Atlantic editor’s memoir recounts his fears of everything from public speaking to cheese
Scott Stossel worries — a lot.
The Atlantic magazine editor suffers from a litany of fears most readers have never heard about. Turophobia? That’s fear of cheese and he’s got it. Bacillophobia? Fear of germs and that’s a check. Emetophobia? Fear of vomiting, and yes, he’s a sufferer too. Add to those more extreme phobias such reliable chestnuts as claustrophobia and fear of public speaking, and it’s clear that Stossel spends much of his time consumed with anxiety.
His struggle to control of varied neuroses and disorders is documented in his new book, “My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind” (Knopf). It’s a memoir, psychological study and historical examination all rolled into one. It’s also funny, exhaustively researched and deeply moving. Unsurprisingly, Stossel says Hollywood has shown an interest in adapting his acclaimed work — something he claims both shocks and excites him.
In his search for a cure, the 44-year old speaks frankly about how he has turned to a litany of treatments, from psychotropic drugs to talk therapy to vodka to even a disastrous form of avoidance therapy involving consuming ipecac. Stossel drank the emetic to help him get control of his vomiting fears. Instead, it resulted in hours of dry heaves and a harrowing, though intermittently amusing, anecdote.
TheWrap spoke with Stossel about his decision to go public with his mental illness, how cultures have responded to anxiety over the years and why his disease both helps and hinders his journalism.
You have so many fears and phobias. Why did you decide to go into a profession like journalism that is so deadline-driven?
It’s possible that I would have been better suited to being a penguin keeper. Starting out, I thought being a writer would enable me to work in isolation. Maybe my life would be less of a misery if I weren’t in a deadline-driven profession, but I don’t tend to worry about those things as much. I’m more concerned with neurotic, irrational phobias. Actual deadlines stress me out, but I’m better at handling those than neurotic anxieties.
Do you think your anxiety has made you a better, more careful journalist?
It’s possible. Jerome Kagan, the Harvard psychologist, only hires people who are anxious, because he thinks they are better and more conscientious workers. I do think that being afraid of failing spurred me to do more and more and ask more questions, but there are ways it holds me back. There are reporting trips I haven’t gone on. It’s a mixed blessing at best.
Were you concerned about putting so much of your own story in the book?
I had tremendous reservations. I never set out to write it as a memoir, but it became clear that the book was better when I used aspects of my own life to illuminate the scientific and cultural ideas. I had no trouble with strangers finding out about my anxiety. It was my friends and colleagues I was concerned about. At first, I only hinted at my experience, but my editors kept asking me to put more and more of myself into it.
What has the response been to your revelations?
If people are having a negative response, they’re not telling me about it to my face. The critical response has been good, and thousands of people have reached out via Twitter and Facebook and emails, even celebrities have written to me, to say thank you for telling your story or helping me understand anxiety and understand my husband, my wife, my son. They’ve offered cures — from the X, Y, Z diet to acupuncture to medication to yoga. Pot seems to be a recurring cure.
What was the biggest surprise from your research into the causes and history of anxiety?
I was expecting that by looking at anxiety through the ages, I’d find we live in the most anxious time of all. But you look back and each successive era finds physicians and commentators arguing that their age is the most anxious ever — the Gilded Age, the Industrial Revolution, even 2nd century Rome had Galen the physician saying there has never been such anxiety. This is a condition that is part of the human condition. Every age presumes to think of itself as the most anxious.
Even some historical figures such as Charles Darwin appear to have suffered from anxiety, although he remained high-functioning.
Well, Darwin was incapacitated for much of his life and stuck in his house with stress-related illnesses. But it’s possible that history would be different had he not be able to do anything other than spend decades writing ‘The Origin of the Species.’
You’ve been traveling the country on a book tour and appearing on national media. How have you handled that stress?
It’s alternated between harrowing and exhilarating. There will be a Sunday where I’ll say, I can’t do this, I need to skip a week, but I manage get it done and it’s very gratifying and therapeutic.
You have a fear of public speaking that you write you cope with by taking Xanax and one, possibly two shots of vodka before an event. Is that still your regimen?
For some events yes, or a modified version. It’s not doctor-recommended, but it’s a workable solution.
Are you ever concerned that a cure for anxiety could erase aspects of your personality? Is being anxious like begin affable or gregarious, a central part of a person’s identity?
There is an element in which anxiety co-represents with aspects of my personality I wouldn’t want to give up. It allows you to have foresight. I may not be as empathetic. It’s hard to figure out the difference between pathology and personality. How much of a temperament can we medicate away? There’s no conclusive answer.
Has there been any interest from Hollywood in your book?
There’s been both TV and film interest. It may not to pan out, but I think it’s funny and intriguing. I don’t think my life is that interesting, even to me. To convert it into a TV show or movie seems wryly amusing, although I suppose there are comic aspects to my story.