September 24

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Catastrophes and Connections: On Anxiety by Matthew Landis

“Maybe you should stop writing this book,” my wife said.

 

This was three years ago while I was drafting my forthcoming novel, IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS I KNOW IT (Sept 24, Dial/Penguin).

 

I was also stockpiling water in our basement in the event that Kim Jung Un made good on his stratosphere EMP strike and sent the United States into the Dark Ages. I’d just told her about the water.

 

“Maybe I should,” I said.

 

My book centers on 13-year-old Derrick Waters at the start of his eighth-grade year. Like me, he’s stockpiling goods. Well, that’s not exactly accurate; he’s actually prepping hardcore for the Big One. For the past six months, he’s been converting his backyard shed into a legit fallout shelter in order to survive the Yellowstone caldera eruption—an event he and his doomsday blog, APOCALYPSE SOON!, believes will happen on September 21st, nineteen days from the book’s opening.

 

The countdown is on.

 

But Derrick isn’t a true prepper—at least not way down. His anxiety about The End stems from a specific trauma: A year before the book’s opening, Derrick’s mom, a Major in the United States Air Force, was killed in Iraq. This sudden and violent loss, coupled with Derrick’s refusal to confront that grief, forged in him a simple creed: he will survive the next “end.” This obsessive lookout for doomsdays led him to the Wyoming super volcano, which became his simultaneous obsession and avoidance mechanism.

 

Like many teens with anxiety (especially those who haven’t undergone treatment), Derrick never uses clinical terms in the story. Instead, he experiences this “freaking out” symptomatically. Rooms tilt, air thickens. While mentally picturing The End or avoiding his grief, he randomly sweats. Often, a tingling starts in his fingertips and runs up his arm “like fire ants aiming for [his] brain.” In extreme moments, like when a false alarm on his doomsday blog triggers a retreat to the shed, or as the novel teeters on Day 0, his “heart skips three times, real fast.” Derrick’s brain, his shrink Dr. Mike has likely told him, is powerful. It has literally tricked his body into believing that the end is not only near, but here.

 

I ended up sticking with the project even after that chat with my wife; four kids + college tuition = some mental fortitude required. But at her encouragement, I took a break to revisit some thought exercises gained through my own Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

 

Derrick and I share the same brand of anxiety: catastrophizing, the obsessing over a forecasted fear carried out to its worst possible conclusion. Think mentally googling “my back hurts” to “I definitely have pancreatic cancer” within about five seconds.

 

This unhealthy and extremely unhelpful brain trap is just one of the many pitfalls outlined in David Burn’s seminal 1980’s book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, which basically put CBT on the map. I discovered this book after a Christmas-eve panic attack four years ago landed me in some intense counseling, and cannot say enough good things about it. While no therapy is a silver bullet, CBT gave me a blueprint to my dysfunction and a GPS to navigate it.

 

As a full-time middle school teacher of twelve years, I have witnessed the rapid rise of anxiety in my classroom. But living with anxiety—and the strategies I have learned to cope—gives me opportunities to connect with students.

 

“Mr. Landis, I’m freaking out about this test” is a doorway to a conversation about that student’s academic doomsday. Usually it’s the catastrophe of a poor test grade, triggering the worry of parental disappointment, which I suspect they falsely equate with a lack of approval, and ultimately love. Deep down, my students know their parents won’t stop loving them if they bomb a quiz—but many “feel” that it’s true, which has a far bigger impact on their emotional wellbeing. Helping them say this out loud—helping them confront the unlikelihood of their Yellowstone caldera—is as simple as it is fundamental. Perceived reality is reality, unless corrected. Remember: the mind is powerful enough to convince us of our worst fears, however ludicrous.

 

I never set out to write “issues” books—feels too on the nose, too direct to freely explore the wider story. To that end (sorry, couldn’t help it), IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS I KNOW IT is not really about anxiety, at least directly. It’s about the many ways the world can end and begin again, inspired by my students who have survived the apocalypse of parental death.

 

It’s the book I always wanted to write, the molten one way deep down at my core, where humor and sorrow and joy get forged into something meaningful, perhaps a compelling narrative.

 

I hope that a close reading of it will aid you and your students in the many potential doomsdays you face—real or perceived.

 

Matthew Landis slays boredom wherever it lurks in his eighth-grade social studies classroom. He lives in Doylestown, PA, with his wife and four kids, some chickens, and a boxer that acts much like the forgotten eldest child.