Courtenay Hameister captivated audiences for nearly a decade as the host of the popular public radio program Live Wire, interviewing notable thinkers in a variety of fields. Behind the scenes she felt overwhelmed throughout her tenure, by preparation for the next show and onstage nerves. The unpredictability inherent in interviewing turned out to be a perfect trigger for what she later discovered was generalized anxiety disorder.
Leaving Live Wire and confronting her anxiety became the premise for Hameister’s debut book, Okay Fine Whatever: The Year I Went From Being Afraid of Everything to Only Being Afraid of Most Things. The Sophie Fund’s “Readings on Mental Health” series featured Hameister on October 14 at Buffalo Street Books, where she read from her first chapter “Stepping Down” and discussed her experiences with anxiety in a Q&A session afterwards.
Through candid and precise prose, Hameister’s book gives a nuanced perspective on the nature of generalized anxiety and ways to both explore and challenge its pathology. Her writing recorded her encounters with things that scared her, the page becoming a place for both problem-solving and reflection. “Maybe I could retrain my brain the way you train a baby’s,” she thought. “We take a child out in the world and show them this is here to hurt you, and these things, like teddy bears, are for fun. Our anxious brains tend to get those things mixed up. I was training my brain to become optimistic.”
She describes her endeavors as “exposure therapy to the whole world”; from a sensory deprivation tank to time with a professional cuddler to 28 first dates to a Build Your Own Burrito night at a sex club, Hameister engaged with her fears by challenging the way she related to them.
“The one shift that happened was just one word,” she recalled. “Before if someone asked me to do something that seemed strange or new or gave me a little dread, I would say ‘Oh that sounds terrifying’ pretty much every time. And now, after it’s all over, I just say, ‘Well that sounds interesting.’” This adaptation, says Hameister, removed the judgment, allowing her to remain open to whatever might come her way.
Despite these shifts in her thinking, Hameister was quick to acknowledge that this book was not written to document a monumental, immediate transformation. In fact, this trope found in so many memoirs and movies doesn’t quite capture the true nature of negotiating one’s anxiety. The reason being, she explains, is that “change is frustratingly incremental. Most of the time as we’re changing, we don’t even notice it.” And her memoir is not afraid of unveiling this slowness. The book is less about overcoming anxiety and more about living with it.
In the Q&A session, Hameister offered some of her takeaways about anxiety. For example, she describes how generalized anxiety—“this free-floating anxiety that’s there all the time just waiting for something to attach to (and unfortunately there’s always something to attach to)”—impacts her ability to write. It became an additional obstacle to finishing the book, though she was not without potential antidotes. Sometimes she simply told herself, “I am going to write a terrible first draft.”
Another part of the process is creating new neural pathways around writing. She remembers her therapist explaining, “When you’re creating a new neural pathway, imagine yourself in the jungle, pushing through these leaves and they’re wet and horrible, and you can barely get through it. This is the first time you go through. The second time you go through, you have a machete, so it’s a little bit easier. And the third time you go through, you’ve got a couple friends, and really the tenth time you go through you have rototiller.”
Hameister also addressed the importance of normalizing anxiety. So often, people think they are the only ones that struggle. “If people could talk about mental illness the way we talk about breaking a bone or lupus disease, it would be life changing to let people know you are struggling,” she said. Additionally, reframing anxiety’s purpose can be helpful to this conversation. She proposes we think of anxiety as a signal that allows us to recognize, “Oh I care a lot about this. It’s really important to me.”
Hameister opens a doorway for those looking to better understand their own anxious tendencies or better relate to those in their life who have them. Okay Fine Whatever wonderfully highlights the value of people living with mental illness writing narratives that provide true insight into the mental health challenges all around us.
—By Margaret McKinnis
Margaret McKinnis, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a junior at Ithaca College majoring in Writing and minoring in English and Honors. She is a nonfiction editor at Stillwater, a student literary magazine, and an assistant director of the New Voices Literary Festival.
“Readings on Mental Health” is presented by the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County, hosted by Buffalo Street Books, and sponsored by The Sophie Fund.