Andrea Petersen was 20-years-old when diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. In the prologue of her book “On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety,” her prose walks the reader through the sensations she notices: “My noisy internal monologue — usually flitting from school to boys to a laundry list of insecurities — coalesces around one certain refrain: I’m dying. I’m dying. I’m dying.” A college student at the University of Michigan woken up in the early morning of Dec. 5, 1989, Petersen identifies this day as the seminal moment for her anxiety disorder. One second she feels fine: “And then, a second later, I’m not.” Petersen shows the reader how the panic attack manifests through her body and bounces us around her points of worry. She introduces her grandmother’s madness and later devotes a chapter to her grandmother’s history with mental illness. In a whisper to herself, Petersen worries that she will be “crazy like my grandmother.” When she is driven home by her boyfriend and taken to the hospital by her parents, she perseverates over this instant transformation: “I see a doctor. He listens to my story of how I’ve been transformed from a slightly silly sorority girl to a terrorized shut-in in just a few weeks’ time.” Petersen draws the reader into these early words of her mixed media piece, a personal history interwoven with her personal research.
Andrea Petersen, a contributing writer at the Wall Street Journal, reports on health, neuroscience and psychology and has received such honors as the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism. Her book, a work of nonfiction, weaves together her extensive research on neuroscience related to anxiety disorders as well as her own personal history colored with anxiety. Throughout the book, Petersen meditates on her own individual manifestations of anxiety; considers various treatments for anxiety from drug treatment to cognitive behavioral therapy; discusses odd treatments for anxiety throughout history; and traces her family history with anxiety, from her grandmother all the way to her young daughter.
In her first chapter, Petersen engages the reader in a diagnostic discussion of anxiety through a personal lens. In her own discussion of her personal fears and “no go zones,” Petersen manages to make her calls for anxiety research even more pressing. Petersen informs the reader: “What is disconcerting is that rates of anxiety disorders — and depression — seem to be increasing among young people, particularly college students” a testament to anxiety that rings true on our own campus. In contextualizing her early experiences with anxiety in an era before the onset of large scale mental health awareness campaigns, Petersen more strikingly relays her description of ancient diagnoses of anxiety as well as contemporary and future research. She importantly notes how anxiety is more prevalent than depression and describes anxiety as a spectrum, prominent throughout the population no matter what name you give it. In her poignant language, Petersen gives the reader an account of how debilitating her downs can be compared to her ups: “Upon waking, I’d have a moment of sunny optimism — this would be the day I’d feel normal again. But then I’d prop myself up on an elbow, and the heart palpitations and vertigo would return, and the fears would gnaw at me again.”
In her chapter on anxiety in childhood, Petersen first grounds the reader in her childhood onset of anxiety in order to bring the reader to understand more personally the neuroscience research she has gathered. Petersen brings the reader behind her own 7-year-old eyes: “I am seven years old, sitting at my desk at school. I have a blank piece of notebook paper in front of me and a number-two pencil at the ready.” In telling us about her childhood memories with anxiety, specifically her performance anxiety, Petersen explains how “fearful episodes” in childhood are more likely to contribute to the development of anxiety disorders later in life. Petersen tells the story of her upbringing, detailed with all her parents’ quirks and the most intimate stories of their families’ histories. Petersen then follows up her personal accounts with research backing up how overbearing parenting affects the likelihood of childhood anxiety development and research describing ways in which childhood trauma can lead to mental health problems in later life.
Petersen brings her book to a close while meditating on future generations and on raising her daughter, Fiona, and her own future with mental health and wellness. In her chapter, “Worries About My Daughter,” Petersen considers the big parenting questions which make her anxious: the “immersive, unconditional love” a parent feels for her child, and whether she could forgive herself should she “doom a child to a life of anxiety and depression.” Despite worries about these questions, Petersen and her husband had a child and Petersen often brings these questions of anxiety with her while playing with her daughter, doing the most quotidian activities. Hoping to encourage her daughter to surmount her fears, Petersen takes a young Fiona to a “Paddington” movie, knowing that her daughter was “petrified of movie monsters and villains but also hates it when anyone in a movie is nasty or mean.” In the book’s final line, Petersen concludes with an open-ended question characteristic of her quandaries throughout the book. She cannot know whether her conscious actions will protect her daughter from unrest, so she considers uncertainty that parents share in a final note: “I’m still not sure what, if anything, I accomplished. As with everything else in parenting, I’m winging it.”
I think what moved me most about Petersen’s book, “On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety,” was its multimedia nature. I found that the book carried an underlying political message: Petersen wants us to take anxiety disorders seriously as readers; she wants us to take future research into our own hands. Petersen drives this political message throughout her text through this book studded with her own intensive research. After reading the book, I felt I could empathize with Petersen as a protagonist at the same moment as understand her anxiety as a fixture of her political message. To better understand anxiety as a public crisis from a private voice, read Petersen’s “On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety.” Already published in hardcover, its paperback edition goes on sell May 15.
Annie Nields | firstname.lastname@example.org