“Everyone is ahead of me; I’m always trying to catch up, but I never do. I’m always the littlest and the last to understand. I picture their brains with long legs racing down the block, but my brain has little-kid legs, too short to keep up,” writes Amanda Stern.
In her vivid memoir, Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life, Stern offers a poignant account of a life full of anxiety and yet teeming with strength, raw honesty, and the enduring desire to feel safe.
Early on, Amanda recognizes that she, unlike other children, does not feel safe. She writes, “One day, I’ll have to live on the street side of life. On the garden side we look after one another, making sure all the children are here, that no one is missing or lost. We have each other’s backs….If only this were the entire world. If only the garden could hold us all.”
And yet what Stern soon realizes is that the world is constantly changing and no amount of assurance can change that. She writes, “Rules always change on me when they aren’t supposed to because I’m right about the world — the things people say won’t happen do happen. Nothing stays the same. It feels like every time I try to get past my worries, my tries get erased.”
Relationships for Stern are also fraught as she begins to realize that her anxiety has distorted her perception. “I want something I can’t ever remember having — a family I can trust to stay. I am trying to return to a place I can’t recall and I’m being driven by memories I don’t have — by unconscious urges so ancient they crumble at my touch,” writes Stern.
Yet when she meets Peter, a literary agent who frequents her Happy Ending Music and Reading Series and spends the time courting her, she questions her perceptions. She writes, “I felt slightly possessed by my love, and I was so glad I didn’t listen to my fucking gut. Stupid idiot. This guy is everything. I’d never had anyone be that attentive to me. Is this what real love feels like, off-kilter and semi-insane, or is this something beyond that?”
When Peter is hesitant to commit and reveals that “in the beginning people say things they don’t mean,” Stern’s world comes crashing down.
“I wanted to die, but I was too tired. Suddenly I couldn’t stop sleeping. It’s all I did. And it was glorious. When I wasn’t awake, nothing was wrong and all my answers were correct,” writes Stern.
In the months that follow, the urge for family grows, and Stern decides to adopt a dog. However, when her new dog, Pilot, proves to be too panicked herself, Stern comes to a harsh conclusion: “While liberating her was my attempt to rescue myself and give us both a family, I am not enough for her. I am not cut out to have a baby.”
Searching for possible partners online, Stern finds herself checking the “has kids” box and meets Javier. Immediately Javier is drawn to Stern while she struggles to makes sense of her often conflicting feelings. When she meets his daughter Frankie, she realizes that she, like herself as a young child, is misunderstood.
She writes, “When I was little there was a version of me that felt out of alignment with who I really was. The adults’ version had me learning disabled, and the other version – mine – had me devoured by mental anguish.”
As Stern’s relationship with Frankie grows, with Javier it becomes challenged by his uncertainty. He invites her to stay with him in Maine for a month, and Stern hopes that they will begin their own family, when Javier informs her that he doesn’t actually want a baby and that he “doesn’t know if he can take all this negativity.”
Later at a dance class with friends, Stern comes to a powerful revelation: “To Javier, I am not a priority. I’m cut out of his decisions because I’m not part of his family. I’m sideswiped by an epiphany….Javier, I’m nauseated to realize, already has a family. To make one with me would be redundant.”
As the realization sets in that she must breakup with Javier, Stern’s anticipation of dread is replaced with another profound discovery: “I realize that I have a choice now. I’m the one who makes the feelings; the emotions don’t already exist in the world, waiting to trap me. Usually, I let the emotion happen to me, following it until I lose control and need someone else to care for me; but what if I just decide to care for myself, that I know how?”
Stern adopts another dog, and this time, she realizes she is perfectly equipped to give her dog, and by extension herself, what she needs. She writes, “Being able to do for Busy what I needed someone to do for me fills me with a certainty and groundedness… Now I know what it looks like to grow free from panic. I know how to do this, I think.”
Touching, unfiltered, and with endearing prose, Little Panic is a moving journey through anxiety to strength, resilience, and a profound sense of what it means to have connection.
Little Panic: Dispatches From An Anxious Life
Grand Central Publishing, 2018
Hardcover, 385 Pages