The Age of Anxiety

Daniel Smith, author of Monkey Mind, writes that everyone has it, everyone must deal with it. “Anxiety compels a person to think, but it is the type of thinking that gives thinking a bad name; solipsistic, self-eviscerating, unremitting, vicious”.

WH Auden published the book-length poem, The Age of Anxiety, in 1947 and it immediately struck a cultural chord. The piece begins as a conversation among four strangers in a New York barroom on Third Avenue and is the poet’s method of analysing Western culture during the second World War. The Age of Anxiety won a Pulitzer Prize and also inspired a symphony by Leonard Bernstein. Auden’s title The Age of Anxiety has been ubiquitous for more than six decades. From the moment it appeared, the phrase has been used to characterise the consciousness of our era, the awareness of everything perilous about the modern world: environmental issues, global warming, nuclear energy, religious fundamentalism, violence, terrorism, economic calamity. Anaïs Nin wrote that “Anxiety… makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds onto you”. Kierkegaard compared anxiety to a type of spiritual dizziness, afflicting “he whose eyes happens to look down the yawning abyss.” In his poem No Worst, There is None, Gerard Manley Hopkins describes a mind jagged with anxiety:

“O the mind, mind has mountains;
cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.”

Danny, Withnail and I’s drug dealer and famous roller of the Camberwell Carrot joint, described postmodern and peri-hangover social anxiety thusly: “If you’re hanging onto a rising balloon, you’re presented with a difficult decision – let go before it’s too late or hang on and keep getting higher, posing the question: how long can you keep a grip on the rope?”

Few people would dispute that anxiety is a hallmark of our times or that anxiety has become a kind of cultural condition of modernity. In Britain, 19 per cent of people suffer from depression and anxiety and up to 40 million Americans have an anxiety disorder, with the average age of onset only 11. There are no accurate figures detailing the prevalence of anxiety disorders in Ireland, but it is estimated that 1 in 9 individuals will suffer a primary anxiety disorder over their lifetime. Anxiety, according to Scott Stossel, the author of My Age of Anxiety, “has become part of the cultural furniture”.

As a clinical condition, anxiety has only become classified in the last 30 years. It can be seen through the work of writers that anxiety has been with us since humans first emerged, from Hippocrates to Freud. Ancient Epicurean and Stoic philosophers suggested techniques to reach an anxiety-free state of mind that are reminiscent of modern cognitive psychology. Typical cases of anxiety disorders kept being reported and in the 17th century. Robert Burton described anxiety in The Anatomy of Melancholy. Anxiety is a normal human emotion. From an evolutionary viewpoint it is adaptive, since it promotes survival by inciting people to steer clear of perilous places. Just because our anxiety is heavily diagnosed and medicated, however, doesn’t mean that we are more anxious than our forebears. Perhaps as a society we are more cognisant of the mind’s tendency to spin out of control.

Whether the anxiety is social or status, generalised or obsessive compulsive, the following books are an enlightening read.

My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossel


Scott Stossel is an American journalist and author, Harvard graduate and editor of The Atlantic. He is also a man who has suffered all his life from an acute anxiety disorder, beginning with separation anxiety as a child and culminating in a myriad of phobias including public speaking, flying, fainting, heights, germs, vomiting and cheese. Stossel has been in therapy since he was 10, and he has consumed pharmacopoeias of psychopharmaceuticals – Thorazine, Nardil, Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Valium, Librium, Xanax as well as copious amounts of alcohol to temper his symptoms – but the respite never lasted long.

His current therapist encouraged him to write this book, and he says he has taken the advice in the hope that “by tunnelling into my anxiety… I can also tunnel out the other side.”

This book is not a memoir. Stossel only reveals parts of his life that are relevant to what he calls “ the riddle of anxiety”. Most of the book is a scholarly exploration of the history of anxiety and a journalistic account of the present state of medical knowledge on the subject. Stossel’s description of his anxiety on his wedding day is evoked with humour despite the horror he endured at “one of the happiest, most significant moments of life”. He stood trembling with rivulets of sweat running into his eyes, his limbs trembling on the verge of convulsing at best or unconsciousness at worst. He felt that at the reception afterwards he was only pantomiming happiness, which induced a brutal, self-lacerating despair.

The Pursuit of Happiness: And Why It’s Making Us Anxious by Ruth Whippman


When this British journalist moves to California, she realises that the American obsession with finding happiness is driving everyone crazy. Whippman feels that happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. As a cynical British woman, Ruth finds that in conversations with everyday people that the route to “happy ever after” is a constant concern. Techniques used to achieve this happy state range from the mundane (yoga and meditation) to mind-boggling seminars on how to Unleash the Power Within and, most bafflingly, the drinking of wolf colostrum. She struggles with the concept of mindfulness and cannot see “how greater happiness could be achieved by reining in that magical sense of scope and possibility to stare down some oatmeal”.

Whippman notes that her new happiness-seeking American acquaintances seem no happier than her cynical British ones and her instinct is that happiness should be serendipitous; the byproduct of a life well lived.

Anxiety for Beginners by Eleanor Morgan


This fusion of memoir and scientific investigation is very accessible. It begins with a vivid description of a panic attack that Morgan suffered at 17 in the middle of biology class. “Within seconds I was convinced I was about to detonate there on my wooden stool” as the blackboard went blurry, her head started to prickle and her hands went numb. As well as speaking to fellow sufferers, Morgan consults psychiatrists, psychologists, OCD specialists and nutritionists. With a generous dollop of humanity Morgan analyses genetic and environmental influences on anxiety as well as hormones, fertility, trauma and medication, all the while interspersing science with her own stories and those of fellow sufferers.

Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon


This is a funny, intimate, personal account of the author’s OCD, bulimia and drug habit. At the age of 12, Gordon woke up convinced she was going to die of Aids and began obsessively washing her hands. After she revealed her fear that she might murder someone, a doctor diagnosed OCD and prescribed antidepressants. When she landed her dream job in journalism she led a double life: to friends, colleagues and lovers she was the effervescent girl about town, while privately she fought her demons. Bryony chronicles all of this in a breathless, self-mocking tone, which helps when reading such dark material. Her story is a potential lifeline for others who may suffer in silence.

A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled by Ruby Wax


The larger-than-life, seemingly confident Ruby Wax of our TV screens was also clinging on to sanity. She spent some time in the Priory Clinic, London to tackle her problems with anxiety and depression. Wax now has a master’s degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy from Oxford University. Practical and pragmatic, A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled talks in a funny way about depression and demonstrates how mindfulness exercises can help with everyday problems.

Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton


Status anxiety is about who you are in contemporary society – whether you’ve got enough money, enough kudos, enough fabulosity to cut it in our judgemental world. De Botton’s bestselling book is concerned with just that: an exploration of this anxiety and a valuable insight into class and a meritocratic society.

Father’s Day: The green green grass of home

This piece originally appeared in the Irish Times Book Blog.

That Thursday in May had been sunny and warm and was redolent with summer’s hope after many months coloured by grey skies and lashed by persistent rains. I was sitting in the early evening at my kitchen table replying to an email that I’d just received from a male acquaintance. He had pursued me a few months previously after a fleeting encounter at a party, but for the past few weeks the missives had stopped arriving in my inbox and I assumed that he’d found another target for attention.

He had heard me on a radio show that morning and obviously thought my stock was rising. I was an occasional panelist on a lunchtime show and had been hauled on this time to discuss the new Sex and the City movie. I was deemed to be an expert on the subject due to my single status and my chance encounter in New York with Chris Noth, the actor who played Mister Big. I gladly rehashed the story on the air waves blissfully unaware that I had reignited the interest of a listener who was obviously impressed with my ability to discuss the importance of Manolo Blahniks in the plot. He was glaringly superficial.

On my afternoon flight back from Dublin I gazed out at cloudland and pondered the approach of my fortieth birthday. I resolved to have a great summer and to embrace life with the fervour and gusto of my younger self. I would attempt to suppress the melancholic inner voice which was constantly attuned to the transience and mutability of all earthly things. F Scott Fitzgerald had once declared that there were no second acts in American life. I was Irish and determined to have one.

I didn’t hear my father as he snuck up behind me and copped a quick look at my correspondence with Simon O’Neill. He had seen me in deep contemplation attempting a witty reply from the opened french window and took full advantage of the opportunity to surprise me.

“At least if this guy works out, you won’t have to change your name.”

“Jesus, Dad, you nearly gave me a heart attack. Don’t worry, this one’s another non-starter. I’m just being polite, he heard me on Newstalk today and sent me a complimentary email.”

“I hope he knows that you can’t boil an egg. You were very funny on the radio today, I have to give you credit. You really gave that obnoxious celebrity solicitor guy a run for his money. I’m tired of all this Mister Big stuff though. That fecker never mowed your lawn.”

I laughed in agreement and watched as my Dad rolled his lawnmower into my garden. He rolled up his sleeves and strode masterfully up and down, occasionally pausing to empty the clippings into a black plastic bag. When I caught his eye from my kitchen table perch he waved and winked through the confetti of grass, his old machine making as much noise as the helicopters in Apocalypse Now. When he finished he drank a glass of water at the sink and I walked around the side of the house behind him to lock the side gate. He smiled and stretched his arm over the top of the gate as he got ready for departure. His big hand grabbed mine in his customary farewell gesture, my small hand engulfed by his, like a bivalve in a protective shell.

I was at work the next morning in my pharmacy when I answered a call from a very distressed medical secretary from the local Bon Secours Hospital. I initially thought that it was a case of mistaken identity when she said that my father was in a critical condition as a routine operation had gone terribly wrong. I didn’t know that he was having an angiogram that day as he had kept it a secret from us in case we were unduly worried.

I stood clutching the phone in the middle of the dispensary for a few moments, paralysed by fear and shock. I blurted out the news to my technician and she urged me to leave immediately. I ran through the busy streets and flagged a taxi in the square. Unfortunately he was one of those overly chatty and officious drivers who was more suited to a visiting Yank longing to listen to the blarney. I bolted out the door when he encountered a traffic jam, thanking him profusely and leaving him a generous tip. I arrived panting and discombobulated at the hospital entrance. It was clear that the nun and secretary had been expecting me, their faces repellent with pity.

I was brought down a corridor to a small airless room where my mother sat, flanked by her best friend Deirdre. She was speechless with shock and kept muttering that the doctor would be out to talk to us. An angular man in scrubs appeared at the doorway. He told us that this had never happened him before, that he had done this procedure hundreds of times and had never seen someone flat-line as the dye was injected. He assured us that the crash team had worked really hard on my Dad and that they had got the heartbeat back but it was very weak. I demanded to see my father and he led me across the hall into the operating theatre where I saw my father lying on a table in his surgical garb. Orbiting around him like planets were a number of medical personnel and a profusion of wires and tubes. They seemed to glide away as I approached. I saw his strong arms reach up and grapple with the ventilator, I stroked his head and urged him to come back. A spherical tear rolled down his cheek and stained the sleeve of his gown.

Dad was airlifted to Dublin on the Saturday evening. I had kept a constant vigil at his bedside with my sisters. It was easy for an insomniac. I constantly held his hand and talked to him and when the silences were unbearable, I read him poetry from an anthology that I had grabbed before the dash to Dublin. It seemed to annoy the nurses in ICU, who spent most of Friday night imploring me to go to bed. My three sisters and my Mum were all around him when his vital signs dropped suddenly on Saturday night. We all took turns saying goodbye as the nurses pulled a curtain around the bed and afforded us some privacy. Papa, mon héros was gone.

The Irish do death well. In rural Ireland funerals are social occasions and it’s not uncommon for some to attend a funeral every day of the week. My father hated the sterility of funeral homes and had frequently expressed his disdain for their lack of warmth and humanity. It was decided that we would wake Dad at home. When my Mum and sisters flew back to Kerry on Sunday, my mother’s friends were in situ in our family home, cleaning and hoovering, brewing tea and making sandwiches. The show had begun.

I flew back on the last flight after spending the day in Dublin with my closest friend. We laughed and cried as we sat in her garden in the sunshine. I needed space from the mania that ensues when a funeral is being organised. My mother was in overdrive and my sisters were busy picking readings, outfits and all the minutiae that are involved with a wake. My ex-boyfriend collected me from the airport at midnight, he drove through the country roads to my house, all was quiet except for my shuddering sobs. My friend Karen had a key to my house and had set up a catering centre in my kitchen, food and drink laid out on the worktop. My kitchen was full of close friends who had waited outside all evening for my return. I was glad to see them and held my own private wake in the sanctity of my own four walls.

We stood in line by the coffin in the sitting room. People queued outside to shake hands with us and offer us their condolences. After a few hours my right hand was bruised from being crushed by the hands of big country men who must believe that their sincerity is directly proportional to the strength of the handshake. Some talked and told me some anecdote about my Dad, a sporting story or a work story, usually humorous. Others just muttered that funereal chant, I’m very sorry for your troubles, very sorry, very sorry. It was strangely comforting. Moments of levity were provided by surprise appearances of old boyfriends in the queue and lipstick was slashed across parched lips in futile attempts at makeovers. The kitchen was manned by my mother’s powerhouse friends. They were busy dispensing drinks, and lashing out sandwiches to those that had travelled a distance. By 11 o’clock they had cleared the house of all visitors and were busy washing up.

Karen drove me home. I would return in the morning to follow the hearse with my family. I needed to breathe and escape the suffocating control of the bottle washers in the kitchen and the general hysteria in my childhood home. We had a glass of wine and several cigarettes in my garden. Karen left around midnight and left me alone with my thoughts in the kitchen. I was drawn to my computer which held pride of place on my kitchen table. I clicked on my photo booth icon and searched for some photos that I’d taken a few weeks previously when my Dad was visiting. He had been amazed at the ability of the photo application to transform a picture into a myriad of finishes, from a soft-focused one to a sepia tinge and to my own favourite, the pop art à la Andy Warhol transformation. So there we were, Dad and I, heads together, grinning from the screen, our moment captured forever in the neon colours and psychedelic humour of computer wizardry.

I searched on iTunes for one of his favourite songs and clicked on The Mountains Of Mourne, a version by Don McClean and turned it up full blast and revelled in the memories. It was one of his party pieces, sometimes sung only after lots of cajoling and encouragement. Other times, when a sudden silence threatened the merriment of a wedding sing-song , he would stand up unannounced and belt out the lyrics in his unique baritone, conveying the tune with sincerity and pathos and bewitching all present with his talent and delivery.

The song is very beautiful, written by Percy French in 1896, the lyrics written in the form of a letter to his lover Mary. The writer is visiting cosmopolitan London and is writing to describe the energy and verve of the capital, the style of the ladies going to balls with “no tops to their dresses at all”, their complexions all peaches and cream and their lips the colour of roses. He realises the artifice behind their paint and powder and wishes that he could be with his beloved where the dark Mourne sweeps down to the sea.

There’s beautiful girls here, oh never you mind,

With beautiful shapes nature never designed,

And lovely complexions all roses and cream,

But let me remark with regard to the same:

That if of those roses you venture to sip,

The colours might all come away on your lip,

So I’ll wait for the wild rose that’s waiting for me

In the place where the dark Mourne sweeps down to the sea.

I couldn’t believe that I‘d never see my Dad again. The man who had always been unequivocally on my side was now lying inanimate in a coffin in our sitting room, his last night at home. My old pal was gone. When I was in primary school, I had the misfortune to be taught for a year by a sadistic nun. She was a thin, small woman with a face that to my seven-year-old mind had all the attributes of a witch from my fairy tale books. Her face was lined and haggard and her eyes were beady and mean like those of a malevolent vulture. She ruled the class with a reign of terror, threatening any misdemeanour with a slap from her gigantic ruler, its menace a constant source of anxiety as it hung over us like the Sword of Democles. At any moment a child could be plucked from her desk and made to stretch out her hand in supplication as the old nun lashed at it relentlessly, pausing only to steady her veil which was sometimes knocked askew with the force of her exertion.

I remembered the day of my encounter with her ruler as I sat that night thinking back on life in the warmth of my kitchen. She was a devotee of a straight margin, it had to be a half inch wide, and all letters had to edge up smoothly to its border, all letters symmetrical – an off-beam M was considered a heinous crime. I was having a bad letter day. My ability to draw the straight margin on the side of the page was being thwarted at every try by my ruler which had acquired chipped indentations on its length as a legacy of the wear and tear on its integrity by a lively seven-year-old girl. My two-toned grey and white rubber was kept busy erasing the wavering margins done in with a pale blue Faber-Castell pen.

To ensure the complete obliteration of my blunder I licked the rubber and saw pieces of the page form into tiny balls and tiny holes open like craters on the surface. Undeterred I finished the exercise and dutifully filled the page with both large and small Ms and sat back and waited for the Sister of Mercy to examine my work. Her approach was heralded by the stomp of her hard heeled brogues. My companion at my wooden desk had her page examined first and her copy book was returned with mutterings of approval.

When her eyes fell on my smudged and deconstructed page with a slanted margin and varying-sized capital Ms I could hear the growls begin in her throat. The book was snatched from the desk and displayed for all to see with its glaring imperfections and was then hurled back at me with ferocity. I was prodded to the front of the class and initially kept my hands behind my back as Sister approached wielding her weapon. She grabbed my right hand out from its hiding place and whacked it several times with the ruler. It became redder and more inflamed with each assault. My eyes smarted with tears but I held them in check until the bell rang to signal the end of the school day and I ran outside to wait with my sister for my Dad to collect us. When he pulled up in his car I could sense his concern when he saw my eyes swollen with tears and my dejected stance as I clutched my brown leather satchel.

I scrambled into the passenger seat and hurled myself on his lap and told him the story of my morning through the sobs and splutters. He soothed me with kind words and told me to wait in the car with my older sister Orla and that he’d be back soon. I’ll never know what he said to my assailant but I do recall that her ruler never appeared again that school year.

I was enjoying my reverie when I noticed that my kettle was boiling, even though neither of us had turned it on that night. The air around me was suddenly acrid and alive with the smell of freshly mown grass. I could almost taste the greenness of the chlorophyll in my mouth, metallic and sharp. I worried that the grief had caused a stroke and that I was experiencing synaesthesia. The kettle returned to the boil after switching off for a few seconds. I feared that I was finally succumbing to a madness from which I would never return. I have a very scientific nature and am always scornful of the paranormal and the magical. Even though I have grown up in a country renowned for tales of the fairies and the puccas, the banshees and the devil I always apply logic. The aroma of the cut grass still suffused the house as I climbed the stairs to my bedroom. I felt serene and calm as I lay in bed, feeling that my Dad had returned to bid me a final good night.