Amanda Stern on Living with Anxiety in an Increasingly Scary World

The author of ‘Little Panic,’ shares her fears

Amanda Stern, author of the novel The Long Haul and multiple pseudonymous children’s books, has been a fixture in the New York literary scene for years. In 2003 she created the Happy Ending reading series, which ran for thirteen years and required participants to take “one public risk.” (Jennifer Egan drew portraits of the performers; Zadie Smith took the number of shots that was rolled on dice — six.) Personally, though, Stern’s life was driven by fear. Little Panic is her vivid and heartbreaking memoir of living with an anxiety disorder that went undiagnosed for 20 years.

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As a kid, Stern couldn’t tell time because she didn’t trust numbers that change their meaning. How could anything be consistent, safe, if ten o’clock can be both morning and night? She felt most comfortable at home, and the 1970s Greenwich Village of her youth — raised in a row house near where Bob Dylan once lived — is written almost like Mayberry: the shared garden where she played with other kids, the familiar bums on the corner, the mafia guys who protected the neighborhood. But when her best friend passed away and her sister’s friend was kidnapped the same year six-year-old Etan Patz went missing down the block from her home, Amanda knew she was right to be scared, even if adults ignored her anxiety. The world is dangerous, and people disappear if you’re not careful.

Little Panic bucks the expectations that are placed on women and girls. Young Amanda was too sensitive, too loud, she cursed too much. She wasn’t “smart” in the way that a litany of cryptic intelligence tests seemed to show, so she was convinced that she wasn’t smart at all. As an adult with her anxiety managed, all she wanted was to start a family and she was forced to come to terms with being single in her forties and not having kids.

We talked via phone and email about living with fear in an increasingly scary world, how women’s pain is often ignored, and how a stalker encouraged her public risk-taking.

Katy Hershberger: The way you write about your childhood experience is so visceral and so detailed. Did you remember it this way, or did you have to go back and research those parts of your life?

Amanda Stern: My childhood panic is like a story that’s been printed inside me. I just have to read it in order to return. The problem is, for me, it reads like a Stephen King novel — it’s scary, and traumatizing to revisit. But, for the book to be any good, it had to accurately capture the relentless sensations I experienced as a child (and have worked so hard to distance myself from), and that required re-immersing myself in mental anguish. I spent a lot of time lying down on my couch where I’d drop myself onto my childhood bed, back into my body, and open myself to the panicked sensations: of wind rushing up my esophagus, the shallow and mentholated breaths, minty pulses, fevered vibrations, oscillating temperature, color patterns and anesthetizing pins and needles. Then I’d race to the computer and transcribe everything I’d just felt.

While I didn’t always remember factual details about routine things and had to ask my siblings (like how we were transported uptown to our father’s house every other weekend), I’ve never forgotten the feeling-patterns that emerged inside my body during the actual events, despite not always recalling the details.

KH: You write books for young people, and I’m curious about how that career informs your writing about your own childhood. Do you feel a responsibility to legitimize the feelings of kids? Was there anything about writing fictional kids that carried over into writing about yourself?

AS: I do feel an immense responsibility (and urgency) to legitimize the feelings of children. Unprocessed traumas from childhood don’t heal if they aren’t digested, and I think one way in which I try and metabolize my own wounds is by doing for other kids what wasn’t done for me, and that’s seeing, hearing, and taking them seriously. Writing for kids is my attempt to help articulate their feelings when they don’t yet have the vocabulary. The child I was still exists inside me, scared of the world but pretending to be undaunted. It’s from inside the experience of my own childhood self that I write about kids, for kids, and in the case of Little Panic, for adults.

As for which career is doing the informing…I’ve always considered myself a writer for adults. That’s what informs all my work. I fell into writing for children after having published a novel and a bunch of stories, and it’s writing about youth for adults that informed my children’s book characters.

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KH: I’m really interested in the ways that people are informed by their young lives, and divert from them. Do you feel like you’re the same person you were as a kid?

AS: I do, and I don’t. I’m the same in that I’m sensitive, emotional, and vulnerable and still mask it by being jokey. That’s something that’s been highly developed as a tool to cope with the ping-ponging panic inside me. In other fundamental ways I’m quite different: I can leave home now. I can travel. I can face my fears, I can feel my feelings and know who to call or what to do when I’m spiraling. My young life was terrifying, not because so many terrible things happened to me (although this is true, also) but because I felt incompatible with the fabric of the universe, unknown and entirely alone. Not wanting to live beholden to my fears was what catapulted me into growing into my adult self. I made a choice to face everything that scared me, and I have. I’ve faced it all, and what I’ve learned is that facing something once is not always enough.

KH: As an anxious person, particularly an anxious kid, so much of this book hit home for me. Have you heard from other people who’ve experienced similar feelings?

AS: The absolute best and most unexpected part of ushering this book into the world has been the letters I’ve received. Each one makes me a little weepy and fills me with an emotion so rare it took me days to identify — pride. My entire childhood, and all my young adult years, were spent waiting for someone to recognize the invisible dread inside me, to name the unnamable source that knew how to operate me according to its own rules, but not the rules of the world. So, to hear from others that I helped identify and name their fears, that they felt understood and validated, that something I wrote hit home for them, has exceeded anything I have wanted for this book — and I want a Pulitzer!

The more we admit to our fears and our human-ness, the safer we’ll feel in the world. If my being honest about what I’ve been through helps others talk about what they’ve been through, to admit their fears and vulnerabilities — even if it’s just to me via email, then I’ll feel like I’ve contributed something to the world.

The more we admit to our fears and our human-ness, the safer we’ll feel in the world.

KH: Why write this book, and why write it now?

AS: I had to write about it precisely because it was so painful. We spend so much of our lives hiding our true selves from each other, and often from ourselves. The older we get, and the more we confide in people and hear their confessions, the deeper our awareness and understanding becomes that we’re not the only ones hiding, and if other people share our fears than we are not alone. I wrote this book to be the person sharing her fears with others, to give hope to those who feel invalidated and shamed by a world that doesn’t understand them.

I’ve wasted too many years faking it, and I’ve lost so much time feeling ashamed for being human in this particular way. You get older, your friends get cancer and die suddenly from heart attacks, and you realize there’s no more time for this bullshit. I’ve hid myself for so long precisely because I often feel too real, and because authenticity isn’t necessarily prized in our culture. But this is the human being I am, this is the who I was born into, and I want to face the painful things and to be authentic because that’s the only way I feel truly alive.

KH: Did other people in your life not know about your panic disorder?

AS: Until I was 25 years old, no one knew what was wrong with me. I knew I felt defective, like I didn’t work the way I was supposed to, the way other people did. The disorder itself was invisible, but some of the symptoms manifested at school in concrete ways, on tests and classroom participation. Because I did so poorly on tests (because I was panicking!) and didn’t participate in class (because I was panicking!), I was sent for IQ testing. From the ages of eleven to nineteen, I was tested and tested and tested. The results were withheld from me, and all I was told was that I had some sort of learning disability, which to me was a coded way of saying “dumb.” It wasn’t hard for me to accept that I was dumb, but I also knew that inside me there lived this other thing, a constant fear, which I knew was not dumbness, but because no doctor could locate or name my feelings, and never asked me questions about my emotions, I assumed that this other thing I had was worse than dumb. And I hid this shameful thing until I was unable to hold it any longer.

I wrote this book to be the person sharing her fears with others, to give hope to those who feel invalidated and shamed by a world that doesn’t understand them.

KH: There’s been more talk recently about how often women’s pain is ignored, and it seems like ‘Little Panic’ takes that one step further to highlight how often young women and girls’ pain is discounted.

AS: Doctors learn about medicine and they learn about specialties, but they don’t learn about psychology or emotion. So when people come in who have symptoms that are psychological or emotional, they dismiss them. And it is probably true, I don’t know if this is actually fact, that women are more comfortable sharing those symptoms than men are. But because doctors aren’t taught how to deal with it they dismiss it for a couple of reasons. I think one is that they don’t want to be caught not knowing something, so they revert to what they know, and doing that that means that they have to dismiss problems. But I think it’s also that they have a bias, and it’s really a shame.

I also think that doctors don’t puzzle anything out anymore. They don’t figure out what the problem is because they’re so specialized and they have so little time and they book too many people. I think that the way doctors are taught is so limited and so limiting, and it’s a real disservice to the people they serve. And I think that when it comes to testing, like intelligence testing and standardized testing, the tests are biased. It’s similar in the sense that evaluators and administrators — maybe they do now but they didn’t used to take into account the conditions or the environment or what might have happened leading up to the test. Or concerns about what’s going on in your life. They don’t look at the issues, they just look at the test results, but the conditions inform the test results. A test is just a measure of how good you are at taking a test. So I think all these things are really faulty and that girls and women get pillaged and pummeled and lost in all of it.

KH: Just like in so many other things.

AS: Yes! Exactly. It’s funny, I’m not sure why women’s pain is so dismissed by doctors unless it’s that everything a woman says that they don’t understand is cycled back into an emotion. Like, the doctors just create a channel for the physical symptoms they don’t understand, they channel it back to some emotional root and then dismiss it. It’s a real problem.

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KH: I remember that the Happy Endings series always had performers take one public risk, and I’m wondering if that had anything to do with your own relationship with fear.

AS: It did. It’s funny, I think you’re maybe the second person to ever ask me that…within the span of my entire life. When my first book came out, I went tour across the country and I didn’t think about the reading aspect of it. I didn’t think in advance about how I would do onstage, I was more concerned with the logistics. So the first time I got up onstage I said something that made people laugh and I noticed that the second they laughed my anxiety lowered. So I thought ‘ok, well this is good, how do I make sure they laugh every time?’

I had a stalker on my tour. He followed me, he sent me things, he called me, and it was creepy. He sent me a box of things. And I thought, ‘oh, here’s what I’m gonna do.’ I’m going to auction off a different thing from this box the stalker sent me at every reading.

KH: Did you tell people it was from the stalker?

AS: Yes. So I sort of turned it into this kind of a gimmick but it helped me get over my anxiety. If I could make them laugh then I was comfortable. It was about creating comfort for me in front of an audience. So when I started the series, I thought ‘I want to do that for the authors.’ I want to create a space of comfort for them, and I didn’t really know how to do it. And then I realized that if I had them worry about something that wasn’t their reading, they wouldn’t worry about the reading. So that’s when I created the risk as a way to bypass the fear and refocus it, to sort of reframe the entire event so that it’s not about the thing that makes you the most nervous, but it’s about something else that’s not as important at all. If you get nervous about the thing that’s not important, that feels like something a person who has anxiety can actually deal with a little bit better. So that’s how it started. It was a method for me to be able to read to an audience without having a panic attack, and I wanted to find a way to do that for other authors.

KH: How do you manage your fear and mental health now, especially when the world seems to be increasingly anxiety-inducing?

AS: I’ve been in therapy and on medication for years (Celexa/Wellbutrin ←not ashamed). Because I am a reader, I devour books on mental illness, anxiety and childhood development, but I also read parenting books which people find strange because I have no children. But, it’s so helpful. Once I understand what should have been in place for me, what could have been done, other things click into place and I understand more about why I am the way I am. When I connect a present issue to its roots, the problem is loosened. When I exercise, I feel a lot better, but I struggle with getting myself to work out. When I meditate, I feel a great deal better, but I struggle with getting myself to meditate.

Admittedly, with T as “President of the United States” daily life is a lot more difficult than it used to be. Since 2016, I’ve felt like someone activated my settings and never turned them off (this is my covert way of not using the word triggered). My fears and anxieties have been heightened in the same ways they were after 9/11. The best defense against spiraling is to be as politically active as possible. Even if it’s just tweeting numbers to call or places to go. Being engaged helps, but increasingly there are more moments I feel I have to pull away and not read the paper, watch the news, or get online, and about that I’m very conflicted.

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