Welcome to our interview with Justine Caldwell, author of The ABCs of My Neuroses - Tales from an Anxious Life.
In an alphabetically arranged exploration, Cadwell offers more than just a vivid portrait of living with anxiety; she presents a nuanced depiction of the challenges and celebrations of modern life. From sex and body image to parenting and consumerism, her work offers a kaleidoscopic view of mental health, inviting readers on a journey that navigates the blurry line between charming quirks and debilitating neuroses.
Embark on a riveting journey of self-discovery with Midwestern millennial, Justine Cadwell, in her groundbreaking new book, The ABCs of My Neuroses - Tales from an Anxious Life. Daringly honest, deeply relatable, and laced with touches of humor, Cadwell's work offers a refreshing perspective on anxiety disorders and their impacts on daily life.
Each chapter, arranged alphabetically, unravels the complex tapestry of the author's own neuroses, forging a path that blurs the line between endearing quirks and debilitating mental illness. Woven with extracts from her personal journals, love letters, and text message conversations, Cadwell paints a vivid portrayal of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of living with anxiety. It resonates with anyone who's ever felt their heart race at the thought of the unknown.
But Cadwell's story isn't just about navigating mental illness—it's about surviving modern life, exploring universal topics such as sex and body image hang-ups, parenting woes, and the slippery slope from the need for external validation to consumerism and codependency.
The ABCs of My Neuroses is a must-read for those seeking to understand the multifaceted nature of mental health. It's an exploration, a conversation, and ultimately, a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity.
Q: You mention that a lot of anxiety-related literature fails to resonate with a non-privileged audience who can't afford extensive therapy or fancy yoga retreats. How do you hope your book fills this gap, and what alternatives or coping mechanisms do you explore?
A: While conducting research for this book, I noticed a recurring theme: it almost seemed as if only journalists living in New York suffer from anxiety. That's obviously not true, but the majority of anxiety memoirs I came across did fit that profile. While I could relate to the symptoms described, I couldn't connect with their daily lives or their methods of treatment. I believe it's crucial for people living in small towns—not just writers in big cities—to see themselves represented in literature on this topic.
I've only recently been able to (kind of) afford therapy, but even then, I have to stagger the sessions in a way that's less than ideal. Journaling has served as a go-to therapist for me since childhood; it's a great tool for organizing and analyzing thoughts. Additionally, I've found reading to be extremely beneficial. Learning as much as possible about mental health through articles, workbooks, and self-help books has made a real difference in my ability to understand and cope with anxiety.
Throughout my book, I discuss several unhealthy coping mechanisms that I do NOT recommend, such as binge eating and avoidance. My hope is that readers might learn from my mistakes, or at least feel seen, which can be therapeutic in its own right. Are you struggling? Me too.
Q: The concept of a blurred line between quirkiness and mental illness is a recurrent theme in your work. Can you delve into how society's understanding of this line has evolved over time, and where you personally draw the distinction?
A: Mental health disorders are still stigmatized, but we have certainly come a long way since Freud's time. I believe society is moving in the right direction: we are getting better at celebrating quirkiness while also understanding and addressing mental health issues, rather than minimizing or ignoring them. If you meet the criteria for a specific mental health disorder, and the behaviors or symptoms you exhibit are pervasive and debilitating enough to cause noticeable dysfunction in your life, that's where I—and most mental health professionals—draw the line.
Q: How has your career as a clinical dietitian influenced your perspective on mental health, especially considering the increasing body of evidence linking gut health to brain health?
A: Ooh, I love this question. Being a dietitian (with a strong belief in the power of functional medicine) has allowed me to view mental health disorders in a much more comprehensive light. Gut health is of utmost importance; you aren't just what you eat, you are what you absorb. An unbalanced microbiome can contribute to mental illness. In addition, there are numerous nutrient deficiencies that can contribute to anxiety and depression, such as those in magnesium and vitamin B12. You might be depressed because life is hard and you have a genetic predisposition, or you might be depressed because your body isn't getting the nutrients it needs to produce vital neurotransmitters. Bio-individuality is real, and it matters.
Q: You incorporate personal excerpts such as childhood journals, adolescent love letters, and adult text messages into your book. How did revisiting these past versions of yourself aid in your understanding or perspective on your neuroses?
A: Revisiting these excerpts helped fill in memory gaps for me. Reading the same text at different points in my life has led me to wildly different conclusions. For example, what once seemed like a romantic love letter can later be seen as evidence of an unhealthy relationship. I'm grateful that I held onto some of these "puzzle pieces," especially considering how many journal entries, poems, and other personal writings I've destroyed over the years.
Q: Exploring themes like school violence, chronic pain, religious identities, weight struggles, loneliness, and the slippery slope of external validation can be intense and deeply personal. Was there ever a point when you felt too exposed or hesitant to share?
A: Definitely. The first version of this book took a more cautious approach, skimming over some topics and avoiding others completely. After working with an editor and engaging in further soul-searching, I decided that both readers and the story itself would be better served by my exhibiting greater vulnerability.
Q: Anxiety often has sinister ways of manifesting in one's life. Your experience with hoarding garbage, disordered eating, and overachievement is laid bare in your work. How did you find the strength to confront these issues and share them with the world?
A: I've been inspired by other candid memoirists, such as Jenny Lawson and Samantha Irby. Now that I understand the reasons behind these behaviors, I'm not ashamed of them. Ultimately, I hope my book can help others feel the same way.
Q: Music seems to play a significant role in your life, as indicated by your YouTube channel. How does music serve as a therapeutic outlet for you, and are there any particular pieces or songs that resonate with your journey?
A: Music is both a comfort and a passion for me. I come from a family of musicians and grew up listening to my parents' band practices in our basement. Attending concerts, discovering new artists, and writing and playing music all serve as cathartic outlets for me. As a writer—and a neurotic—I especially enjoy dissecting lyrics. There's an infinite number of songs that have resonated with my journey, but here's a short list: "Storyline Fever" by Purple Mountains, "Morning Terrors Nights of Dread" by Shilpa Ray, "Screws Get Loose" by Those Darlins, "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" by The Beach Boys, and "Imposter Syndrome" by Sidney Gish.
Q: With the extensive research you've conducted, what was the most surprising or unexpected insight you uncovered about anxiety and mental health?
A: I wasn't surprised to learn that anxiety is the most common mental illness in the world. However, what fascinates me are the potential reasons behind this prevalence. Anxiety may have its roots in natural selection; in ancient times, it offered evolutionary advantages for survival and reproduction. Originally, anxiety was meant to serve our best interests, but the chronic stressors of modern life have transformed it into something more maladaptive.
Q: In a world where mental illness is still stigmatized, your book aims to reduce this stigma. What advice do you have for readers who are grappling with their mental health but are afraid to seek help or speak about it?
A: The idea of talking about your mental health struggles with your loved ones or a mental health professional can be intimidating. However, having a support system that understands what you're going through can make life significantly easier. If traditional face-to-face therapy feels too expensive or daunting (believe me, I get it), more affordable virtual options are available. Online communities, such as mental health subreddits, can also be validating and direct you to helpful resources.
Q: Finally, for readers who are inspired by your story and guidance and want to stay connected with you, where can they interact with you and follow your ongoing work and future projects?
A: The best place to contact me is on my Facebook author page: Justine Cadwell Author on Facebook. Readers can also follow me on Twitter, where I post updates about all my writing projects and YouTube uploads: Justine Cadwell on Twitter.