How a book about a neurotic woman helped me experience stress in more productive ways.
It’s a kind of magic, I think, how some books come into your life just when you need them. After a complicated apartment move, I turned to Emily Austin’s Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead to process some of my anxiety — and was confronted with a dark little gem of a story that felt like a much-needed hug during a difficult time.
Gilda is depressed and anxious, in her late 20s, and looking for a job. She frequently has panic attacks that land her in the hospital, where the nurses greet her with a familiarity bordering on boredom, and contemplates death with morbid fascination. Oh — and she’s an atheist lesbian.
When Gilda stumbles across the priest at St. Rigobert’s while looking for mental-health care, he assumes she’s there for a job interview, as the church secretary recently passed away, and they’ve been advertising. Choosing not to mention her homosexuality or lack of faith, and desperate for money (and stability), she accepts the position.
Each segment of Austin’s book is like a flash of insight into Gilda’s nervous mind, and despite my frustration with her useless worries about unchangeable situations, I sympathized. I imagine one’s worries often seem unnecessary to those on the outside; it is our own experiences and feelings that shape our unique frustrations.
At one point, Gilda ruminates:
“Sometimes I wonder if I have really been the same person my whole life…I have this bizarre feeling like I was a different person at every other stage of my life. I feel so removed from myself then. Sometimes I feel like I was a different person a month ago. A day. Five minutes. Now.”
I found myself nodding along to this passage, marveling at how Austin had taken a crucial aspect of anxiety — the perception that one is alone in feeling a certain way — and turned it on its head. In presenting Gilda’s unfiltered thoughts and actions, the author is telegraphing that it’s okay to feel this way. That it is, in fact, not uncommon.
When reading this and other similar reflections, I experienced a surprising sensation: relief. Although books obviously can produce visceral reactions, I’ve grown so used to downplaying my own anxiety and shaming myself for even feeling it that just the reminder of other people’s struggles was immensely comforting.
Do I seem to be reveling in the suffering of a fellow human? I’m not. Instead, picture a lost, lonely child wandering toward a far-off light and finding, upon reaching it, that others are there waiting. Austin’s book allowed me to relate to others in a time of intense uncertainty and confusion, and I’m grateful.
Perhaps not all of us have emptied the contents of our trash onto the kitchen floor, as Gilda does, in order to Google how long it will take to decompose (“Tin cans last for fifty years. Batteries last for one hundred years. Plastic bottles last for 450 years.”), but most of us have behaved in irrational ways when not at our best.
Sometimes, I wonder what it would be like to revisit all the people to whom I’ve behaved imperfectly — for reasons within or outside my control — and make amends. “I’m very sorry, but it was hot that day and I was excessively sweaty, and therefore I was short with you.” Or, “Yesterday a friend criticized something I felt was unfair, so I lashed out at you, and it wasn’t your fault.”
Maybe I could get even more personal: “I struggle with mental-health issues and my actions were a reflection of how out of control I felt that day. I apologize.”
Of course, this isn’t possible, and no one really wants to spend their life apologizing or being apologized to. But Gilda, by the end of Austin’s novel, does manage to interrogate her actions and feelings in a more genuine way. As I watched her grow in fits and spurts, I realized the same is possible for all of us: We, too, can change and aspire to thrive. And that’s a worthy goal.
Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights of varying quality on Twitter at @hapahaiku.