I Am Anxious... Amy Rowland
The author and teacher opens up about panic attacks, public speaking, breathing exercises, and more.
Her second novel, Inside the Wolf arrives in stores today from Algonquin!
“It's set in the rural south, the place of my youth that I've avoided writing about for decades. It's about guns and girlhood, red wolves and myths, and the peculiar contradictions of a small southern community. Fittingly for this questionnaire, I'm more anxious about this book than anything I've written.”
How long have you been an anxious person?
I was born long past the official due date, so I think I've always been anxious about arrivals.
What is your earliest memory of being anxious?
I'm not sure about the earliest, but the most vivid and the first that comes to mind is the Christmas program at church when I was in second or third grade. I was supposed to stand in front of the congregation and recite a poem about Jesus's birthday, while holding a chocolate cake with lit candles — also while wearing my long, highly flammable Sears Roebuck Christmas dress. I forgot the poem and nearly dropped the cake.
Have you ever experienced a panic attack?
Twice. The first time I was in my 20s and went to the ER because I thought I was having a heart attack.
What are some of your anxiety triggers? What makes you most anxious?
Public speaking. I've had bouts of acute social anxiety for a lifetime. Fortunately, it's lessened with age (teaching has been a tremendous help), although it's always there, ready to slay. During the pandemic I took an online writing class with a writer I admire and I had an anxiety attack on Zoom the one time I tried to speak. It was humiliating and I didn't open my mouth for the remainder of the course.
How do you feel physically and emotionally when you’re anxious?
It's really unfair that anxiety is so visible. I go red, my voice shakes, my hands shake, sometimes my legs, my palms sweat, and then, because I know I look anxious, I get more anxious about looking anxious. I also need to poop.
What do you do when you feel anxious? How do you take care of yourself in those situations? Do you have any anxiety management tips or tricks?
Breathing exercises and a snack bag. Although the vexation is that anxiety attacks when I'm around others and I can't get away immediately. If there's a bathroom, I splash cold water on my wrists and do the Superwoman pose. I know the pose has been debunked but, for me, it has a positive placebo effect. Many people suggest looking at the crowd and imagining them naked. I advise taking stock of the crowd first.
How do you feel your anxiety affects your family, friends, and overall social life?
I'm fortunate in that my anxiety is controllable without medication, although I should have sought some in my 20s and 30s. That's another vexing thing about anxiety; the aftermath is regret if it prevented you from doing something you wanted to do.
I'm thinking, for example, of the Sewanee Writers' Conference where I was a fellow in 2017. I was slated to read from my work to this wonderful, invigorating, friendly group of writers, but I backed out at the last minute because of acute anxiety. I regret that.
I'm not sure how it's affected my social life overall because I don't know what it would have been like to be an easy, supremely confident, carefree person. I can see more clearly that it affected my professional life. I worked for years in different jobs at The New York Times, and now I teach at university. I opted out of some things I would have liked to try. I've had many moments where I've been unable to speak to the point that I've felt almost aphasic. I was once asked if I was mute. I grew up working class in a small southern town and for me anxiety is tangled up with class and shame. Not entirely, but somewhat-ingly.
When you're not feeling anxious (simply in your day-to-day life), what do you do for self care?
Walk, jog, read, bake, hike, look at birds, and abstain from social media.
How do you feel about the portrayal of mental health and anxiety in Pop Culture (books, movies, music, etc)? Do you feel it's accurate?
For some reason, no good examples come immediately to mind. Maybe it's a little like headaches; you can describe your headache to me but I can't feel it, I can only have my own headache. I mean I know what a headache feels like for me, but not for you.
What are some of your favorite examples of Pop Culture that gets anxiety and mental health right?
I'm probably too old-school for this question, but I appreciated the portrayal of anxiety in Barton Fink. And this isn't exactly pop culture but I reread Crime and Punishment this year and I was struck again by Dostoevsky's portrayal of the conflicts around rationality and emotions and the pure anguish of certain mental states. Witnessing Raskolnikov's moral and psychological deterioration reminded me of being 23 again, reading C&P and rocking back and forth and biting hangnails at 2am. It was certainly effective at reproducing a state of anxiety.
What is the best advice you've ever received?
Do not hurry; do not wait, which is, I think, a paraphrase from Goethe. I'm not even sure why that came immediately to mind. And I suppose it's more of a mantra than (personal) advice.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I was hesitant to do this; I've never written about my social anxiety before. But I'm so glad you're encouraging people to talk about anxiety, in all its forms. In my childhood and even into adulthood I thought of my anxiety as a deep personal and social failure. It was my secret shame. It's helpful and validating to read these honest and varying accounts by others, and to understand that anxiety is something so many of us experience and learn to live with.
Editor’s Note: This interview was edited slightly for length and clarity.
Thank you so much, Amy, both for your honesty and willingness to share your story, as well as for your very kind words about Anxious Dude! I love that we’re able to share stories just like this, and that people seem to find it helpful.
I’ve read Inside the Wolf and can attest that it is Amy’s very best work yet. Highly recommended!
Thanks again, Amy!
If you are interested in being a part of the newsletter in the coming weeks and taking the I Am Anxious… questionnaire, please email me (email@example.com) and I’ll get you on the list! I’d love to have you.
Be well and keep talking.
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DISCLAIMER: I am, by no means, a medical profession. If you need help, please seek qualified medical attention. This newsletter, while informative and fun, is no substitute for the real thing.