“In My Age of Anxiety, Stossel cites a quote by the author Angela Carter: ‘Anxiety is the beginning of conscience.’ I’ve thought about it a lot and I think she might be right.”
I chose this header quote from Eleanor Morgan’s ‘personal investigation’ into anxiety firstly because I love Angela Carter and eat up everything she says, and because I, like Morgan, think she is right. A person who holds their conscience dear will probably worry a lot about things which are out of their control. In a cruel twist that epitomises everything an anxiety sufferer doesn’t want, having disordered anxiety can cause you to become quite a difficult person indeed. Excessive care and worry underlies the problem, which then becomes a much larger problem for yourself and others, and an all-consuming vicious circle is born! A little reassurance that this bad feeling might stem from a good place is a small relief. Morgan traces the paths to and from an anxious mind in clear but colourful language, and in great detail for Anxiety For Beginners, making the difficult subject matter an easy and enjoyable read.
Recently I told a colleague about this book, and she repeated the exact thing I’d thought when I first learned about it: “I have anxiety, I’m not a beginner.” !!! I love this title and it’s made me see that we are ALL beginners in the fluid field of mental health. Always, and especially, your own. When you think you’ve mastered your old traits, your anxy brain will throw you a new curveball. Despite quietening some other manifestations I’ve had, the social aspect of anxiety is one I’m far from expert in, despite dealing with this for too long now. No matter how many years in you are – whether you’ve had a decade of therapy or just suffered your first panic attack – I’m confident this book can enlighten you.
A few chapters in, I was sceptical that my experience was too different from Morgan’s, and therefore her investigation might not be helpful to me (which is why I came to this book – a bid to learn something from someone a bit wiser in this muddle than me. Less of a beginner. That title is clever trickery.) Then she dedicated a chapter to explaining ‘flavour’.
“The way each person experiences anxiety can vary enormously. Not only do each of us have our own different constellation of symptoms, we all have a unique pattern of issues that we develop anxiety about. What may be stressful to one person may barely cause another to bat an eyelid.”
At this point I dropped my fears that what was coming did not apply to me. New terms like this that Morgan coins/uses were really helpful to me in broadening my scope of what I think mental illness is and how it works. As I said, the tremendous detail in this book covered everything I wanted to know, and what I didn’t know I wanted to know. Chapters interlinking different mental illnesses, in particular OCD, were so helpful in understanding that your personal ‘constellation’ of symptoms might reach across the tenuous borders of other mental health conditions. For instance, Morgan’s examination of OCD in terms of intrusive thoughts and not the stereotypical ‘fear of germs’ was a real eye-opener into my own ‘flavour’.
Somewhere in this book (which I should have made a note of because now I can’t find it) Morgan writes something along the lines of, or maybe exactly, “People with anxiety are preoccupied with time.” This statement flashed a lightbulb in my brain. I am OBSESSED with time, or more specifically, thinking I have none. Upon this realisation I’ve now begun making myself an itinerary for my days, and even timed myself doing things, so that I’d never tell myself “I have no time to do that thing” because I have 5 hours until I have to be at work. Massive nonsense. Now I fit so much more into my day without imagining that hours are tiny, rigid and limiting. Next up on the fix-list will be extending this mindset to a larger timescale. No more “there is no point getting a new job where I might be happier because I plan to move in x number of months.” NOOOO. Make changes for the better of NOW, not according to flimsy and vague ideas. Do one thing and then figure out the next. Do not refuse to do things now because another thing just MIGHT happen later.
As well as flavour and time, Morgan dedicates in-depth sections into the relationship between anxiety and food (and vice versa), social anxiety (BLUSHING!!!), hormones (particularly interesting if you have a menstrual cycle), and looooaaaads more, in which you’ll come to understand that this isn’t all in your mind at all. It’s a full body experience. It affects your body and your body affects it. There’s inextricable links whereby addressing a bodily issue you might have could very well alleviate some anxiety. And maybe that getting help for your mind could help your body in ways you didn’t expect. Morgan also goes to lengths to break down stigma around and assure readers that both talking therapy and medication are okay to do, and that one way could work for you which may not for another person. Your flavour, your remedy.
Now, let’s talk about the cover (my edition is the luminous orange/cracked egg). I have two points. First is the neon orange. People think of mental health issues as dark cloud, grey day, black and white torrential rainstorm diseases. They do indeed cast fog over your vision and dull your brain functions, but for me they also cause vivid technicolour dreams and flashing red, yellow, blue panic. Plus, Morgan’s colourful use of frank, exact and funny language sheds bright light over facets of mental health that sufferers themselves might before have felt in the dark about. Secondly, I shitting love the egg. In my first ever, earliest experience of anxiety, I expressly remember writing a blog note on Bebo, saying something along the lines of “it feels as if my brain’s been smashed to pieces and I can’t find all the bits”. (If only Bebo weren’t wiped from the internet; I’d love to go back and find it.) But how beautifully Morgan’s cracked egg illustrates this for me. It does feel like something in your brain and your personality has irreparably changed shape. Putting a smashed egg back together would be a tiresome, thankless and pointless process. But never mind – there should be a brand new fluffy yellow chick of joy inside when it’s over. A new thing with a new purpose emerges from the shell! Or if not, there’s a nice protein rich fried egg for your breakfast to make you stronger! I love a good analogy and this simple, hugely effective cover provides me with many. 10/10.
I wholeheartedly recommend this pleasure to read and amazing insight to anyone who suffers their own flavour of anxiety (which is SO MANY PEOPLE – so many more than you think – none of us are alone), or maybe even more importantly, anyone who loves anyone who does. I’ve never forayed into ‘self-help’ reading before, (a classification I hope the author won’t mind – it has helped me and I’m confident that writing it helped her) but now I can’t wait to find another. If you have any recommendations for something similar to this please let me know!