Surviving Anxiety

I've tried therapy, drugs, and booze. Here’s how I came to terms with the nation's most common mental illness.
Anxious on vacation: the author, age 10, in Bermuda (Courtesy of the Stossel family)

Everyone knows that anxiety can cause gastrointestinal distress. (My friend Anne says that the most effective weight-loss program she ever tried was the Stressful-Divorce Diet.) But medical researchers have charted the connections in precise and systematic detail: as one’s mental state changes, for instance, so does blood flow to and from the stomach. The gastrointestinal system is a concrete and direct register of one’s psychology. In their 1943 landmark of psychosomatic research, Human Gastric Function, the physicians Stewart Wolf and Harold Wolff concluded that there was a strong inverse correlation between what they called “emotional security” and stomach discomfort.

That’s certainly true in my case. Being anxious makes my stomach hurt and my bowels loosen. My stomach hurting and my bowels loosening makes me more anxious, which makes my stomach hurt more and my bowels even looser, and so nearly every trip of any significant distance from home ends up the same way: with me scurrying frantically from restroom to restroom on a kind of grand tour of the local latrines. For instance, I don’t have terribly vivid recollections of the Vatican or the Colosseum or the Italian rail system. I do, however, have detailed memories of the public restrooms in the Vatican and at the Colosseum and in various Italian train stations in the winter of 2002. One day, I visited the Trevi Fountain—or, rather, my wife and her family visited the Trevi Fountain. I visited the restroom of a nearby gelateria, where a series of impatient Italians banged on the door while I bivouacked there. The next day, when the family drove to Pompeii, I gave up and stayed in bed, a reassuringly short distance from the bathroom.

When your stomach governs your existence, it’s hard not to be preoccupied with it. A few searing experiences—soiling yourself on an airplane, say, or on a date (and yes, I have done both)—will focus you passionately on your gastrointestinal tract. You need to devote effort to planning around it—because it will not plan around you.

Case in point: In the summer of 1997, while researching my first book, a biography of Sargent Shriver—who founded the Peace Corps for his brother-in-law John F. Kennedy—I spent part of the summer living with the extended Kennedy family on Cape Cod. One weekend, then-President Bill Clinton, who was vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, went sailing with Ted Kennedy, and I suspected that Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, where the Kennedys have their vacation homes, would be crawling with Secret Service agents. With some time to kill before dinner, I decided to walk around town to take in the scene.

Bad idea. As is so often the case for people with unruly, nervous bellies, it was at precisely the moment I passed beyond Easily-Accessible-Bathroom Range that my plumbing came unglued. While sprinting back to the house where I was staying, I was several times convinced I would not make it and—teeth gritted, sweating voluminously—was reduced to evaluating various bushes and storage sheds along the way for their potential as ersatz outhouses. Imagining what might ensue if a Secret Service agent were to happen upon me crouched in the shrubbery lent a kind of panicked, otherworldly strength to my efforts at self-possession.

As I approached the entrance, I was simultaneously reviewing the floor plan in my head (Which of the many bathrooms in the mansion is closest to the front door?) and praying that I wouldn’t be fatally waylaid by a stray Kennedy or celebrity (as I recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Liza Minnelli, and the secretary of the Navy, among others, were visiting that weekend).

Fortunately, I made it into the house unaccosted. Then a quick calculation: Can I make it all the way upstairs and down the hall to my suite in time? Or should I duck into the bathroom in the front hall? Hearing footsteps above and fearing a protracted encounter, I opted for the latter and slipped into the bathroom, which was separated from the front hall by an anteroom and two separate doors. I scampered through the anteroom and flung myself onto the toilet.

My relief was extravagant and almost metaphysical.

But then I flushed and … something happened. My feet were getting wet. I looked down and saw to my horror that water was flowing out from the base of the toilet. Something seemed to have exploded. The floor—along with my shoes and pants—was covered in sewage. The water level was rising.

Could the flooding be stopped? Turning around, I removed the porcelain top of the toilet tank, scattering the flowers and potpourri that sat atop it, and frantically began fiddling with its innards. I tried things blindly, raising this and lowering that, jiggling this and wiggling that, fishing around in the water for something that might stem the swelling tide.

Somehow, whether of its own accord or as a result of my haphazard fiddling, the flooding slowed and then stopped. I surveyed the scene. My clothes were drenched and soiled. So was the bathroom rug. Without thinking, I slipped off my pants and boxer shorts, wrapped them in the waterlogged rug, and jammed the whole mess into the wastebasket, which I stashed in the cupboard under the sink. Have to deal with this later, I thought to myself.

It was at this unpropitious moment that the dinner bell rang, signaling that it was time to muster for cocktails in the living room.

Which was right across the hall from the bathroom.

Where I was standing ankle-deep in sewage.

I pulled some towels off the wall and dropped them on the ground to start sopping up some of the toilet water. I got down on my hands and knees and, unraveling the whole roll of toilet paper, began dabbing frenziedly at the water around me. It was like trying to dry a lake with a kitchen sponge.

What I was feeling at that point was not, strictly speaking, anxiety; rather, it was a resigned sense that the jig was up, that my humiliation would be complete and total. I’d soiled myself, destroyed the estate’s septic system, and might soon be standing half naked before God knows how many members of the political and Hollywood elite.

In the distance, voices were moving closer. It occurred to me that I had two choices. I could hunker down in the bathroom, hiding and waiting out the cocktail party and dinner—at the risk of having to fend off anyone who might start knocking on the door—and use the time to try to clean up the wreckage before slipping up to my bedroom after everyone had gone to bed. Or I could try to make a break for it.

I took all the soiled towels and toilet paper and shoved them into the cupboard, then set about preparing my escape. I retrieved the least soiled towel (which was nonetheless dirty and sodden) and wrapped it gingerly around my waist. I crept to the door and listened for voices and footsteps, trying to gauge distance and speed of approach. Knowing I had scarcely any time before everyone converged on the center of the house, I slipped out of the bathroom and through the anteroom, sprint-walked across the hallway, and darted up the stairs. I hit the landing, made a hairpin turn, and headed up the next flight to the second floor—where I nearly ran headlong into John F. Kennedy Jr. and another man.

“Hi, Scott,” Kennedy said. (I’d just met him for the first time the day before. “I’m John Kennedy,” he had said when he extended his hand in introduction. I know, I had thought as I extended mine, thinking it funny that he had to pretend courteously that people might not know his name, despite the ubiquity of his face on the cover of checkout-counter magazines.)

“Uh, hi,” I said, racking my brain for a plausible explanation for why I might be running through the house at cocktail hour with no pants on, drenched in sweat, swaddled in a soiled and reeking towel. But he and his friend appeared utterly unfazed—as though half-naked houseguests covered in their own excrement were common here—and walked past me down the stairs.

I scrambled down the hallway to my room, where I showered vigorously, changed, and tried to compose myself as best I could—which was not easy because I was still sweating terribly, right through my blazer, the result of anxiety, exertion, and summer humidity.

“Hi, Scott,” Kennedy said. He appeared unfazed—as though half-naked houseguests covered in their own excrement were common here.

If someone had snapped a photo of the scene at cocktails that evening, here’s what it would show: various celebrities and politicians and priests all glowing with grace and easy bonhomie as they mingle effortlessly on the veranda overlooking the Atlantic—while, just off to the side, a sweaty young writer stands awkwardly gulping gin and tonics and thinking about how far he is from fitting in with this illustrious crowd and about how not only is he not rich or famous or accomplished or particularly good-looking, but he cannot even control his own bowels and therefore is better suited for the company of animals or infants than of adults, let alone adults as luminous and significant as these.

The sweaty young writer is also worrying about what will happen when someone tries to use the hallway bathroom.

Late that night, after everyone had gone off to bed, I sneaked back down to the bathroom with a trash bag and paper towels and cleaning detergent I’d pilfered from the pantry. I couldn’t tell whether anyone had been there since I left, but I tried not to worry about that and concentrated on stuffing the soiled rug and towels and clothes and toilet paper I’d stashed under the sink into the trash bag. Then I used the paper towels to scrub the floor, and I put those into the trash bag as well.

Outside the kitchen, between the main house and an outbuilding, was a Dumpster. My plan was to dispose of everything there. Naturally, I was terrified of getting caught. What, exactly, would a houseguest be doing disposing of a large trash bag outside in the middle of the night? (I worried that there might still be Secret Service afoot, who might shoot me before allowing me to plant what looked like a bomb or a body in the Dumpster.) But what choice did I have? I slunk through the house and out to the Dumpster, where I deposited the trash bag. Then I went back upstairs to bed.

No one ever said anything to me about the hallway bathroom or about the missing rug and towels. But for the rest of the weekend, and on my subsequent visits there, I was convinced that various household-staff members were glaring at me and whispering. “That’s him,” I imagined they were saying in disgust. “The one who broke the toilet and ruined our towels. The one who can’t control his own bodily functions.”

Presented by

Scott Stossel is the editor of The Atlantic and the author of Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver. This essay is adapted from his new book, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind, to be published January 7 by Knopf. More

Scott StosselScott Stossel has been associated with the magazine since 1992 when, shortly after graduating from Harvard, he joined the staff and helped to launch The Atlantic Online. In 1996, he moved to The American Prospect where, over the course of seven years, he served as associate editor, executive editor, and culture editor. He rejoined the Atlantic staff in 2002.

His articles have appeared in a wide array of publications, including The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. His 2004 book, Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver, inspired The Boston Globe to write, "Scott Stossel's superb new biography is an extraordinary achievement," while Publisher's Weekly declared, "This is a superbly researched, immensely readable political biography." His most recent book, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind, became a top-ten New York Times bestseller in its first week of publication.

Within the Atlantic offices, Scott will be forever remembered as the managing editor who oversaw the magazine's 2005 move to Washington from Boston, where it had been based since its founding in 1857. Under Scott's supervision, the magazine shifted all of its operations from Boston's North End to the Watergate building, all the while producing issues that were later nominated for National Magazine Awards.

Along with writing and editing, Scott has taught courses in the American Studies Department at Trinity College. He lives with his family in Washington, D.C.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Health

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In