Nerves and the Nervous

Book review: Hi, Anxiety: Life with a Bad Case of Nerves, by Kat Kinsman

Food writer and former CNN writer/editor Kat Kinsman writes a baring, unflinching memoir of her lifelong experiences living with anxiety. I started reading it and had to stop and take a break, because even confronting the subject made me feel anxious. There are some difficult passages – I guess if a specific strain of worry hits close to the personal, expect to cringe and/or feel that familiar churning in the stomach. But I don’t think that anyone with mild degrees of anxiety or “nervousness” will have trouble reading it; in many ways, it’s therapeutic.

Kinsman writes in a down-to-earth, confessional tone of the overwhelming feelings that set an anxiety sufferer apart; that something is wrong or will go wrong; someone is angry with you or doesn’t love you when they should; or that you’re a faker, unworthy of anything good that life has given you. Although you’ve worked for something, you probably haven’t earned it. These are scary thoughts, and they flit through the minds of nearly everyone at one point or another. But for someone with anxiety, they’re ever-present. With personal anecdotes and some beautifully written lines, like: “Worry and its physical manifestations are part of who I am, from soul to skin” and “I’ve always been a lover of objects, imbuing them with meaning and emotional weight that they weren’t necessarily made to bear”, she shows a sensitive, vulnerable side of anxiety.

Kinsman tells her stories not to elicit sympathy or play up how broken she is amidst an inspiring tale of overcoming, but rather to extend a hand and show others that sympathy for mental illness exists, even if many face obstacles, stigmas or lack of support from family, friends, employers, religions, or health insurance. Her experiences are seen through the lens of ever-present anxiety; it’s an actual electric current running through events, life decisions and what one might view as personality quirks. She discusses her childhood and teenage interactions, stint as a midtown Manhattan dominatrix, her relationship with her very ill mother, her dating life online and off, living in a deteriorating, unheated apartment with hoarded Diet Coke bottles, and faking it until making it as both a web programmer and food writer, all openly and honestly.

She also relates episodes of general, everyday things that can be a nightmare for the anxiety-prone, like arranging and attending doctor’s appointments and haircuts, interspersing these amidst longer chapters detailing specific episodes or periods from her life. It’s a neat, effective structure, because many of these almost silly-seeming everyday difficulties would really surprise someone who’s never had a prolonged bout of anxiety. She admits that they seem silly, but that’s part of the problem, and part of confronting it.

Some anecdotes I found less powerful, though she connects them to her story with purpose – a chapter about her dominatrix work came across as boring when it was meant to be shocking, maybe I’ve just been (un)lucky enough to have several friends/acquaintances who did this work and had the same stories, told in the same style of anticipating shock and surprise and it was just mundane to read more of it. Certain relationship details were a little too deep for me, but I can see why she included them, in the interest of creating a complete portrait of her life and what troubles and corresponding solutions she’s found, even the little things, good and bad.

Although it lagged in parts for me, I think this will be a helpful book, for anxiety-sufferers and for those who know, love, or live with one. You probably do, whether you’re aware or not. Mental illness still carries a debilitating stigma, and maybe reading this can help someone on the outside understand another’s struggles.

The things that most people take for granted – being able to leave the house, go to work, hold down a job even, pick up the phone, go on a date, see a friend, drive a car, pay a bill – take so much extra effort when there’s an iron vise keeping you from breathing. Having to pretend for everyone’s sake that you’re okay so they keep liking, respecting, trusting, or employing you, or to spare them the worry – it’s a full-time job. I had to take the risk and quit that job or it was going to kill me.

That’s her reason for writing, for confessing an illness that’s still often viewed as something you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps from, that still can affect directly or indirectly one’s perception in work, relationships, and life. It’s a bold, brave book and I agree with Kinsman; if it helps a single person, it’s worthwhile.

Hi, Anxiety: Life with a Bad Case of Nerves
by Kat Kinsman

published November 15, 2016 by Dey Street Books (Harper Collins)

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