My castle of anxiety

Image of Susie Boyt

As a full-time, old-hand, distinguished, world-class, professional champion when it comes to worrying, I like to believe my fretwork in some way has value. I try to cling to a hope that my worry not only bears sweet fruit, but is even a bit profound and ennobling. Otherwise my whole life and the way I live it is – how to put it? – complete nonsense. But can this be true?

Is anxiety preparatory, like baking blind the pastry shell of your life in order that it better holds the liquid contents? Is it a form of mental packing, a layering of doubts, fears and past experience, with dreams and injuries stuffed into the side pockets so that you are equipped for any challenge that comes?

Deep down, I think (I think) that worry can strengthen and illuminate. It is preventive, for it sees off disasters by anticipating them. I sometimes nurse the idea that it paves the way for sensitive decision-making and high-calibre relationships.

Is anxiety good? Might it even be great? I do hope so.

I once read a book about drug addiction that claimed that the addict in the family often finds himself carrying all the family’s pain. He suffers loudly and emphatically by making his family’s dark secrets his life and his job. I sometimes think that simply by worrying, I am allowing all the other people in my house to live a carefree existence, with their happy-go-lucky hearts. But what would it be like not to worry?

Don’t ask me. In the castle of anxiety there are many, many rooms, and I wander them all.

On the ground floor, at entry level, there are Tasty Dilemmas. You have, for example, been able to persuade your favourite female novelist to be guest of honour at a dinner you’re having. Would it be unbelievably gauche to create one of the meals from her books? Do you dare?

Next door are Wry Musings. Imagine recalling an article you read years ago (you might have even written it) saying that often in long-running soap operas and drama series the actors, in real life, strike up romances with onscreen family members. And sometimes, as I believe happened in the Brady Bunch, a son will fall in love with his onscreen mother. Could this ever be the basis for a stable relationship? Or maybe you are thinking about the current philosophy on mother-daughter relations, which is that women should never express any dissatisfaction concerning their appearance to their daughters. Yet what if you were an internationally acclaimed famous beauty queen; might it be nice for your daughter to see that even you weren’t quite as confident as she feared? In that instance, would it be right to let your tiara slip a little? Or not?

Up you go. On a higher floor are Light Historic Regrets. These must be at least 10 years old, and none too ruinous. In this room you will dangle a missed opportunity in front of yourself with a little rolling of the eyes and a featherweight ticking-off: When you went to that Moguls and Starlets party 24 years ago dressed as Veronica Lake, you were talking so obsessively to the psychoanalyst sitting next to you that a massive dessert buffet, the like of which you have not seen since, came and went before you’d even had a chance to approach it. You great turnip!

Through the side door are Mild Concerns. These might be, oh, say: “Am I a bad person?” Or, when you had tea with your best Catholic priest and asked him if he thought there was a crisis in the church and he said, “On the contrary, it’s such an exciting time”, should you have said that you thought that a little glib?

Nearby are Permanent Ponderings. For example: how to instil ambition in your children without them feeling pressure? Teach them compassion but not that which comes from suffering? Independence without undue risk?

Higher in this house of ill repute you’ll find things go from bad to worse. Causes for Alarm is the face of your daughter’s perfect 13-year-old friend telling you in passing that she believes herself to be ugly. A severe Cause for Alarm is the fact that the news is so crammed with sexual assaults every day that it sometimes feels that sex itself has caught a terrible disease.

And then, at the very top, there are The Bad Guys. What Larkin called “And age, and then the only end of age”. Or, as Rodgers and Hammerstein have it in Carousel, “Common sense may tell you that the ending will be sad”.

Where am I going with all this ... ? Oh yes, worrying. There’s nothing quite like it.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.