Anxiety is the most common mental illness, affecting many millions of people all across the world, for reasons both psychological and environmental. It is a debilitating condition, making everything from school and work to regular day to day activities difficult. Anxiety is also something that I, and many other writers, struggle with.
If you’re a child or young adult, anxiety is difficult, but there is lots of help for you. From therapists like those at CAMHS, to works of fiction exploring characters with anxiety in either a minor role, or as a major plot point.
If you’re an adult, things are more difficult. There’s no access to free therapy, for one thing. For another, there are greater societal prejudices working against you. But I think the biggest issue is the lack of fiction that explores anxiety in adulthood, since this limits the ways adults can engage with their condition in a safe but evocative way, and could even be a major factor in why those societal prejudices arose in the first place.
Luckily then, the indie author Eli Wilde has created a book about this very subject – anxiety disorders, and the way they manifest not in a child, teenager, or young adult, but in a middle aged man.
The book opens with this idea, starting with the first person claim that our main character, Jed, is both a man, and stupid.
This is because he did not go and see a doctor about ‘The Thing,’ which is the name he first gave the condition ruining his life. He didn’t go and see a doctor, because it was not a physical wound or illness, but something in his mind, and in his prejudiced view, men shouldn’t see a doctor about mental illness – it is not a ‘manly’ response.
This, of course, is wrong – but it’s important that the book explores wrong ideas because these are the same wrong ideas many adults with anxiety get as well. The only way our fiction can deconstruct wrong ideas, is to first of all express them.
Jed has other wrong ideas too, but I want to focus on anxiety in this essay, and the ways the book explores both the condition and its effects, and also ways of combatting it.
One thing the book explores very early on is the mind’s way of shuffling through possible reasons for why a condition like this – which is, essentially, abstract fear – has manifested within the mind.
For Jed, the biggest factor at first is the illness and death of his mother. This event is enough on its own to cause intense negative emotions in anybody, especially one experiencing mental illness like this. But importantly, Jed also has a lot of guilt. Both around his mother, and whether he spent enough time with her, and also with his own family, and the ways he feels he is letting them down.
It is the combination of this guilt, and his hatred of his current job, that convince Jed to temporarily go away to work in India.
I’ll come back to this job in India in a moment, but for now, I want to talk about The Thing.
It’s on the first page that Jed describes his symptoms of The Thing, before he ever knew its real name. The dull ache in his head, the quickening of his heart when the “what if?” questions surfaced, being unable to sleep with the lights off because it felt like the darkness would drag the air from his lungs.
It will if you’ve ever suffered with anxiety yourself. That’s because the author has a clear understanding of anxiety and its symptoms, and depicts them within the book (frequently, I might add, especially in the first half) with visceral effectiveness, presenting their symptoms in varied yet simple ways that feel relatable to anyone who has experienced anxiety, but equally understandable to those who haven’t. Even without any other aspect of this book, its first few chapters are a very valuable tool for anxiety education, not to mention being powerful and evocative storytelling.
It's vital that these things get a book in which to be explored – both by writer and reader alike – because mental health experience needs to be confronted within stories so people going through similar or even the same symptoms have something to relate to, and possibly even help them manage them, and people on the outside can begin to gain that understanding, while both groups simultaneously get to experience a compelling fictional narrative.
As I said in the beginning, there’s very little fiction about adults with anxiety (at least, outside of the more figurative and representative aspects of the horror genre) so it’s fantastic to see such great representation for that here.
But I think the most interesting aspect of Jed’s anxiety, or The Thing, is in the more fantastical, surrealism aspect – a voice in his head that keeps interrupting the narrative.
The thing (pun not intended) about anxiety is that it keeps forcing thoughts into your head that aren’t yours. This can make anxiety worse on its own terms, obviously, but it can also be incredibly frightening to feel that something hostile is invading your mind.
‘Two Lumps’ represents this through an antagonistic force taking the form of italic questions that keep interrupting Jed’s narration – which is exactly how it can feel to try and think while anxiety is pummelling away alongside you. It’s simultaneously fantastical, and realistic.
This is something that gets additional exploration once Jed arrives in India. He has convinced himself this new job will help cure The Thing. He’s right, technically, but India won’t cure his anxiety in the way he expects.
It’s worth spending a little time now exploring the fact that merely going to India was never going to fix Jed’s anxiety, since there are still plenty of reasons to feel anxious no matter what country you’re thinking in.
This is where the author’s worldbuilding comes in, bringing to my attention aspects of India I had no idea about. There are some comedic things, such as the mutual toilet humour that comes from the characters discussing the differences between toilet habits in the UK vs India. Other parts are more tragic, with the book introducing me to the ongoing issue of leprosy amongst India’s homeless. And there are some more ordinary things too, such as the workplace character relationships. All of this is excellent, and crucially, adds to Jed’s feelings of anxiety and self-consciousness in unpredictable ways – to the benefit of the story but the detriment of Jed’s mental health.
As far as anxiety is concerned, The Thing’s hostile voice continues on for a number of reasons. Jed still has to interact with other people. He still has work and deadlines. He still has health issues, both physical and mental. He still has guilt around his family. And there is something wrong with his life.
Recognising that his anxiety is still a serious threat – and in some ways, is actually getting worse – in India, Jed starts doing some research. He goes online and reads up about anxiety, professional advice and theories about it, discussions… and most importantly, this line here:
Pull up a chair and invite anxiety in for a cup of tea.
This piece of advice is where the book’s title comes from, and most significantly to the subject matter, it’s where the character Aftab comes into the story. Named after a kind man Jed met on the plane to India, Aftab is the most fantastical element of this story, but also the most important.
With this egg-shaped character who speaks in Stephen Fry’s voice, Eli Wilde has done for anxiety what Terry Pratchett did previously for death – he has turned a previously frightening and unknowable entity, into a friendly, interesting, cool character who is only here to help the other characters.
You know. In his own way.
Because this, Jed realises after arriving in India, is what anxiety really is. It’s the same fear people always feel – there to keep us safe from harm. It’s just that, in the case of people with anxiety, the fear has become out of control, and keeps conceiving threats where there aren’t any. Even so, it is trying to help.
From this point of the story onwards, The Thing becomes permanently known as Aftab, and also becomes the second main character after Jed. We still get things from Jed’s point of view, and Aftab still interrupts his thoughts and the events of his day. Only now, Aftab seems friendlier, more helpful, and from the reader’s perspective, less frightening and more humorous.
In a way, the author has infantilised anxiety, turned it into a funny friend that leads to our main character drinking two cups of tea every morning, rather than a terrifying enemy that leads to our main character fearing snakes in the middle of the night.
Despite this fact, there is still a fear element from Aftab, who keeps reminding Jed that there is something wrong with his life that he will not remember.
Aftab, then, is the part of India that begins to save Jed from his anxiety – alongside the new friends he makes there in the workplace, the new experiences he gains from a different country, and the new knowledge he acquires from both.
Anxiety isn’t something you can ever cure entirely. It’s not something you could ever really get rid of. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing, if you can turn your anxiety into someone like Aftab. And maybe that’s what this book will teach you to do.
I won’t give away any story details in this analysis, because I think it’s important to read the book for yourself and experience both its tragic and comedic elements firsthand. What I will say is that this book is certainly the best representation of adulthood anxiety I’ve seen from a novel. And that’s down to three main reasons:
It uses a contemporary, realistic, fleshed out setting to deliver an accurate and evocative representation for the focal condition, and uses a character who typically doesn't get to acknowledge this condition as its vessel.
It brings in a fantasy element in the form of Mr Anxiety himself, Aftab, to add an extra element of entertainment and relatability, turning an abstract concept into a physical being so the reader can more tangibly engage with the book's ideas.
The author is not afraid to be both dark and light to offer a more nuanced, realistic take on anxiety rather than sanitising it, and provides a compelling and affecting story, that also happens to be about an important and poorly understood force.
There are several other conversations going on in this book, such as the aforementioned introduction to leprosy in the modern age. But for me personally, it’s Jed’s relationship to Aftab that is the main take away from the book. With ‘Two Lumps of Sugar for Mr Anxiety,’ Eli Wilde has tapped into an aspect of the mental health conversation that has previously been sorely lacking in representatives.
The conversation surrounding mental health, its presence in society, and the representation it either does or does not receive, will be an ongoing one, never truly resolved but evolving much as anxiety itself evolves, as new ideas, new fears and new ideals of representation become known to us all. I hope in the future, this book becomes a part of that conversation. That’s exactly what it became for me.