My Age of Anxiety and Beautiful Boy

Nursing Book Club

My Age of Anxiety and Beautiful Boy

Heavy reading

By reviewed by Christine Contillo
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My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind, by Scott Stossel (Knopf, 2013)
Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction, by David Sheff (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)

I’m an anxious person and I’ve developed a variety of strategies to cope with that anxiety. I always sit on the aisle or by the door. I set out what I need the night before, I set my alarm for 15 minutes earlier than I need and I always have a book or knitting with me in case I have to spend any free time alone. These tricks help me act like a reasonably normal person.

Scott Stossel, author of My Age of Anxiety and editor of The Atlantic, raises anxiety to another level. Diagnosed with debilitating anxiety while still in grammar school, his box of tricks includes medication, alcohol and lots and lots of therapy. Even with all of that, he’s only partially successful in keeping his anxiety under control. So, he does what most writers do: He investigates the problem thoroughly from every possible angle in hopes of explaining it and hopefully making it go away. (It doesn’t.)

Nature vs. Nurture?

Stossel’s book presents his findings to the reader. My Age of Anxiety is an exhaustive — and exhausting — look at anxiety, ranging from a history of famous anxious people (Hitler?), past treatments, current treatments and, of course, the hell it can be to the sufferer. Initially, I wanted to say, “Get a grip, man,” but I was finally won over and left wondering how many others live with this level of daily torture.

Are we anxious by nature? Do we inherit a genetic tendency from our family or do we learn the behavior from them? The author’s family history points in the direction of inheritance, but could the symptoms also be expressing some unremembered childhood trauma? Stossel’s account suggests that that could also be a factor. Perhaps the answer is a little of both.

The Riddle of Addiction

David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy, first published in 2008, grapples with similar questions in regard to addiction. Is it a chronic physical disease that should be covered by insurance or is it an emotional state? The problem does have echoes of obsessive-compulsive behavior, but can the reasons one child becomes an alcoholic while his or her siblings remain sober (and sometimes even thrive on adversity) be traced back to childhood?

That is the question Sheff examines in Beautiful Boy. Although the author admits to having used drugs himself in the past, he tells us he never had an addiction problem. Therefore, he was blindsided when his handsome, talented son Nic found drugs early on and then spent the next few years going and out of rehab facilities at a high cost to everyone involved.

The author holds onto what one professional called the three C’s: “You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it and you can’t cure it.” However, that comforting mantra can’t completely erase a lingering sense of parental guilt. Did the author’s divorce leave lasting scars on his son? Did being shuttled back and forth between different California cities leave the boy with a deep-seated inability to form stable relationships and a longing to fill that void at any cost?

A Parent’s Nightmare
Like My Age of Anxiety, Beautiful Boy is an exhaustive report on the various treatments and theories of addiction based on the author’s interviews with experts in the field. It’s an intimate look at a parent’s problem as only a journalist would tackle it.

Either of these books is troubling, but together, they left me a bundle of nerves and prompted me to call my own children to make sure that they were safe and happy. While these books helped me better understand the problems that confound many of the students I work with, after slogging through both volumes, I’m definitely ready for some light, escapist summer reading. Any suggestions?

Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, is a public health nurse who suggests joining a book club as a reason to put down trashy magazines and look smart on the subway.

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