It turns out that I am afflicted not just with pharmacological Calvinism but with mindfulness skepticism as well. For while I believe, in theory, that learning to coolly regard my anxiety as a purple, hairy monster I could stash in my tote bag, as Mennin suggests, might steady my pulse on sleepless nights, I am suspicious of any cure that requires more effort and expense on my part and more hours away from my work and my family. In this skepticism, I am like my anxious peers. “We go through rough patches, and we do things that make us feel better,” says Lisa Colpe, an epidemiologist at the NIMH, with the vocal equivalent of a shrug. A lot of people with anxiety would simply prefer to live with it; they know that when it becomes unbearable, the drugs will be there.
A cure isn’t what the PR executive with the occasional Klonopin habit wants. “My own personal experience is that there’s a healthy level of anxiety, and I don’t believe ‘healthy’ is the absence of anxiety,” she says. “I live in a world that puts unreasonable demands on me, and sometimes I need help. I wish I could do it without the pills, but I can’t.”
The real love affair, then, is not with the pills but with the anxiety itself. Anxiety is like the spouse you’re stuck with for better and worse, who makes you nuts but has permeated your cells and without whom you cannot imagine your own heart beating. Anxiety lives with you day and night, holding your hand and nudging you to act, urging you to get up, do more, fix something, make something. Never satisfied, always pressing, it wants you to win, to outlast the others, to impress, excite, excel, astonish. And, as in a marriage, you comply, mostly agreeably, for your anxiety traces the rhythm of your life. Then one morning, it has you by the throat and you find yourself weepy and overwrought, unable to respond to its call. Like a reliable friend, Xanax is there, offering an intermission, the gift of quietude, a break. Because the truth is, and I’ll speak for myself here, I want tranquillity once in a while. But I don’t want a tranquil life.