I Am Anxious... Julia Wertz
The cartoonist and author discusses social anxiety, normalizing mental health, and her new graphic novel.
Julia Wertz is a full-time cartoonist, retired urban explorer, amateur historian. She is the author of the graphic novels Drinking at the Movies, The Infinite Wait, and the award-winning Tenements, Towers & Trash, as well as the comic books The Fart Party Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. She does regular short story comics for the New Yorker, and her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, the Believer, and more.
Her graphic novel Impossible People: A Completely Average Recovery Story arrives in stores today!
“I worked on this book on and off for a decade. It's ostensibly about recovery but it's really for anyone who's needed help with anything, not just alcohol. It's also just about my life in NYC during my late 20s, early 30s, building a career, and learning how to be a normal person.”
How long have you been an anxious person?
I don't currently consider myself to be an anxious person. I'm actually pretty chill (sorry, can't think of a less awful word), but I used to have pretty bad social anxiety (more on that later.) Although recently I was feeling anxious about traveling for the first time in years, but once I examined that anxiety, I realized it was about a lot more than travel. (See comic below for more on that)
What is your earliest memory of being anxious?
I don't know. I think my lack of an early memory is probably an indication that I'm not actually an anxious person, but the period in my life when I did experience anxiety was due to a lack of coping skills, long stints of isolation, and being fully immersed in addictive behaviors.
Have you ever experienced a panic attack?
Only once, during an extreme family crisis, but I didn't know that's what it was. I just suddenly was having trouble breathing and my heart was racing and I had to sit down and breathe into a towel for way too long. I thought I was having some kind of medical emergency. Only later did I find out that's what a panic attack looks like for some people.
I have a lot more sympathy for panic attack sufferers now. It's such an awful, uncontrollable body (and brain) experience.
What are some of your anxiety triggers? What makes you most anxious?
In my 20s and early 30s, I really struggled with anxiety around socializing. I've always loved hanging out with groups of people I'm familiar with, but the idea of a large gathering (and, god forbid, one with strangers) made me feel physically ill. If it was a dance party or a dinner party, that didn't bother me at all, but if it was just standing around with people, mingling or making small talk, I just didn't know what to say or what to do with my body. I always left gatherings early.
How do you feel physically and emotionally when you’re anxious?
At first I would feel almost energized by the anxiety (like before a big party) but accompanied by nausea. Then at the party I'd just sort of go into a fugue state. I'd disassociate, but also feel acutely uncomfortable and unsure of myself.
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?
Usually I'd just leave haha. A party isn't a good reason to sit with anxiety if it's not beneficial. I mean, I think it's beneficial to try to do the thing that makes you anxious, but once you've tried and you've had enough, it's fine to leave.
How do you feel your anxiety affects your family, friends, and overall social life?
The biggest effect my social anxiety had was in my social life, of course. I missed out on a lot of events and parties that, looking back, I wish I had gone to. But that's easy to say now that I'm in a place in my life where I enjoy parties and strangers. I know the person I was back then would not have been able to be the more social person I am now, so even if I had gone, I probably would have bailed quickly.
When you're not feeling anxious (simply in your day-to-day life), what do you do for self care?
Hot baths, snacks, trying to take a walk here and there. A lot of these things (except snacks) are hard to fit into my schedule but they're important to clear the bats from the belfry.
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?
I really appreciate that mental health has become such a widely discussed and accepted topic in pop culture, as it helps to destigmatize it and connect people with vital information and resources, but sometimes I feel like it goes too far.
For example, I see a lot of content on social media about ADHD and what it looks like for people, and a lot of that content contains behaviors that people who don't have ADHD do, but they see it and self-diagnose with ADHD, and then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as they lean more and more into it, rather than trying to take healthier steps to deal with their issues.
But I still think it's much more beneficial to discuss and normalize mental health issues rather than hide and stigmatize them.
What are some of your favorite examples of Pop Culture that gets anxiety and mental health right?
This is slightly off-topic and not about anxiety, but there are two books about more extreme mental illness that I think are fascinating, as they both discuss how the stigmatization and misunderstanding of mental illness and its various treatments has basically left America in the dark ages, scientifically and (often) ethically. Mad in America by Robert Whitaker and Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker.
What is the best advice you've ever received?
"Nothing matters and no one cares."
It sounds harsher than it is haha. I just use it as shorthand for not taking things so seriously and don't assume others are judging you or remembering all your mistakes and fuckups. Everyone is mostly thinking about themselves, not you. And even if they do remember, who cares?
Editor’s Note: This interview was edited slightly for length and clarity.
Thank you so much to Julia for participating in the I Am Anxious… questionnaire. I’ve been collecting and reading Julia’s work since the original release of The Fart Party comics, and I cannot even express how excited I am about checking out her new book Impossible People: A Completely Average Recovery Story. Her tour supporting the book starts today as well, so if you’re in the area of any events, make sure you check them out!
Thanks again, Julia!
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.