Woman Becomes Emotionally Numb, Gains Weight, etc.

Paragraphs 7 through 10 read:  "Buffeted by the sleazy and toxic environment of the tabloid TV agenda and the relentless exposure to gruesome details of hideous crimes including the Mahaffy and French murders, Pearson had a second breakdown, one that required something more than a brief respite. She eventually caved in to her doctor's will and submitted to anti-anxiety medication. He chose the pills carefully; she was prescribed the ones he happened to have samples of in the office."

"End of story, right?"

"Not so fast. Aside from such side effects as a diminished sex drive, weight gain, emotional blandness, an increased risk of diabetes and a mortifying walking blackout event that occurred when a doctor prescribed two anti-depressants which apparently don't mix terribly well, Pearson's real battle began when she was trying to get off the drugs."

"You've probably been under a pretty big rock if you haven't heard by now that withdrawal from these prescriptions is brutal – worse, many say, than those drugs Montel Williams is always warning concerned parents about."

http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/Books/article/346508

by Patricia Pearson
Random House,
198 pages, $29.95


For those of us old-fashioned types who generally self-medicate any anxiety or mania with drugs you don't ask your doctor for, it can be a little hard to comprehend all these new-fangled disorders that seem to require the administration of prescriptions on a daily basis.

Now I, for one, would never presume to judge anyone who finds daily living easier with the assistance of mood-altering substances. But it's hard not to feel that drugs you can take in the morning and then still operate heavy machinery safely, must be a little on the dull side. It's also tempting to presume that in order to create a market for these very boring drugs, the manufacturers have an incentive to … well, to make some of these disorders up. After all, nobody's great-grandfather ever had to take an anti-anxiety pill.

Plus there's the gnawing fact that in developing countries, people are reportedly unconcerned about their lack of anti-anxiety prescriptions, focusing instead on such matters as the absence of good health plans and, oh, clean water.

So, when confronted with Patricia Pearson's new book, A Brief History of Anxiety (Yours and Mine), which chronicles her own anxiety as well as a brief history of the runaway, best-selling disorder of the new millennium, I admit to feeling slightly anxious about her anxiousness.

Fortunately, Pearson, a Toronto freelance writer who has previously published two novels, a book on female killers and a collection of essays on urban life, is pretty skeptical of the whole thing herself, despite – or, perhaps, because of – a long battle with an anxiety disorder.

Pearson claims to be afraid of bird flu, flying, phone bills, ovarian cancer, black bears, heights and walking on golf courses at night. She recovered from her first bout of paralyzing anxiety in her mid-20s with the help of a little time out, family care and therapy. She went on to have an enterprising career in crime reporting, including work as a field producer for a Hard Copy-ish show called Confessions of Crime and, later, for what we call more legitimate, prestigious media institutions.

Buffeted by the sleazy and toxic environment of the tabloid TV agenda and the relentless exposure to gruesome details of hideous crimes including the Mahaffy and French murders, Pearson had a second breakdown, one that required something more than a brief respite. She eventually caved in to her doctor's will and submitted to anti-anxiety medication. He chose the pills carefully; she was prescribed the ones he happened to have samples of in the office.

End of story, right?

Not so fast. Aside from such side effects as a diminished sex drive, weight gain, emotional blandness, an increased risk of diabetes and a mortifying walking blackout event that occurred when a doctor prescribed two anti-depressants which apparently don't mix terribly well, Pearson's real battle began when she was trying to get off the drugs.

You've probably been under a pretty big rock if you haven't heard by now that withdrawal from these prescriptions is brutal – worse, many say, than those drugs Montel Williams is always warning concerned parents about.

But this book is not another boring addiction-recovery memoir. Pearson is an excellent writer who knows exactly when to exploit the black humour and absurdity in this quite serious topic, then pull back and expound on the root causes of our national anxiety disorder.

A lot of the blame is placed squarely at our desire for, and illusion of, being in control in a world where chaos reigns. What's more, she ventures the idea that this control freak streak is primarily a phenomenon of modern Western culture. Pearson suggests that in the Third World, people are more apt to accept that bad things do happen (even if one has been faithfully following the rules of The Secret). Such people spend a lot less time in a state of anxiety over things that may or may not happen.

Her cross-cultural examples support the thesis. For example, where would you guess the happiest people in the world live? California, you might say. British Colombia, maybe?

But no. The happiest people, according to research published in New Scientist magazine, live in Nigeria. Maybe it's all that money I keep sending over there in response to those emails. And when I get my share of the heir's loot out of the Swiss account, I'm moving straight to Lagos – to be with the happy people.

Or, more likely, to Mexico. Pearson points out that Mexicans not only rank high in the world happiness index but also have almost non-existent rates of anxiety or depression.

Pearson's point is clear. If you've got real problems – say, cleaning up and rebuilding after the two hurricanes that hit Mexico while Americans endlessly debated whose fault the slow and inadequate response to Katrina was – you don't have time to get anxious or depressed about stuff that might happen, let alone hope for a diagnosis.

Lurking under the surface of this analysis and the other threads in Pearson's excellent book (including rants on celebrity culture, the decline of poetry and working in the corporate environment) is a recurring message: get over it.

It's a pretty timely message, one that seems to have helped the author deal with a good deal of her anxiety. It also brings comfort to an old-fashioned sort of reader who still thinks the three-martini lunch remains a pretty good way to combat fear of anything.

Christine Sismondo is the author of Mondo Cocktail: A Shaken and Stirred History (McArthur & Co.).

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