing to the paranoia that everyone is lying to her and hiding things from her. But it’s not for lack of trying, and I felt for them both as her mother tried to do the right thing and Amanda continued to struggle.
No one explains anything to me, so maybe no one explained anything to her either. How do people find jobs? Or get a house? What happens at a bank? Where do you find a husband, and how do you make sure they don’t kill you?
As she paints a detailed picture of her childhood and the perceived danger and stresses it was riddled with, she begins weaving in chapters from an adult relationship, from its awkward beginnings through its crumbling as she grapples with her potentially last chance to have a baby naturally, and the anxiety that presses in as she realizes her dream of having a family may not come true as she’s been envisioning it for a lifetime.
She ends her coming of age story describing finding a therapist who simply diagnosed her with a panic disorder and put her on the right track for treating it. But we’ve already seen glimpses of the future in these adulthood chapters, and it was meaningful – mental health can be a lifelong struggle.
What I think is most affecting about this book is its honesty and her thoughtful analysis with the hindsight of her own experiences and difficulties. Instead of being anxiety-inducing to read, it ends up feeling reassuring in its truths and little triumphs as she learns “to feel my awful feelings and live with discomfort and uncertainty in a life that often feels too hard for me.”
Over my life I’ve worried so much and feared so many things, and though many of those things actually happened, here I am, still alive, having survived what I thought I couldn’t. I didn’t turn out the way I thought I would: I didn’t get married and I didn’t have kids, and the not-having didn’t kill me either.
New York City and the special anxieties it evokes is a secondary character, and I loved those elements of the story. Some of the anecdotes lost or frustrated me too much to really enjoy reading them, but I think it’s an important and beautifully written look at living – thriving, really – with a panic disorder that it took decades to get under control. Her seemingly simple but lovely writing make it a standout as a memoir even if the mental health topic doesn’t immediately grab you.
Dispatches from an Anxious Life
by Amanda Stern
published June 19, 2018 by Grand Central Publishing
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