Woman Has Emotional Blunting and Then Horros of Withdrawal: Writes Book

Paragraphs 17 through 19 read:  "With this third breakdown she turned to prescription drugs for the first time. A psychiatrist suggested she try a drug called Effexor to help relieve her anxiety, "because he had a whack of free samples in his desk drawer," she writes. He told her it had few side effects."

"She felt relief at first, but after three months realized she "had come to feel nothing much, one way or another" and began to live in what she called an emotional half-light, largely disengaged. (Although the drugs did not help her, Pearson acknowledges that they have and do help many people.)"

"But what her psychiatrist had not told her and which she documents in the book, is that many people have difficulty when they try to stop taking drugs like Effexor. It would be five years before she was weaned from anti-depressants. It was a difficult, painful withdrawal. 'I was so angry at the experience,' she recalled last week."

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Personal story brings anxiety to light

SUSAN SCHWARTZ, The Gazette

One time it came as "a nameless, undefinable angst" that left writer Patricia Pearson overwhelmed by dread, made her body "tensely and persistently afraid" as she sat on a yellow school bus, a parent volunteer on her son's Grade 1 field trip.

Another time, her anxiety took the form of an unopened tax bill on her dining-room table. The envelope, which filled her with more distress than any threat "short of standing on the edge of a cliff," remained unopened for two weeks. She served her family dinner in the kitchen, away from the dining room, and at night she lay in bed thinking about the bill, "flooded with a cold Atlantic wave of dire prospect … penury, jail time, unspecified explosions, and a variety of damning conclusions about my character."

And again in early 2006, she felt "a juddering sense of alarm" on reading a bulletin from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services about the possibility of an influenza pandemic, a bulletin advising people to "stockpile six to eight weeks' worth of food and water … like, nowish." She proceeded to order 12 containers of freeze-dried vegetables from a company called Survival Acres.  

Patricia Pearson describes her own struggles in her latest book about mental health disorders. "The night terrified me, but I had forgotten why," she writes. "My fear went in search of new causes."

"My anxiety is a shape-shifter. It visits me in unfamiliar guises," Pearson, 43, observes in her latest book, A Brief History of Anxiety (Yours & Mine) (Random House Canada, $29.95), a brave and edifying meditation on the subject that weaves her own story with the broader one of a condition that affects 40 million North Americans in one way or another in a given year – from people with phobias and those prone to panic attacks to people with obsessive compulsive disorder or, like Pearson, generalized anxiety.

Anxiety has emerged as the most prevalent mental health problem in the world, according to the World Mental Health Survey, conducted in 2002 in 18 countries. In the United States, which has the highest level of anxiety in the world, nearly 29 per cent of the population will experience a major episode of anxiety during their life.

This anxiety is driven, Pearson believes, by our lack of a sense of place in the world. "To have a sense of place is to have some sense of what your purpose is, what your options are," she said in an interview in Montreal in a stop on her book tour. And many of us don't have that.

Nearly half the respondents to a 2006 survey by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America reported "persistent or excessive anxiety" in their daily work lives, for instance. That anxiety, Pearson believes, is linked less to what we do or how much we do than to "how we interpret the significance of our acts. And right now, quite acutely, we are beset by self-doubt." We worry that our work is not valued, that we're not cutting it, that we will become obsolete.

Anxiety among college students grows ever-higher. According to the Anxiety Disorders group, more than one in three college students seeks treatment at a campus mental health centre.

And yet the condition that poet John Keats labelled "wakeful anguish" is not immediately obvious, Pearson explains. What unites anxious people is that their fears are "private, arbitrary, idiosyncratic, and very often masked," she observes in her elegantly crafted tapestry of memoir, reportage and insight.

Pearson describes what was perhaps the origin of her own anxiety. Her father, Geoffrey, who died this month, was a diplomat, and the family was living in New Delhi when war broke out in 1971 over the then-new country of Bangladesh. They had to keep the windows blacked out against the Pakistani air force. She was 7.

From that time, she remembers terse conversations between her parents and "a terrible ensuing darkness." For years afterward, she was consumed by what she called an "indefinable sense of responsibility in the darkness. I had to be on the lookout. I had to be."

The war scenario receded, but was replaced by whatever came to mind. "The night terrified me, but I had forgotten why," she writes. "My fear went in search of new causes."

By her own count, Pearson's anxiety has collapsed into "psychiatric 'disorder' " three times in her adult life. The first was in her 20s, when the man she'd hoped to marry dumped her, one August evening. "Well, I'm done," he said.

She became paralyzed by the simplest decisions. With support from family, she recovered and went on to graduate from Columbia's graduate journalism program. She worked as a crime reporter in New York for several years, "tunnelling into the minds of vile men, gazing at the faces of strangled boys and mutilated women."

Looking back at her letters and journals during that time, Pearson recognized something twisted in how she perceived things; she tended to see the behaviour of friends as menacing, for instance, and to think of herself as dangerous: She dreamed she was a prisoner's accomplice.

By 2001, she had been free from anxiety for six years; she had married, written books, given birth to two children. Then two things happened: the Twin Towers fell in New York and a beloved friend died.

With this third breakdown she turned to prescription drugs for the first time. A psychiatrist suggested she try a drug called
Effexor to help relieve her anxiety, "because he had a whack of free samples in his desk drawer," she writes. He told her it had few side effects.

She felt relief at first, but after three months realized she "had come to feel nothing much, one way or another" and began to live in what she called an emotional half-light, largely disengaged. (Although the drugs did not help her, Pearson acknowledges that they have and do help many people.)

But what her psychiatrist had not told her and which she documents in the book, is that many people have difficulty when they try to stop taking drugs like Effexor. It would be five years before she was weaned from anti-depressants. It was a difficult, painful withdrawal. "I was so angry at the experience," she recalled last week.

Lately, though, she is sounding more hopeful. She is coping with her anxiety differently, for one. "I recognize my anxiety as external from me," she said. "It is not as connected to my sense of self," she told me. When she gets anxious, she says, she tells herself it is as if she had, say, the flu.

These days, Pearson is attending church and finding comfort there. Whether the ritual will become an anchor for her is not yet clear, she says. But for now, she is enjoying it.

And the book ends on a hopeful note, too. "Wager that your life has a purpose, a meaning, an overarching story," she advises. And imagine within yourself "a light or spark or Lord" to show you the way.

sschwartz@thegazette.canwest.com