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Reading ‘My Age of Anxiety’ in Zanzibar

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The book: My Age of Anxiety, by Scott Stossel

The place: Pakacha Bungalows, Bwejuu, Zanzibar

Rather incongruous to be reading a book about anxiety in what is surely one of the most relaxing places on earth.

There should be more books like this. It reminded me a lot of Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon, which takes more or less the same approach to depression – history and analysis interwoven with personal experience – that Stossel takes to anxiety. I feel like this book – and Solomon’s – should be required reading or anyone inclined to take a dismissive or minimising view of things like anxiety and depression. I include myself in that – I have an unfortunate tendency, sometimes (not always) to forget that clinical aniety and depression are not the same as being a bit fretful or a bit down, and are certainly not the sort of things that people should be expected to just grit their teeth and get over.

(My one experience with what would count as Proper Anxiety was thanks to inadvertently taking a massive dose of the antimalarial Lariam to treat malaria in 2010. What I remember most clearly about the experience is the extent to which my anxiety manifested as physical; the first night that it became clear that something was amiss, I awoke from a semi-waking dream involving large sentient paper skulls (admittedly that part was purely psychological), and spent the rest of the night staring wide-eyed into the darkness, utterly convinced that I was having a stroke. It wasn’t until a doctor friend put two and two together the next day that I realised what I had been experiencing as an entirely physical phenomenon was effectively my brain dumping increasing quantities of chemicals into my bloodstream in a futile attempt to trigger my fight or flight response. The anxiety persisted for another few weeks, but became markedly different in form – a subsonic, doom-laden rumble that made the most innocuous activity feel as if it were fraught with danger (I was stuck on a sofa for hours because I was subconsciously convinced that if I unbent my legs to get up, or even to change positions, I would be unleashing all sorts of unnamed demons upon myself), rather than that initial intense and bodily panic sensation. I’m enormously grateful that I don’t have to experience either sensation on a regular basis, and that my habitual fretting doesn’t have any sort of physical manifestation.)

That said: I do still find the cultural variance of rates of anxiety and depression confusing and somewhat troubling. (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie touches on this in Americanah, which is bloody brilliant and which I also read recently.) Are there any decent books about that, I wonder? I have a faint recollection of discussing this as part of the medical anthropology course I did as part of my degree long ago, but I can’t remember any of the sources that were cited.

Meanwhile, here’s some more Zanzibar.

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Written by Jess

April 25, 2014 at 7:50 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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