I Am Anxious... Mary Laura Philpott
The bestselling author discusses her lifelong anxiety, mortal fear for loved ones, and the importance of having great, understanding friends and family.
Mary Laura Philpott is the nationally bestselling author of I Miss You When I Blink and the memoir Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives, which won the Southern Book Prize and was named a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and one of NPR’s Favorite Books of 2022. Her writing has been featured by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic, among many other publications. Mary Laura lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her family.
The paperback edition of her latest memoir, Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives, just came out this spring.
“I've heard the most amazing feedback from readers about this book. I'm so delighted it's now out there in an airport- and pool-friendly size!”
How long have you been an anxious person?
All the years I've been alive, best I can tell.
What is your earliest memory of being anxious?
I can remember being worried that my parents might love my baby brother more than they loved me. That makes no sense. They showed no favoritism. And I loved my little brother! But something about my wiring made me look at the addition of a sibling to our family and think, "Oh no, less love for me."
Have you ever experienced a panic attack?
Ha! Yes. Many, many times.
What are some of your anxiety triggers? What makes you most anxious?
My husband and I are in the sandwich generation — we have aging parents, as well as teenagers in various stages of leaving the nest, and one of our kids has a manageable but serious medical condition — so we have had our share of middle-of-the-night phone calls from hospitals. There was a period of time when I had to change my ringtone every couple of days, because my brain so associated the sound of my ringing phone with mortal fear for my loved ones. I've gotten a little better about it now, but I still don't love the sound of a phone ringing at night.
How do you feel physically and emotionally when you’re anxious?
Physically, I feel cold and shaky. I shiver. Emotionally, I feel like things are dire, even when they're not. There's a very short distance in my mind between "a small anxiety-causing situation" and "full blown panic." I'm working on stretching that distance.
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?
Daily exercise makes a huge difference for overall management, and it doesn't have to be anything aggressive or impressive. I just walk my dogs around my neighborhood every day, and that helps. Meditative breathing helps, too, both in the moment and generally. I'm a word person, so I find it useful in an anxiety attack to literally say out loud what I need to hear, like, "This is not an emergency. We know what to do. It's fine."
How do you feel your anxiety affects your family, friends, and overall social life?
The people closest to me know how I am, and they are kind and have a sense of humor about it. That's what friends are for, isn't it? We put up with one another's quirks. My husband is a great sounding board for me, too, because he's not an overly anxious person at all. When I say, "What if we freeze to death in the snowstorm?" he's there to go, "That's unlikely, because we live indoors, and our house has a generator in case the electricity goes out, and even if it didn't, there are blankets and fire." He's a good life partner for me!
When you're not feeling anxious (simply in your day-to-day life), what do you do for self care?
I walk outside, I spend time in nature and around animals, and I talk with good friends.
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 can't really speak to how it's portrayed broadly across culture, because there's a lot of culture I don't consume. I'm naturally drawn to books and movies and shows that feel relatable to me, so I'm filtering out the ones that maybe aren't so accurate. I love any story about regular people leading ordinary lives and feeling big emotions, because I feel like that's what life is really like. Most of us aren't flying to the moon or racing a speedboat through the canals of Venice to outrun a spy. Most of us are just trying to love our people and do our work and make our art, and the stakes in all those things are plenty high!
What are some of your favorite examples of Pop Culture that gets anxiety and mental health right?
Oh gosh, I don't even know where to start. I'll tell you who I was just thinking about this morning: Kazuo Ishiguro. He writes the human condition so well. Across all his novels (including Never Let Me Go, my favorite), he absolutely nails the essential anxiety of being mortal — that bittersweet ache of knowing that no matter how much you love someone, love isn't enough to keep anyone safe and alive forever. He concocts some pretty wild stories to get at that feeling, but the feeling itself is so common and so real.
Editor’s Note: This interview was edited slightly for length and clarity.
Thank you, Mary Laura, for your honesty and openness!
I cannot recommend I Miss You When I Blink and Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives highly enough. Both phenomenal books with great stories told in incredibly relatable ways. Mary Laura is at the top of her game and I can’t wait to see what she does next!
Thanks again, Mary Laura!
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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.