According to the Anxiety And Depression Association Of America, “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older (18% of U.S. population).” In his new book, Anxiety As An Ally: How I Turned A Worried Mind Into My Best Friend (paperback, digital), writer Dan Ryckert — who I and other people know best as a senior editor of the video game website Giant Bomb, or from his previous gig as the senior associate editor of the video game magazine Game Informer — talks about how he’s found a way to live as one of those 18%.
I always like to start at the beginning. So, what is Anxiety As An Ally about?
It’s the full story of my twelve years of struggling with panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. More importantly, it covers the methods that I’ve used to get over the large majority of my symptoms. I’m doing things now that I’d never have considered attempting back when the anxiety had more of a hold on me, and I wanted to share the story of how I got here.
But is the book a memoir, a self-help book, or a combination of the two?
It’s definitely a combination. I’m no doctor, so I wouldn’t feel comfortable coming out with a book that said “Do this, and this, and this, and you’ll be set.” I can only share what’s worked for me, and that’s only effective if you know the entire story of what I went through. I’d say it’s around 70% memoir, 30% self-help.
So were you inspired to write it because of other books about anxiety you had read?
I mainly wrote it because of how people reacted when I put out a few tweets about how I struggled with anxiety. All of a sudden, I had people coming up to me at video game conventions to talk about anxiety. They’d thank me and say that it meant a lot to them to see someone with a public-facing job be open about what they’ve struggled with in this regard. I decided to take the next step and tell the whole story, and Twitter wasn’t the place for that.
As for other books, I’d recommend reading about mindfulness meditation and checking out a book called 10% Happier by Dan Harris. He’s a national news anchor who had a panic attack on live TV, and he started looking into ways to make things better afterwards. It’s a similar mix of memoir and self-help, so I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who found value in Anxiety As An Ally.
At its worst, how bad was your anxiety?
At one point, I was in Las Vegas and staying in a room high up in the Excalibur hotel. I had an intense panic attack that caused me to vomit and see spots for a good chunk of the night. At its peak, I started worrying about being so high up. I’ve never been suicidal in my life, but I honestly thought that I might go completely insane and just jump out the window. I had to go down to the ground floor and wait it out where I felt safer. That’s just one example among many.
And how bad is now? I don’t mean right now, as we’re doing the interview, just in general.
It’s still there, as you can’t ever be “cured” of chronic anxiety. However, it’s a minuscule part of my life instead of this ominous cloud that followed me around everywhere in the past. I get a little nervous before I have to speak in front of large groups of people, but I don’t think that’s very out of the ordinary. In the last several years, I can count the number of panic attacks I’ve had on one hand. Ten years ago, I was having them daily.
Oy! What is the biggest misconception that people have about anxiety and panic attacks?
That you should just “chill out.” Saying something like that or “What are you worried about? Nothing’s wrong!” is the worst thing you can do to someone with anxiety. Trust me, anyone that’s having a panic attack wants to “chill out” more than anything in the world. It’s not that simple at all.
When you started writing Anxiety As An Ally, were you at all worried that someone might think, “Why would I take advice from some guy who writes about video games”?
If I wrote it as a purely self-help book, then I think those criticisms would be valid. Since it’s just my personal story, however, I don’t think anyone can fault me for sharing what’s worked for me. I say numerous times in the book that my methods might not be what works for everyone. There’s no one magic fix that helps everyone across the board.
Has that criticism come up since the book came out? Or has it worked in your favor?
A few of those tweets came up when I announced that I was writing it, but no one that’s actually read the book has had that complaint.
Clearly, though, you weren’t too worried about it because you got Justin McElroy, who writes about games for the website Polygon, to edit the book. Why did you decide to have him do it as opposed to one of your Giant Bomb coworkers or one of your Game Informer pals?
I specifically wanted the book to be proofread by friends of mine that struggle with anxiety themselves. Four of my friends proofread it before release, and they all suffer from anxiety and work in various forms of entertainment: gaming, television, stand-up comedy, etc. Considering that they all have writing experience and their own struggles with anxiety disorders, I thought they’d be perfect.
So what was the hardest part about writing Anxiety As An Ally?
Going back through old emails and journal entries that were written during the worst of times. It really took me back to just how bad things were when I was in the thick of it. Then again, it was also a good feeling because it really illustrated how far I’ve come with this stuff.
Anxiety As An Ally is not your first book; you previously wrote three novels — Air Force Gator, Air Force Gator II, and Former Baseball Player Sucks At Crowdfunding — as well as a book about professional wrestling called Curtain Call. But speaking specifically of the novels, was there anything you learned in writing them that had a big impact on how you wrote Anxiety As An Ally?
Mostly just how to format and publish a book on the technical end of things. That can be a pain in the ass, but my previous books have taught me most of the basics. If anything, this one was easier considering I only had to draw on my own experiences. With fiction, you actually have to come up with these situations, characters, how you tie them together, and where the story is going, even in something as dumb as Air Force Gator. When I’m just telling my own story, I don’t have to worry about any of that.
When you compare Anxiety As An Ally and your wrestling book, do you have a different style than when you write fiction?
I kind of just drop the goofier elements of my personality and focus on the content. That’s not to say that there aren’t funny stories in Anxiety As An Ally, but a book like this isn’t the place to be some Twitter goof or whatever.
Anxiety As An Ally, like your wrestling book and the Air Force Gator novels, is published by your own company, Up To Something Publishing. Has there been any interest, either on your part or on theirs, to having the books published by a big publisher?
I haven’t looked into that at all, because I haven’t seen a reason to go outside of self-publishing. I have full control over the content and the publishing this way, and I don’t have to wait for a bunch of people to go through it and tell me about what a focus test would prefer or whatever. I want the success or failure of a book to be squarely on my shoulders. That’s not to say I wouldn’t consider looking into traditional publishing at some point down the road, but I’ve been perfectly happy doing things my way so far.
Do you think, by the way, that if someone enjoys reading Anxiety As An Ally — and I don’t mean in the sense of finding it helpful, but just generally enjoys it — do you think they’d like any of your novels? Or are they so completely removed from what you’re doing in Anxiety As An Ally?
They’re so, so different. If you like the dumb crap I say on Twitter and the goofier elements of my personality on podcasts and in videos, then you’d probably like the Air Force Gator books. That said, I think Anxiety As An Ally can be for anyone regardless of whether they know me and/or like me to begin with.
Finally, is there a work of fiction that you’ve read and can recommend that does a good job of portraying people who suffer from anxiety and panic attacks, and is also a good read?
I can’t say that any fiction is coming to mind when I think of a book that describes panic accurately. Non-fiction is another story, and the Dan Harris book I mentioned earlier, 10% Happier, does a fantastic job of it. I also just finished a book by Jay Mohr, Gasping For Airtime, that covers his two years of working on Saturday Night Live. He discovered he had panic disorder during this period, and I could definitely relate to a lot of his stories about having panic attacks prior to and during shows. It was a really good, quick read.