Hi, Anxiety.

Kat Kinsman is a food writer who used to run CNN’s Eatocracy site and now is the senior food and drinks editor at Extra Crispy, a site (also owned by Time, Inc.) dedicated solely to breakfast. She’s also lived with anxiety, panic, and depression for just about her entire life, and since 2014 has been very public about these conditions and the steps she has to take to manage them. Her first book, Hi, Anxiety: Life with a Bad Case of Nerves, is a memoir of a disordered life that is, by turns, funny, sad, aggravating, and most of all, hopeful, as Kinsman has had to overcome mental health challenges beyond what I would call the ‘average’ sufferer has to face – and has done so enough to write this very witty, big-hearted book about it all.

Kinsman’s book is not a how-to, or a self-help book, but is more of a confessional, as she details events or periods of her life, often exposing herself in ways that I imagine were painful for someone with an anxious mind, that were ultimately dictated by her mental health issues. Her mother also had serious depression and anxiety, as well as mini-strokes that appear to have presaged dementia and Parkinson’s, and living with her mom taught Kinsman how to be anxious – how to worry about everything, to blame herself for things beyond her control, and to expect the worst even in harmless situations. Because anxiety tends to feed itself, growing up anxious put Kinsman into more situations that exacerbated the problem, and the medications pushed on her while she was young did not particularly help her and often made things worse.

I’ve written a few times about my own anxiety, including growing up anxious, so the emotional ground Kinsman covers in Hi, Anxiety is familiar to me … but her case is or was certainly more severe than mine. I’ve had lifelong stomach issues, largely related to anxiety, but Kinsman has had to put up with stronger physical manifestations of her anxiety and panic than I ever have, and she’s also had to work harder to maintain control of her environment than I have. She expands on these points in amusing interludes delineating her “irrational fears,” like driving, being driven, or getting her hair cut (in which she also discusses the anxiety around tipping, which I fully appreciate), mundane events that, to most people, pose no problem at all. If you’re anxious, even the simplest tasks become fraught with peril – getting the mail or answering the phone, because you’re afraid it will bring some terrible news or a huge bill; driving to the store, because you might hit someone, or get hit, or just do the wrong thing and make all the other drivers laugh at or scorn your incompetence.

That’s where Hi, Anxiety succeeds most – Kinsman humanizes an anxious life by giving so much detail on episodes from childhood through her marriage where anxiety (and/or depression) prevented her from doing ordinary things, or altered outcomes when she did do something. Many of these events weren’t Kinsman’s fault – she had a few bad boyfriends, one of whom really did a number on her in a way that I won’t spoil because it’s such a “holy shit” moment in the book – but when you’re anxious, you kind of believe the universe is operating against you, or at least that your account with the universe is permanently in arrears, so of course it was your fault, or you had it coming, and why didn’t you prepare better for it?

Kinsman also gets into the techniques that have helped her live with her condition – and those that haven’t, like medications – but is careful not to prescribe for the reader, making it clear in the concluding essay that she doesn’t have the answer and that every anxious person will have to find his/her own solution. For her, it’s talk therapy, some supplements, occasional hypnosis, and avoiding certain known triggers. For me, with a milder case, it’s medication, occasional therapy, some mindfulness techniques, and exercise. Each person’s case is different; there is no single etiology of anxiety or panic disorder and thus no single trick to help you. Hi, Anxiety is the book to help someone understand more about what it’s like to live with a serious mental illness, whether the reader is suffering from it or knows someone who is, and perhaps the spur to go seek treatment. It’s such a quick, compulsive read – I crushed it inside of 24 hours – that you could really recommend it to anyone, even someone with no concept of mental illness, to help them understand something of what it’s like to live with a brain that spends much of its time working against you.

Comments

  1. I just put this on my to read list for the part about anxiety about tipping. That intrigues me. I don’t think I have anxiety about tipping but other than restaurants I never know what’s appropriate.

  2. Keith,

    You mentioned stomach issues, something I’m going through currently (and may have had for most of my adult life), and I’m curious what your symptoms were, and what you’ve done to deal with them beyond the anxiety treatments.

    If it’s too personal to share, I apologize for asking.

    • Not too personal – I’ve put this out there so that maybe I could help others (or learn from them).

      My symptoms mimicked those of IBS, which I think is kind of a BS diagnosis for “we don’t know what’s wrong,” along with some acid reflux that I think was learned behavior from stress and anxiety. Lexapro helped a lot with the former, as does a daily psyllium husk supplement like Metamucil. I take medication for the former as diet alone didn’t fix it.

  3. Marc/Keith, it may be worth investigating a low-FODMAP diet. It has helped me and is based on evidence-based science.

    • Thank you. I’m lactose intolerant to a comical extent – literally, the GI doc laughed at my test results.

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