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You’re Having a Meltdown. You Don’t Have a Therapist. What Do You Do?

StressedOutWoman_300If you’re like author Daniel Smith, you call a friend who also suffers from acute anxiety. In his book Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, he shares a typical (and unintentionally hilarious) conversation.

These days I am not in therapy (lousy insurance, not enough time), so whenever I am feeling anxious I pick up the phone and call my friend Kate, with whom I appear to share whatever genetic material that codes for hysteria. I would call my wife whenever I am feeling anxious, but if I did I wouldn’t be married for long. So I call Kate. I called her just yesterday. I said, “Kate! Thank god you picked up the phone. I’m a wreck! I need to talk!”

“Oh, no!” Kate replied. “Me, too!”

“No!” I said. “What’s going on with you?”

Kate said, “It’s my health insurance forms. I can’t do them! And no one will help me! I’m all alone here!” Kate and I also appear to share the genetic material that codes for an allergy to practical behaviors, such as opening one’s mail or returning library books, but unlike me Kate doesn’t have a spouse to pick up the slack, so she’s devised an idiosyncratic ritual to get her through the shame of incompetence. Here is how she has described the process to me:

First I walk around my apartment crying, with tears streaming down my face, and then, because it feels really weird to just walk back and forth crying, and also because I just can’t bear standing up anymore, I get down onto the floor by bending my knees and then leaning forward, so that my face is on the ground and my arms beside me. After a while, this feels even more pathetic and ridiculous—in fact, I sometimes wonder if I get onto the floor to prove to myself how ridiculous I am being—and I get up, stop crying, and wash my face. And it’s all over health insurance forms.

“So that’s my problem,” Kate said. “What’s going on with you?”

“I’ve forgotten how to write!” I said. “Yesterday I said something dumb to a guy at the post office, something just totally not nice and dumb, and I’ve been obsessing over it ever since. And today I don’t know how to write. I literally can’t write a sentence! It’s like I’ve had a stroke. Do you think I’ve had a stroke?”

“I don’t think you’ve had a stroke.”

“But how do you know? How can you be sure I haven’t had a stroke?”

“What are the symptoms of a stroke?”

“I don’t know. Look them up! Look them up online.”

“OK. Hold on…OK. Here it is. Do you have trouble speaking?”

“I have trouble speaking intelligently.”

“Do you have trouble seeing?”

“Umm…yes. But I think my contacts are just dried out.”

“Do you have a headache?”

“Yes!”

“Did it come out of nowhere, like you’d been hit in the head with a frying pan?”

“No. I’ve had it since February.”

And we go on like this for a while, until we’re both feeling better. Then we get back to work.

And it helps. It feels good to be reminded that you aren’t the single most anxious person on the Eastern seaboard. But it doesn’t help for long. Talking to a friend who does not balk at your insanity is like having a stiff drink. It fills you with a glow. But when it wears off, everything is the same.

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