Little Panic: Dispatches From an Anxious Life

By Amanda Stern, Grand Central Publishing, 389 pages, $27

Amanda Stern knew there was something different about her but it didn’t have a name. As a child, she recognised that her brain and body were not in sync with the world around her. Maybe her mother would die or forget that she loved her. “How come no one except me understands that my heart must be near my mom’s heart in order for us both to survive?” she wondered. She resolved to stay close to home; her very existence was at stake.

Early on in Stern’s resonant and often funny memoir, Little Panic, we learn that only at 25 did she discover the culprit for her symptoms: panic disorder. Her story, set largely in childhood and adolescence, hinges on her quest to understand why her operating system is out of whack.

When she finds out that what she’s suffered from all her life has a name, this news is delivered matter-of-factly by her mother’s therapist. “I don’t understand how it’s taken this long for someone to diagnose you,” he says. I wondered the same thing.

Beginning at an early age, Stern was tested by doctors, specialists and tutors. She was evaluated for visual, learning and hearing disabilities; cognitive impairments; ambidexterity; motor-skill deficits. She was measured and scored by an endless array of adults, all of whom seemed oblivious to her actual symptoms. Stern believed herself to be defective, crazy and dumb.

Upon receiving her diagnosis, she reflects, “I’ve spent my entire life battling some impossible, invisible plague no one ever seemed to see, and this guy did it with such ease, as though panic disorder is easy to establish, obvious to anyone who would take the time to ask what my symptoms were.” The statement is all the more remarkable given that Stern was raised in Manhattan, the epicenter of neurotic behaviour — not to mention shrinks. Yet everyone, including her mother, seemed to be looking in the wrong place, colluding in a misplaced vigilance focused on Stern’s intellectual performance, physical health and adaptability rather than her feelings.

As a child, Stern shuttles between a brownstone in Greenwich Village, which she shares with her bohemian mother and siblings, and her remarried father’s apartment in an affluent neighbourhood uptown, where “a weekend lasts an entire month.” When 6-year-old Etan Patz disappears nearby in 1979, the police come to Stern’s mother’s house asking about the boy, and Stern internalises an ominous message: “My mom always tells me bad things like that don’t happen to kids. But I know they do.”

Patz’s disappearance haunts her for years to come. When the “Still Missing” posters in SoHo are plastered over, she is furious. How will anyone find him? When she and her mother walk past buildings, she wonders whether he’s inside, waiting to be discovered. In college, during a spiral of panic, she is overcome with guilt. Maybe she didn’t look for him hard enough, or in the right places.

As the narrative moves through Stern’s middle and high school years, ordinary slights, like being left out of a group sleepover at a friend’s house, take on catastrophic proportions, triggering what she doesn’t know at the time are panic attacks. As a teenager, she finds fleeting relief in drugs and inappropriate sexual encounters. But panic remains a knot she can’t untangle.

At times, Stern’s obsessive ruminations can be exhausting. I wanted to shake her and say, “Get some perspective,” but this is precisely the point: For a person with panic disorder, perspective is impossible.

While the supposed tension of the book rests on a discovery — the diagnosis Stern finally receives — the real tension lies in how and whether she will evolve in spite of it. Do the cumulative insights lead to ways to tolerate discomfort and uncertainty? After her ailment is named, she writes, “the relief, like my panic, is all-encompassing and everywhere. It’s in the pollen dusted on cars, the dirty pacifier lost in the gutter.” Yet it will take her 20 more years before she can manage the feelings of helplessness that accompany her attacks.

Eventually Stern learns that she’s not made of paper and won’t blow away. All the times she thought she would die, she didn’t. And some of the “terrifying” things she thought would happen actually did; she didn’t get married, she didn’t have children. But nevertheless she adapted and flourished in other ways, like founding the Happy Ending Music and Reading Series. “Here I am now,” she writes, “living inside the very future I feared, imagining it would kill me. Yet I am OK. I am alive.”

–New York Times News Service