We asked writer-readers to write us a reader-diary of their reading journey through Chris Westoby’s The Fear Talking. Joseph Coward writes this crackingly honest first piece. [To meet Chris in conversation with Edmund Hurst, live on Zoom 18.00 GMT Dec 3rd, email firstname.lastname@example.org]
Chris Westoby is the same age as me. He and I left school within a year or two of each other, in the same country. I recognise his social circle, his teenage haunts; I recall with cringing clarity the same fumbling sexual experiences, the same destructive rampages masquerading as house parties. And we both suffer from anxiety. His summary of his experience of our mental and physiological affliction is The Fear Talking, a memoir documenting the early days of his disorder. My summary of the experience of reading the book, as someone with the same thing, is this diary. I’m going to read it in seven days, and write about it every day.
Anxiety for me is a cold, billowing cloud that starts in my chest, a blue-black shroud of ink that stains everything it touches, and it grows and grows. Sometimes the sensation is brought on by what’s happening around me, sometimes by nothing at all. I’ve been like this since my mid teens, I think.
I immediately recognise the double life Chris assumes in order to seem normal: every day he lies to his parents, silently suffers an overbearing girlfriend, and pretends to go to school while really hiding out in fields, or his local Tesco. To survive as an anxiety sufferer is to stay out of sight, and, when you have to be seen, to pretend to be someone you’re not, someone else.
At the end of Day One I leave Chris at a university convention, where he is frozen in place, failing to see a future beyond the looming possibilities of an ever-continuous present, a vertiginous, vertical Now.
Every day I wake up and ask myself the same two questions: ‘where am I?’ and ‘how do I feel today?’ The effect of constantly having to assess my emotional and physiological response to the room, the world around me, is exhausting. The anxiety has grabbing tentacles that latch onto negative thoughts, stretching them them into shapes more odd and terrifying than they were before. I think of the ‘cold supple octopus’ that Bulgakov’s Master feels clenching around his heart as he burns his manuscript; when I’m at my worst I certainly want to destroy whatever I happen to be working on.
Chris sets about destroying his relationship with his girlfriend who, as much as she might be smothering him, seems to genuinely care about him. I can empathise with Chris’s pushing away of even the most well-meaning people. When people are around, he writes, ‘they see me, they know me, they can talk about me’.
But I start to notice differences in the way we process the presence of others: Chris refers to his fellow passengers on the bus he takes every day as chavs, crazies, dole mums; an old lady is described as cadaverous, in cruel detail. Despite our shared condition, we’re not the same person; but I recognise Chris’s insanely cheery feeling as he almost wilfully destroys his future, or at least changes it unalterably. It can feel nice; you say to yourself, ‘I’m in control.’
Reading an anxiety book does nothing for your anxiety. (How do I feel today?)
I see more of Chris’s parents. His mum says that if he takes a year out of college and gets a job he’ll never go back. I’m reminded of my mother saying exactly the same thing to me, and I think of just how much we remain children of parents, even after becoming parents of children.
The book is a pleasing time capsule for anyone born in the early nineties: several times while reading I find myself saying ‘oh yeah’ out loud at the mention of a game, album, film, TV show. Chris’s stories of beer drinking and frat-boy behaviour start to annoy me, but then his dad, driven by his son to distraction, smashes up Chris’s computer, and I feel bad.
Further uncanny: Chris stays at home when he’s meant to be in class, and hides upstairs when his dad comes back on his lunch break. I used to stay in instead of going to school too, more than once hiding in a cupboard when my father came back from work at midday – stupidly I think, ‘this book is about me.’
Things come to a head for Chris. Friendships disappear, the full extent of his truancy has come to light, and he faces expulsion; His relationship with his parents seems damaged beyond repair. When I got thrown out of my first secondary school for near-constant truanting, my dad spent the entire day shouting at me, pausing as he stormed from room to room to add to the list of ways in which I was putting my mother and him through hell.
Chris notices everything. What could be exhausting lists of the sounds and smells that trigger his anxiety are instead poetic little lines, and beautiful: ‘[t]he smell of wet clay, paints, white spirit. A girl a few rows behind me uses a hairdryer to harden a layer of acrylic.’ This art room scene takes place during Chris’s own toughening up, as he starts to see a counsellor and tackle his debilitating condition. Something has made him realise that he can still do important stuff, even when he feels bad.
When you are chronically anxious – and have been, and will be – it’s hard to separate how you feel from what’s actually happening, almost impossible to see how immaterial your own feelings about a situation might be. ‘It’s all in your head’ I remind myself when I’m overcome by an imagined scenario, or how a person ‘must’ be feeling as a result of something I’ve done. I take heart as Chris starts to feel better.
Every day Chris returns to school is a silent triumph over his anxiety. He savours the flavour of a chip, the first hot food he’s been able to buy from the cafeteria all year, tasting victory as he sits with friends, who are none the wiser to his bravery. And he likes it that way, and that’s the point: The Fear Talking isn’t a story of redemption, not even of healing, it’s about doing what you have to do in order to live with how you are. Quietly getting on with life even when you feel like you can’t, because your circumstances aren’t always dictated by how you feel, and getting on with it can make you feel better in the long run anyway. It’s not about winning, it’s about not being defeated.
At times I don’t like Chris – though I suspect I don’t like many teenagers very much – but I still want him to succeed, I still want him to realise that so much of the battle is forcing yourself to do the things which anxiety says you can’t. And when he does, I celebrate with him. If you read this book, as I did, as a chronically anxious person, then you’ll enjoy Chris’s searing honesty all the more because you get it; if you read it as an un-anxious person, it’ll help you start to understand.
Joseph Coward is a writer and musician, most commonly found in London, England. He locomotes bipedally at a height of six feet and at a weight of one hundred and sixty pounds, subsisting on a diet of vegetables, grains, grease, booze, and sleeping pills. Like most mammals of his order, he is working on a debut novel while studying for a degree in English Literature. He has paired for life with his partner Alex, and they live together in East London, their natural habitat. @JosephCoward