In this memoir told in free verse, Samantha Schutz sets out our experience of anxiety and panic attacks during her college years. She went to high school on Long Island where she had many friends at high school, but nevertheless felt unsure of herself, especially in her romantic life. In her first semester in college, (we don’t know where it is except that it is driving distance from her home), she does not totally feel like she fits in and she starts to experience severe anxiety in her classes, making her have to leave them for a few minutes to calm herself down hiding in the ladies room. When these really start to interfere with her studying, she goes to the campus medical center, sees a therapist, and gets a prescription for a minor tranquilizer. These help, but they don’t eliminate the problem, which continues to dog her for the rest of her time in college. Her main concerns revolve around boyfriends rather than her work. She does a lot of dating and goes to many parties, but she doesn’t really settle down with one person. She says that she sometimes feels like a slut even though she remains a virgin all through college.
Through her college years and in the summers, she sees many different therapists and psychiatrists, who have different personalities and different approaches, although they all recommend some combination of medication and talk. Schutz likes some of them and really objects to others – she really hates it when one suggests that her anxiety attacks serve a purpose for her. The book ends with no cure, but she does at least suggest that she can deal with the problem.
There’s no doubt that Schutz's anxiety and panic is real, and she gets some comfort from learning that other friends have similar experiences. Once she is able to reveal her problems to her social group, she gets some sympathy. But often she does not feel comfortable with revealing her situation, and that causes her problems. One dramatic case is when she goes to France for a summer to take some courses and when her group goes on a trip outside of Paris, she has terrible bouts of anxiety which cause her to separate herself from the others. It’s only because she has a sympathetic friend with her who can help her that she gets through this episode.
Yet the title of the book leads the reader to expect something more serious than anxiety attacks – the suggestion of craziness leads one to think of psychiatric wards and involuntary hospitalization. Schultz is very far from this. She occasionally has thoughts of her own death, but there’s no suggestion in the book that she really wants to harm herself, and her behavior is not particularly erratic. The problems are mainly to do with her feelings, and she is able to have a romantic life, friendships, to complete her degree and pursue a job after college with no more problems than most other people.
The use of free verse rather than prose allows Schulz to make her memoir sketchy about many details. It’s a very quick read. Yet her descriptions of her feelings of anxiety and panic are not particularly evocative. Her most powerful descriptions come from the listing of the diagnostic criteria of anxiety disorders from DSM. She is more eloquent about her strong but ambivalent emotions related to different boys.
Overall, I Don’t Want to be Crazy gives an impression of a relatively immature young woman who yet dealt well with her emotional problems and does well in her studies. She is certainly no Elizabeth Wurtzel, either in her writing style or her charismatic dysfunctionality, but her story may appeal to young women who have similar experiences.
© 2009 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.