Finding anxiety in novel pages.

A few days ago, I was buzzing around the local library. I’m going to say buzzing, because browsing would be too serene, and wandering is what I wished I was capable of doing instead. My anxiety was taking my stomach on small leaps that day, causing me to flutter nervously around, haphazardly picking up random books before setting them down again, hoping nobody would notice.

Imagine! Somebody being aware of my existence in the library! How terrifying!

I noticed a book on one of the display shelves at the end of the rows, which had really intriguing cover illustrations. It is a collage of faces, and it drew me closer instantly.

The book was Holding Still For As Long As Possible by Zoe Whittall, and I just got a good feeling from it. It’s weird, how intuition works. After briefly worrying about if it was right to take a book from a display shelf, or if that was a ‘bad’ thing to do, I decided to just get over it, and loan it out. It’s amazing how even a simple trip to the library can include a cascade of anxiety-driven, absolutely ridiculous thoughts.

And what can I say, aside from wow? I need to find better words, aside from wow, for this book.

I think what was worse than a nervous breakdown was the route on the way to it. Everything is scarier when you anticipate it, right? I bet real crazy-town is actually not so bad. Maybe a little bit freeing. Still, I was trying to avoid it with every bit of my anxious, cautious self, and avoiding anxiety only makes it worse. It lurks in your periphery, taunting you with every doubt and possibility you could ever dream up.

I didn’t pick the book based on anything apart from liking the cover. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing to do (note to self – please work on this whole “not being sure of yourself thing” – it’s annoying), but that’s how it happened, and the universe really surprised me.

One of the narrators in the book has panic disorder and OCD, as well as many intrusive thoughts, which naturally filtered her voice, and the way the reader experiences her story. Whittall’s descriptions of panic attacks and anxiety were incredibly accurate to my own experiences, it was kind of spooky. I felt as though the thoughts of the narrator experiencing these could have been mine, but far more coherent and understood.

It didn’t matter that I understood what was going on physiologically  in my body. My neural thermostat was fucked up. My body went into fight-or-flight response for no good reason. Blood rushed to my heart and legs, away from my fingers and face, causing my extremities to tingle. My stomach shut down, throat constricted. All these things are helpful when you’re faced with an oncoming bus. Need to lift a car to save a baby? Awesome. Sitting at dinner? Absolutely incapacitating.

As I quickly read through the book, it was a really enjoyable read, I became sure that Whittall must have experience with anxiety herself, to be able to write so accurately and elegantly about a topic that I imagine would be really difficult to write about otherwise. One quick Google later taught me all I needed to know, and gave me the gift of reading more of Whittall’s writing.

astronomy, clouds, dusk

Having a panic disorder means you’re way too alive, as if someone has turned up your volume button to deafening. Somewhere inside, the real you lies dormant, asleep for fear of having to live like an electric current, a lightning bolt, a bottle breaking into shards. I’m a jack-in-the-box that won’t stop jumping out, an uncontrollable, hiccuping heart.

I found a fabulous short article called Why “Crazy” People Make Great Writers that Zoe Whittall wrote for Open Book, a website celebrating Ontario’s literary scene. Honestly, the more I learn about Canada, the more in awe I am. I am so excited to hopefully travel there someday.

Both Whittall’s article and book are written with great wit, humour, alongside the harsh reality of living with mental illness. And that’s something I admire, an awful heck of a lot.

When you’re having a panic attack the one thing you’re certain of – besides your own death – is that the attack will never end. Even when it does stop, there’s always a sense that another one is on the horizon, and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What are your favourite books that deal particularly well with mental health issues? I would love to have some recommendations.