Amanda Stern, LITTLE PANIC: Dispatches from an Anxious Life

Amanda Stern, LITTLE PANIC: Dispatches from an Anxious Life

Amanda Stern, LITTLE PANIC: Dispatches from an Anxious Life

I’m excited to be here today with Amanda Stern. Amanda is the author of Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life, a memoir about her undiagnosed childhood panic disorder that takes place in New York City in the Etan Patz era. She’s also written The Long Haul and eleven children’s books written under pseudonyms. She’s the founder of The Happy Ending Music and Reading Series, which was a multidisciplinary literary event series that took place at Joe’s Pub and Symphony Space in New York. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, New York Times Magazine, and The New York Times Book Review, among many other publications. She also writes The Little Panic Blog on her website. Amanda currently lives in Brooklyn with her dog Busy.

Welcome, Amanda. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Amanda Stern: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what Little Panic is about? Although, it really tells it from the subtitle, Dispatches from an Anxious Life. That’s only a small piece of the puzzle. Tell us about the book.

Amanda: Little Panic is a memoir about growing up with an undiagnosed panic disorder in Greenwich Village in the seventies around the time that Etan Patz went missing. It’s about how not knowing what was wrong with me shaped the course of my entire life and the ways in which the adults in my life tried to go about figuring out what was going on with me. In their attempts to figure that out, inadvertently — can I curse on here?

Zibby: Go for it.

Amanda: — fucked me up.

Zibby: There you go. I love how you did it because you started the narrative when you were very, very young and went all through the school-age years. Then at the same time, you had a more present day. I kept waiting for them to meet up. I’m like, “When are we going to meet?” I kept waiting to see what would happen. It was really neat how you did that. What made you write this book? In the acknowledgements, you said you avoided writing the book for a decade and that it took you four difficult years to write it. Then even at the end you were like, “Thank god I’m done. I never want to see you again.” Is that how you felt? What made you? It sounded like you had to do it even though you didn’t want to.

Amanda: I did. My body forced me to do it. Essentially, what happened was I was working on my next novel. My first novel came out 2003.

Zibby: That was The Long Haul?

Amanda: That was The Long Haul. Then I started to write my next book. It was about intelligence testing and took place in the fifties, uptown. It was about a group of psychologists who were trying to come up with the most comprehensive intelligence test known to man. They decided to test on all the Upper East Side schoolkids. It was about how they inadvertently fucked them up. As I was writing it, I was like, “This is very familiar.” Obviously, I knew what I was doing. It didn’t feel honest. It wasn’t working in some fundamental way for me. A couple other people had read it. They were like, “This is wildly ambitious. You’re tackling these topics that you may know something about, but only one aspect of it.” I realized something about it just wasn’t working for me. I started again, a different novel. I started writing a different novel. This one was a memoir about me as a child and coupled with a fictional story about diagnostic testing. I was dancing around this topic that I somehow knew I needed to write but was afraid to do it. What I did instead was I thought, I’m just going to keep going on the second novel. I’m going to cheat on all of these projects and write my own story down privately and just get it out.

Zibby: I love that you perceive it as cheating. You’re the one in charge of all the projects.

Amanda: I know, but you have a relationship with them.

Zibby: I understand. It’s just such a funny way to think about it.

Amanda: If I have a project and I’m leaving it for a week, I feel guilty. “I’m so sorry. I’m going to have to leave you. You’re going to be alone. Here’s some hummus and crackers.” I develop a real relationship with the project. I did feel like I was cheating on it. I started to write my own story out. I had all this source material that I had wanted to work with in the first novel, which was all the evaluations that I had growing up from diagnostic testing. I wanted to use the source material. For my own story that I started to write out, I used all the source material and started to create the collage piece. I got really into it and wrote about a hundred pages of it until I realized, “Wait a second. I think this is the project.” I showed the first hundred pages to my agent. He said, “This is the project.” That is how I found my way to writing the real story and being honest about it. It felt right. It felt like it was something that I could manage. It wasn’t overly ambitious.

Zibby: It wasn’t overwhelming?

Amanda: Yeah. I get overwhelmed talking about it.

Zibby: It’s a lot. You fit a lot in there. Now it makes sense to me because I was going to ask later why you had included the pages of the reports that you had gotten about yourself. Now that you’re talking about it this way, there were a lot of scenes from all the testing. It made total sense within the context of the book. I wouldn’t even have known that that’s how it had started.

Amanda: It all started because of this folder that my mom had given me that I didn’t even know existed. When I was in my thirties, she handed this to me and said, “Do you want this folder?” I said, “What is it?” I opened it. Inside there were all the test results and all the evaluations from my entire childhood.

Zibby: Part of what you keep saying after you do every single test in this book is, “I don’t know how I did again. Did I get that answer right or not?” this feeling of unfinished, unsettling test taking for your whole life.

Amanda: It was really unresolved. For the listeners, I was sent on a ten-year testing odyssey. I underwent all these different series of IQ tests from ages eleven to nineteen, which is not ten years, but I’m rounding up. I never knew why I was taking the tests. I never knew what the results of the tests were. I didn’t know what the diagnoses were. I didn’t know that my mom was receiving these evaluations. When she handed me the folder at thirty-five and said, “Do you want these?” I was like, “The answer to my entire life in is your hands.”

Zibby: Were you angry?

Amanda: I was. I wasn’t angry when she gave me the folder because I hadn’t looked through it yet. I knew what it was, but I hadn’t read it. I brought it home. It was only once I started to read them that I became angry because every single evaluation mentioned anxiety. It took me a while to reconcile that.

Zibby: Like how did they miss it?

Amanda: How did they miss it? To me, it was more, not “How did they miss it?” it felt intentional because I was angry. When you’re angry, you misapply some of your thinking. I was reading and thinking it’s so obvious. It’s all right there. Why did they ignore it? That was the way that I processed the whole thing. Then it took a little while to realize, no, they were looking for something. We didn’t have the language to talk about it then. No one really had the vocabulary. People weren’t constantly saying their kid had ADD or panic and anxiety disorders. It just wasn’t in our conversational palate. I got over it, but I was angry originally.

Zibby: It’s really hard to believe that it’s not that long ago, right?

Amanda: To me, I feel like I’m a thousand, so it does feel like a long time ago. Yeah, it wasn’t that long ago. The interesting thing is that it feels like it was so long ago that when I was writing this book, I thought, is this relevant anymore? It’s so dated. I feel so dated.

Zibby: I think it’s so relevant.

Amanda: Right, but I didn’t know that because I hadn’t been going around yet to schools and talking to schools and talking to parents. I was writing in a bubble inside of this void in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, in my apartment with my dog. I was slightly mortified writing it, feeling like this is so obvious. Everyone knows this. When I started to go to the schools and was talking to parents and they would tell me things about what they were doing, I realized, “Wait a minute. What?” So much time has passed between the time I was a child and now. We haven’t learned how to do this? I thought we had the language to identify the issue, which we do. We haven’t yet come up with a way to address it at home or to resolve it in our families. It’s been a really, really interesting dynamic to feel ashamed and dated and then going into the world and being like, “Oh, wait. You don’t know this.”

Zibby: Doesn’t it feel validating that it was worth sharing? The pain that you went through has a greater good. You’re helping all these people now.

Amanda: Absolutely. That’s amazing. That feels amazing. It also breaks my heart. It breaks my heart that it has taken this long. I’m now an adult. I’m no longer a four-year-old child who’s suffering, but a four-hundred-year-old adult who is now dealing with all these other kids and parents who are in the exact same place. It really breaks my heart.

Zibby: Had you known earlier, you might have been able to avoid some of the more self-destructive type things that you pick up in the book.

Amanda: Probably. Well, maybe.

Zibby: Like self-medicating. It’s really self-medicating, how you had to cope because there was no other way. I feel like a lot of kids with anxiety use drinking or drugs or whatever. You had to find a way out. Now everybody is medicated. Although, I’m wondering about the correlation of drinking and drugs now. Has it gone way down because of those medications?

Amanda: I doubt it. I don’t know. It’s interesting that so many kids are medicated now. Yet we still haven’t taught our parents and our teachers how to address the problems that they’re being medicated for.

Zibby: What you think parents and teachers should be doing differently? What’s some of the more egregious mistakes you see?

Amanda: Some of the most egregious mistakes I see are removing obstacles from your children’s life in order to make things easier for them. Essentially, your job as a parent is to teach your child how to be in reality, how to face reality, how to live in the world, and how to bear, face, and overcome obstacles. When you’re removing the obstacles for your kids, you’re taking away a fundamental life skill they’re not learning. That is something I see over and over and over again. What’s that name for it? It’s snowplow parent? Is that it? I just read that recently. That’s pretty apt. It’s become a real phenomenon now. It’s a real problem, this snowplow parenting and helicopter parenting, all of that. It’s so damaging. People don’t realize it because it feels right. You feel your best intentions. They’re your best intentions for you, but not for your child. It really bothers me and upsets me when I see that parents are masterminding their children’s reality.

Zibby: I think for some parents — I can’t speak to everyone — it’s this push and pull because you’re trying to protect your child. If you see a child in distress, your instinct as a parent is to want to minimize the distress and protect your child. Your whole thing when you went to sleepaway camp, the advice is don’t avoid the things that make you so anxious. When I was reading, you stayed home from school some days. Your mom would let you do that. The advice today would be, send her to school. They sent you to camp. You were dying over it, did not want to go, felt like your whole world was collapsing. Then you went. The beginning was really painful. You got over it. Then you learned.

You had this quote about how brave you were at the end. You said, “At camp, I was scared until I wasn’t. I went away and didn’t come back at the first sign of trouble, which means I am brave. My body made a callous around my feelings, and now I know that being scared doesn’t mean staying scared. I’m tough enough to withstand anything. I’m not going back to how I was. I am brave now. I am cured. I am normal.” Then a few days later —

Amanda: It returned.

Zibby: All the gains are reversed.

Amanda: There are two parts to it. It’s not just that you want to have your kid face it, that you want to eliminate your child’s distress, and that you want to have your kid face whatever it is that’s upsetting them. It’s that you want to explain to them what it is that is causing the distress and how they should handle the distress. Then you send them in.

Zibby: Right, give them the coping skills. Not blind, not like dumping them into the pool not knowing how to swim.

Amanda: Exactly. Right. That’s another mistake that parents make. They think, “I’m not supposed to be removing the obstacles. I’m supposed to be throwing them in front of them.” That’s not it either. With camp, yes, it was a good thing that I faced something. It was too big a chunk. It was two months away at age eight.

Zibby: I did that too. I never got over it.

Amanda: And I had a panic disorder. It’s really traumatizing.

Zibby: It’s really hard.

Amanda: It would be less traumatizing and it would’ve been a better experience for me had I gone for one month and I had been given the tools and the techniques for how to get through it, for how to face something and get used to it and get through it. It’s only when you have the techniques and the tools that you can apply it. Without it, being thrown into something without any coping skills, you’re going to drown. I just wanted to say one last thing. A couple of parents that I’ve talked to have said, “My kids get worried that they’re going to get kidnapped or I’m going to die.” I say, “What do you tell them?” They say, “I tell them I’m not going to die. That’s ridiculous to worry about that. Nothing bad’s going to happen to me.” That’s another huge problem. It’s not true. You just don’t know. I understand that they want to make their kids feel better, but it makes their kids feel worse if they don’t know what to do. Kids really are just asking for life skills. They just want to know what to do in the event that something terrible happens and that they’re not thrown headfirst into the ocean without a life jacket. All they want is a life jacket. That’s all they’re asking for. They’re not saying, “I believe you’re going to die. I know you’re going to die.” They’re just saying, “Hook me up with a life jacket.”

Zibby: In the book, I felt like you kept getting frustrated with your mom when you would ask her for that and she wasn’t giving you want you needed. You had to be like, “No. What do I do if I get caught on my way to the bus and I don’t come back? What should I do? What should I do with that babysitter who takes me away?”

Amanda: Uncertainty is terrifying. The whole world is uncertain to kids. It’s the parent’s job to say, “Here are the six main life skills that you need to know.”

Zibby: You wrote this book. You’ve also written a million other books somehow. You used a pseudonym. You write the Frankly, Frannie series. Why are you using a pseudonym for that?

Amanda: Essentially, I write adult books, which you wouldn’t know because I only have two. In my head and in reality, I have more than two. I’ve written many adult books. They just haven’t all been published. I started out as an adult fiction writer. The kids’ books came to me out of the blue. They were offered to me. I said, “It’s not anything that I do. I’m not that interested in it. No, I’m not going to take on this project.” Then they said, “Here’s how much we could pay you.” I said, “I will get to work tomorrow.” I decided that I would do it, but I would do it under a pseudonym because I didn’t want to confuse my career tracks. I knew I was going to be writing two young adult books for this company.

I didn’t want people to then think, “Amanda Stern, she writes kids’ books,” which is ultimately what ended up happening anyway. People are like, “Amanda Stern, you write kids’ books, right?” I did it under a pseudonym. Then that same editor left and went to Penguin and then called me up and said, “We need to fill this niche. Do you have any ideas?” I said, “No, I don’t. I don’t write kids’ books. Please don’t ask me. I don’t want to do this anymore.” What if… I came up with this idea on the spot and realized I kind of do like doing this. I ended up writing nine books, the Frankly, Frannie series. I really loved it. I, again, didn’t want to confuse my readership of six people for Amanda Stern with the larger readership for kids.

Zibby: My question, though, is I feel like authors need to have a platform. You have to go out and tour and all this stuff and Instagram and whatever. How do you have a pseudonym in this day and age? Do you still use your…?

Amanda: I haven’t written those books in a long time.

Zibby: It was long enough ago that…?

Amanda: Yeah. The last book came out in 2012, 2013.

Zibby: That’s not that long ago, but I see what you’re saying. Do you think you could do it now?

Amanda: Under my own name?

Zibby: Could someone decide to do that now and pull it off? Unless you’re JK Rowling or something…

Amanda: In what way would they not be able to pull it off?

Zibby: Without having any sort of backstory or not going on podcasts or not going to book tour or not having an Instagram with their pictures. There’s so much surrounding each author that I meet. Everyone has their own face of the brand that is themselves, the author. That’s essential to sales and how many followers you have, the business of it.

Amanda: I don’t know. Honestly, I’ve written so many kids’ books and yet I don’t know that market. I don’t know anything about it except for — I sounded like I was Canadian just there. I don’t know anything about it. I did do press for it.

Zibby: You did?

Amanda: Yeah. I went on a book tour for You Are SO Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah! I did stuff for Frankly, Frannie. I don’t think we had podcasts when that came out.

Zibby: It was a silly question. I was just curious.

Amanda: No, it’s not silly at all. I just think it’s a different market. Kids at that age don’t listen to podcasts. I don’t know. I got away with it. I’m happy about that.

Zibby: I had so many more questions, but we’re almost out of time. There was a picture of you on Instagram, speaking of Instagram, wearing headphones and saying you were doing a secret side project. Can you tell me anything?

Amanda: I’m not sure if I’m allowed to tell you, so I’m going to.

Zibby: Great.

Amanda: I’ve been hosting a book podcast called “Bookable” where I interview an author. We do a deep dive into their book. Each episode is doing an X-ray of the DNA of the book and giving the audience an idea of the soul of the book. It hasn’t launched yet. I don’t know when it’s going to launch. I don’t know where it’s going to be hosted. It’s being produced by a company called Loud Tree Media. Now I’m really going to get in trouble.

Zibby: We can delete this if you really can’t say it.

Amanda: I’ll check afterwards. If he’s going to fire me for it, then we’ll delete it.

Zibby: It’s not worth it.

Amanda: I don’t get paid that much, honestly.

Zibby: We still don’t want you to get fired.

Amanda: You’re right. Anyway, it’s a book podcast. I’m interviewing authors. I don’t know when it’s going to launch. It’s been a whole lot of fun.

Zibby: Podcasts are the best. This is the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’m having the best time getting to meet authors.

Amanda: You’re very good at it.

Zibby: Thank you. I’m sure you’re good at it too.

Amanda: Eh, I’m okay.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors, particularly in the memoir space?

Amanda: Yes, I think I do.

Zibby: Good. You have to say yes to that question.

Amanda: I think I do. I have advice for authors in any — I meant particularly to memoirists.

Zibby: It doesn’t have to be to memoirists.

Amanda: I have advice to all writers.

Zibby: Great. Let’s hear it.

Amanda: I have two pieces of advice. One, if you really feel in your soul that you’re a writer, if this is what you have to do, if someone asked you whether you would write even if you knew you would never get published and your answer is yes, then you’re a writer. You have to keep writing no matter what. You are never to give up. You have to just keep going. If you’re a writer, you write no matter what. You do not give up. That’s my big piece of advice. My other piece of advice is that if you’re the kind of writer who hates writing and only likes having written, please don’t say that out loud. That’s it. That’s my advice. It kills me when writers say that they hate writing.

Zibby: I don’t hear that very much.

Amanda: I hear it so often. It drives me berserk. I don’t know if it’s just that they want to quote Dorothy Parker and so they’re saying, “I hate writing. I love having written.” I can’t stand it. No one is making you be a writer. This is your choice. It’s an absolute privilege.

Zibby: It’s not like going to the gym where it’s nice to be over the run.

Amanda: I’m not crying for you because you hate writing, this profession that you have chosen that you get paid little for. You must have some other comfort in your life to allow you to do this. I’m not going to feel bad for you. Stop saying it.

Zibby: I hope everybody heard that.

Amanda: And drink a lot of coffee.

Zibby: I didn’t ask what’s coming next. You have the podcast coming next. Are you working on another book?

Amanda: I am. I started another book. It’s a novel. I don’t know what to call it. It’s crime-ish, suspense-y. It’s a literary crime novel, I say right now. In nine months I’ll be like, “It’s for kids.” I’m doing that. I’m doing the book podcast. I’ve started speaking at schools and organizations and workplaces about anxiety and mental illness. I also started a blog called The Little Panic Blog on my website, That’s been amazing. I love that. It’s so much fun. Also, I discovered there’s a place on my website that says site statistics.

Zibby: I just discovered that on Instagram.

Amanda: Extremely exciting.

Zibby: I had a fifteen-year-old show me. She’s like, “Did you know you can see…?” No way!

Amanda: Wait, on Instagram? The little bars?

Zibby: Yeah. You can see the breakdown of how many men and women and where they —

Amanda: What?!

Zibby: I’m going to show you when we turn this off.

Amanda: Oh, my god.

Zibby: I know. It’s mind-blowing to me.

Amanda: Really? That’s so exciting.

Zibby: Yes. I couldn’t believe it.

Amanda: Every day, I’m refreshing. 180?!

Zibby: This is going to blow your mind.

Amanda: It’s pretty great. It’s all good.

Zibby: Awesome. Thank you for sharing your story. It was super well written, really valuable. It was a labor of love. You could tell. I’m really glad you did it, just as one person reading it.

Amanda: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Amanda: Thanks for having me.