Nov 29

“Hi, Anxiety”: Kat Kinsman’s “Nerves”

The author comes to the realization that there is no one method that works for everyone, and many can’t manage the fear well, but that these emotions come from an illness and shouldn’t be a source of shame. Kinsman encourages those suffering from the malady to acknowledge what is happening so that they can get the support they deserve. Terry Lamperski, Carnegie Library, Pittsburgh, PA, regarding Kat Kinsman’s Hi, Anxiety

Writer and commentator Kat Kinsman has a new book called Hi, Anxiety: Life With a Bad Case of Nerves. From her publisher:

Taking us back to her adolescence, when she was diagnosed with depression at fourteen, Kat speaks eloquently with pathos and humor about her skin picking, hand flapping, ‘nervousness’ that made her the recipient of many a harsh taunt. With her mother also gripped by depression and health issues throughout her life, Kat came to live in a constant state of unease—that she would fail, that she would never find love . . . that she would end up just like her mother.

Kinsman’s public admission started in January of 2014 via a blog post (CNN.com) that’s full of compelling quotes. A sampling:

Anxiety and panic have been my constant companions for as far back as my memory reaches.

Anxiety hurts. It’s the precise inverse of joy and blots out pleasure at its whim, leaving a dull, faded outline of the happiness that was supposed to happen. It’s also as sneaky as hell.

If depression is, as Winston Churchill famously described, a “black dog” that follows the sufferer around, anxiety is a feral cat that springs from nowhere, sinks its claws into skin and hisses invective until nothing else exists.

Anxiety is not easily explicable or rational — at least not to those who don’t suffer from it — and that only compounds the problem. If it were something concrete — a fear of clowns, birds, cheese or the music of Michael Bublé — there would no doubt be a definitive course of attack involving immersion therapy and a really weird party.

For me, it’s physically painful, from stomach, head and muscle aches to exhaustion from chronic insomnia to raw thumb skin that I’ve picked at until it bled — and kept picking some more.

It’s senseless and hurtful to people I love, and that more than anything is why I’ve been trying to get better.

Behavioral therapy has perhaps been my most effective weapon, but when panic bolts down and pins me, shivering to my bed in the wee, small hours, it’s hard to summon semi-steady breath, let alone any mantras or creative visualizations.

Unfortunately, as Kinsman explains in Hi, Anxiety, certain common remedies haven’t been particularly helpful:

Anti-anxiety medications work beautifully for millions of people. The withdrawal from a particularly wicked one nearly ended me, and the brain zaps (those are sharp, horrifying electrical currents you can physically feel inside your head) and metabolic sluggishness increasingly outweighed any benefits while I was on it. Perhaps I will change my mind someday, but for now that’s not an option.
The gym can be useful, but it’s on the other side of that damned door. So are the much-vaunted yoga and meditation classes that inevitably make me feel as if I’ve failed for being insufficiently zen and relaxed.

While therapy has been good for her overall, she’s also had the misfortune of having to deal with the unexpected loss of her long-term therapist (due to the latter’s health crisis). As reported in the blog piece, however, Kinsman eventually did find someone else to see.

May 18

“Imagine Me Gone”: Mental Illness In the Family

Adam Haslett‘s new novel Imagine Me Gone echoes a main theme from his highly acclaimed 2002 debut, You Are Not a Stranger Here: mental illness and its effects on loved ones. Notably, despite the seriousness of Haslett’s material, apparently there’s also no shortage of humor.

As Haslett tells Scott Simon, NPR, there’s personal background to go with this: “…I’m no stranger to mental illness. You know, my father committed suicide when I was 14. My brother indeed suffered from anxiety. And I’ve been no stranger to those states myself, luckily, for some unknown reason, not in the same severity of my father or brother.”

Kirkus Reviews introduces Imagine Me Gone: “This touching chronicle of love and pain traces half a century in a family of five, from the parents’ engagement in 1963 through a father’s and son’s psychological torments and a final crisis…Each chapter is told by one of the family’s five voices, shifting the point of view on shared troubles, showing how they grow away from one another without losing touch.”

More info from Heller McAlpin, NPR, about the five family members:

…a British-American couple, John and Margaret, and their three grown children. We learn early that Margaret chose to proceed with her marriage to John even after unexpectedly learning about his history of severe depression during their engagement. We also learn that their eldest son, Michael, manifested a ‘ceaseless brain’ and obsession with the plight of slaves even as a child, while their daughter Celia began showing mature coping skills at an early age. Celia recalls the time her father cut the engine and played dead on a small boat in Maine, testing her and her younger brother Alec with the challenge, ‘Imagine me gone, imagine it’s just the two of you. What do you do?’ Celia kept her cool and reassured her panicked brother to regard it ‘like a safety drill at school.’

Celia becomes a social worker, Alec “a bossily opinionated gay man” (WSJ), but in the center of family turmoil is Michael. The following is an oft-cited quote from the book about Michael’s high anxiety, for which many different medications are tried:

What do you fear when you fear everything? Time passing and not passing. Death and life. I could say my lungs never filled with enough air no matter how many puffs of my inhaler I took or that my thoughts moved too quickly to complete, severed by perpetual vigilance. But even to say this would abet the lie that terror can be described when anyone who’s ever known it knows that it has no components but is instead everywhere inside you all the time until you can recognize yourself only by the tensions that string one minute to the next. And yet I keep lying by describing because how else can I avoid this second and the one after it? This being in the condition itself, the relentless need to escape a moment that never ends.

More about Michael from Jessica Winter, BookForum: “…a figure at once half-deranged and brilliant, stymied and restless, utterly self-absorbed and yet pseudo-empathetic to the point of pathology.”

Alexis Burling, San Francisco Chronicle: “Haslett hits the nail on the head when it comes to describing just how anguishing and time-consuming psychiatric disorders can be, not only for the afflicted but also for the flailing loved ones trying their damnedest-and failing-to find a suitable fix…”

Aug 26

“Two Days, One Night”: Film Depicts Depression, Quietly

Critical favorite Two Days, One Nightjust released on DVD, is of interest to this blog because of its portrayal of depression

Depression may feel endless, but it’s never constant. It comes and goes in torturous peaks and valleys, often triggered by external influences beyond anyone’s control. We laugh, we cry; we scream, we whisper — it’s a process. On a long enough timeline, the illness may become a safety net — or a form of seclusion — offering sanctity and solitude because, after all, that’s what has become the norm. If anything of this rings a bell, it should; everyone battles with depression at one point or another. Whether it’s conquered or contained, however, is how the lines are typically drawn.

With Two Days, One Night, two-time Palme d’Or winners Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne turn their camera on Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard for a swift 95-minute portrait of the pitfalls and struggles of depression. Michael Roffman, Consequence of Sound

The Plot

A young Belgian worker, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), finds out she’s at risk of being fired. David Sims, The Atlantic, further explains:

Sandra, we gradually learn, is resurfacing from a bout of depression that saw her miss time at work, and in her absence her bosses realized they could live without her by spreading her workload out among the other employees. They thus face a cruel choice, proposed by their bosses: They can either vote to receive a 1,000 Euro bonus, or save Sandra’s job and let her come back to work. After losing one vote, Sandra is permitted to make her case amid talk of management interference. Two Days, One Night follows Sandra’s sometimes excruciating, sometimes heartwarming journey through town trying to convince the co-workers she barely knows to reject the money and give her another chance.

More details from A.O. Scott, New York Times:

Sandra and her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), live with their two young children in a clean, well-appointed townhouse, a big, hard-won step up from the ‘social housing’ where they used to live. The thought of going back is especially galling to Manu, who works in the kitchen of a chain restaurant and who pushes his wife to make her case. Anxious, frequently tearful and quick to reach for a Xanax, Sandra would rather curl up in bed than endure the humiliation of begging for the pity of her peers.

The Depiction of Depression

Michael Roffman, Consequence of Sound: “To date, depression has never felt so delicate and hypnotic on film.”

Kristy Puchko, Cinema Blend: “This is not the kind of depression that Hollywood likes to sell complete with gnashing of teeth and pained wails. It’s quieter, more about a lack of verve and oppressive melancholy. It’s true to life, and at times hard to watch. But every step of the way, Cotillard nails this tricky performance.”

The Trailer

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: “As a parable on karma, capitalism and Darwinian corporate politics, ‘Two Days, One Night’ can often feel brutal. As a testament to connection, service, sacrifice and self-worth, it’s a soaring, heart-rending hymn.”

Oct 06

“Rocks in My Pockets”: Mental Illness in One Family

Rocks in My Pockets is a film about depression that involves humor.  It’s also, per the taglineA crazy quest for sanity.

In the writer/director/narrator Signe Baumane‘s own words:

‘Rocks In My Pockets’ is a story of mystery and redemption. The film is based on true events involving the women of my family, including myself, and our battles with madness. It raises questions of how much family genetics determine who we are and if it is possible to outsmart one’s own DNA. The film is packed with visual metaphors, surreal images and my twisted sense of humor. It is an animated tale full of art, women, strange daring stories, Latvian accents, history, nature, adventure and more.

More About the Women

Charles Solomon, Los Angeles Times: “…(T)hree generations of intelligent, educated women in her family struggled with depression, possible schizophrenia and suicide. Twice, neighbors found her paternal grandmother, Anna, floundering in the shallow river near her home in the Latvian forest. Despite her obvious vigor, Anna’s premature death at 50 was ascribed to a mysterious heart problem. Two of Baumane’s cousins were suicides, and Baumane herself was diagnosed as manic-depressive before she left Latvia for the United States.”

About the Title

Peter Keough, Boston Globe: “…(S)he tries to trace the depressive gene back through her family tree. She begins in Latvia in 1949, where a peasant is horrified to see her neighbor Anna, Baumane’s grandmother, standing fully clothed in a shallow river. It seems that, like Virginia Woolf, Anna was trying to drown herself. Unlike Woolf, she forgot to put rocks in her pockets to weigh herself down.”

The Trailer

The Animation and Style

Ben Sachs, Chicago Reader: “…(C)haracters morph into animals or objects, then back again, and metaphors are rendered literally. The latter device helps to convey the subjectiveness of mental illness—during one of the heroine’s depressive episodes, a balloon full of razorblades inflates inside her stomach.”

The Narration

Nicolas Rapold, New York Times: “It’s told with remorseless psychological intelligence, wicked irony and an acerbic sense of humor.”

Christy Lemire, rogerebert.com: “…Baumane tends to meander in her storytelling, bouncing around in time as she visits such disparate subjects as history, suicide, education and feminism. And she employs a sing-songy, heavily accented tone of voice, regardless of the subject matter. It’s immediately off-putting and it smothers every second of the film, but eventually you grow accustomed to the narration and it becomes merely grating.”

Charles Solomon, Los Angeles Times: “Unfortunately, Baumane’s narration greatly weakens ‘Rocks in My Pockets.’ The thick Latvian accent is less a problem than her stolid delivery.”

The Mental Illness

Nick Schager, Village Voice: “With an insightfulness born from firsthand experience, Rocks in My Pockets posits depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia as conditions that, though potentially lethal, remain manageable, if only through persistent battle.”

Charles Solomon, Los Angeles Times: “‘Rocks in My Pockets’ is not an easy film to watch: It rips the bandages — and scabs — off what are clearly festering wounds. But it serves as a striking reminder of the individuals who suffer similar pains in silence, and of the special power of animation to make the unseen visible.”

The Takeaway

Alissa Simon, Variety:

Like Baumane’s earlier shorts, the years-in-the-making ‘Rocks in My Pockets’ is fiercely feminist…Some of the images, such as that of a woman trapped under a bell jar while her husband watches from outside, perfectly epitomize marriage as experienced by Anna and her female descendants. Meanwhile, apt turns of phrase in the spoken narration (e.g., ‘My mind feels like a badly wired building’) make mental illness seem less alien.

Ella Taylor, NPR:

Baumane’s most poignant insight is that for potential suicides who really mean business, the pain grows so insufferable, or the voices in their heads so persuasive, that they see death as relief, even liberation from their suffering. One relative speaks of killing herself as an act of freedom. Baumane describes one meticulous plan to hang herself as her ‘way to success.’

That has the ring of truth — who among us has not wondered why so-and-so killed him or herself when they had so much to live for? But it’s a bitter pill to swallow for those left behind. So it comes as a huge relief to know that this endlessly imaginative artist found another way to save herself from the isolation that prompts so many suicides.

Nick Schager, Village Voice: “’Rocks in My Pockets’ offers a lot to process, both visually and emotionally. It’s an exhausting experience at just under 90 minutes, and it might have been more powerful in shorter form. The fact that it offers hope at the end—for Baumane herself and for anyone who has suffered similar torment—is an enormous relief.”

Jan 07

“My Age of Anxiety” by Scott Stossel

My anxiety remains an unhealed wound that, at times, holds me back and fills me with shame—but it may also be, at the same time, a source of strength and a bestower of certain blessings. Scott Stossel, author of My Age of Anxiety

Out today is the stigma-busting My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossel, the editor of The Atlantic (click on the link for a related article), in which he admits his many anxiety-related conditions. In this book Stossel also offers an extensive history and explanation of how the world has tried to understand and treat this wide-ranging category of disorders.

States publisher Knopf in the book description:

Stossel reports on famous individuals who struggled with anxiety, as well as on the afflicted generations of his own family. His portrait of anxiety reveals not only the emotion’s myriad manifestations and the anguish anxiety produces but also the countless psychotherapies, medications, and other (often outlandish) treatments that have been developed to counteract it. Stossel vividly depicts anxiety’s human toll—its crippling impact, its devastating power to paralyze—while at the same time exploring how those who suffer from it find ways to manage and control it.

The gist of his own personal history? “In short, I have, since the age of about 2, been a twitchy bundle of phobias, fears, and neuroses. And I have, since the age of 10, when I was first taken to a mental hospital for evaluation and then referred to a psychiatrist for treatment, tried in various ways to overcome my anxiety.”

Stossel provides a long list of therapies and medications (and types of alcohol) he’s tried over the years. Of everything, he credits certain medications as helping the most—albeit only somewhat and “for finite periods of time.”

And, whereas meditation has been the most “reliable” form of therapy he’s used, “none of these treatments has fundamentally reduced the underlying anxiety that seems hardwired into my body and woven into my soul and that at times makes my life a misery.”

On the nature of anxiety in general, Stossel offers this concise explanation:

The truth is that anxiety is at once a function of biology and philosophy, body and mind, instinct and reason, personality and culture. Even as anxiety is experienced at a spiritual and psychological level, it is scientifically measurable at the molecular level and the physiological level. It is produced by nature and it is produced by nurture. It’s a psychological phenomenon and a sociological phenomenon. In computer terms, it’s both a hardware problem (I’m wired badly) and a software problem (I run faulty logic programs that make me think anxious thoughts). The origins of a temperament are many-faceted; emotional dispositions that seem to have a simple, single source—a bad gene, say, or a childhood trauma—may not.

Just a Few Positive Reviews of My Age of Anxiety

Kirkus Reviews: “Throughout, the author’s beautiful prose and careful research combine to make this book informative, thoughtful and fun to read. Powerful, eye-opening and funny. Pitch perfect in his storytelling, Stossel reminds us that, in many important ways, to be anxious is to be human.”

Booklist: “Tying together notions about anxiety culled from history, philosophy, religion, sports, and literature with current neuropsychiatric research and his extensive personal experience, Stossel’s book is more than an astounding autobiography, more than an atlas of anxiety. His deft handling of a delicate topic and frustrating illness highlights the existential dread, embarrassment, and desperation associated with severe anxiety yet allows room for resiliency, hope, transcendence. Absolutely fearless writing.”

Publishers Weekly: “Stossel’s journey through his own life is unsparing, darkly funny (a nervous stomach tends to flare up at the worst times, like in front of JFK Jr.), but above all, hopeful. As with many sufferers, Stossel’s quest to find relief is unfinished, but his book relays a masterful understanding of the condition he and millions of others endure.”