Okay Fine Whatever

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.

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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.

Hot New Books for Mental Health

Buffalo Street Books launches The Sophie Fund’s 2018 “Readings on Mental Health” series on October 7 with an appearance by Laura June, author of Now My Heart Is Full.

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Laura June (Photo by Silvie Rosokoff)

June’s heartbreaking yet hopeful memoir from Penguin Books reflects on motherhood, the relationships between mothers and daughters, and the joys and pains of being a parent. It relates a journey from being raised by an alcoholic mother to giving birth herself at 35, and beyond. “June reckons unflinchingly with the muck of motherhood and daughterhood without disavowing the precious particularities of both,” said Rachel Vorona Cote, writing in The New Republic.

The series continues on October 14 with a reading by Courtenay Hameister, former head writer and host of the popular public radio variety show Live Wire. Hameister recounts her struggles with anxiety disorders in her frank and funny new book from Little Brown, Okay Fine Whatever: They Year I Went from Being Afraid of Everything to Only Being Afraid of Most Things.

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Courtenay Hameister

On November 4 the series concludes with an appearance by Kelly Jensen, editor of a new anthology about mental health aimed at teenaged readers. (Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation About Mental Health from Algonquin Young Readers brings together actors, athletes, writers, and artists—Kristen Bell, Reid Ewing, S.Jae-Jones, Nancy Kerrigan, and others—discussing their personal experiences with mental health and how to tackle the stigma around it.

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Kelly Jensen

Buffalo Street Books is located in the DeWitt Mall 215 N Cayuga St, Ithaca, NY 14850. All readings begin at 2 p.m. and are followed by Q&A and book signings.

“Readings on Mental Health” is presented by the Mental Health Association in Tompkins CountyMental Health Association in Tompkins County with the support of The Sophie Fund.

 

This Close to Happy

Daphne Merkin, author of This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, will be the featured guest speaker at a “Readings on Mental Health” event on Sunday, November 19 sponsored by the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County and hosted by Buffalo Street Books.

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Writing in the Wall Street Journal, John Kaag called Merkin’s 2017 memoir “one of the most accurate, and therefore most harrowing, accounts of depression to be written in the last century… Ms. Merkin speaks candidly and beautifully about aspects of the human condition that usually remain pointedly silent.”

Andrew Solomon, reviewing This Close to Happy for the New York Times, wrote: “It is standard fare to say that books on depression are brave, but this one actually is. For all its highly personal focus, it is an important addition to the literature of mental illness.”

Merkin is also the author of Enchantment, Dreaming of Hitler and The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontës, and the Importance of Handbags. A former staff writer at the New Yorker, she has also written for the New York Times, Elle, Bookforum, Departures, Travel + Leisure, W, Vogue, Tablet Magazine, and other publications. She has taught writing at the 92nd Street Y, Marymount College, and Hunter College.

Merkin’s appearance is part of “Readings on Mental Health,” a series featuring authors of books on mental health topics made possible by a grant from The Sophie Fund.

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How Reading Fiction Soothes Teen Angst

Shawn Goodman, the Young Adult fiction author of Kindness for Weakness, will be the featured guest speaker at a “Readings on Mental Health” event on September 24 sponsored by the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County and hosted by Buffalo Street Books.

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Goodman will take his audience on a tour of the Young Adult literature landscape, discussing works such as It’s Kind of a Funny Story, by Ned Vizzini, Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick, and Mexican White Boy by Matt De La Pena.

In his talk, Goodman will explore the different reasons as well as the different ways in which teens and adults read—a critical question given how reading time for teens has become such a limited commodity due to competing activities, most of which are digital and instant.

Goodman is a school psychologist in Ithaca whose experiences working in several New York State juvenile detention facilities inspire his writing. The New York Times called Goodman’s Kindness for Weakness, “a gripping tale with important lessons for any young man.” It is the story of James, the son of a cocktail-waitress single mom, who becomes entangled with his drug-dealing older brother as he navigates adolescence. Goodman’s earlier Something Like Hope won the 2009 Delacorte Press Prize for a first Young Adult novel.

Goodman’s appearance is the second installment of “Readings on Mental Health,” a 2017 series featuring authors of books on mental health topics made possible by a grant from The Sophie Fund.

 

When Someone You Know Has Depression

Dr. Susan J. Noonan, author of When Someone You Know Has Depression: Words to Say and Things to Do, will be the featured guest speaker at a “Readings on Mental Health” event on April 30 sponsored by the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County and hosted by Buffalo Street Books.

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Noonan’s latest book is a concise and practical guide to caring for someone who has depression or bipolar disorder, offering specific suggestions for what to say or do to cope with impaired thinking and fluctuating moods. The book contains chapters on mood disorders, signs of depression, support and communication strategies, finding professional help, and caring for caregivers.

When Someone You Know Has Depression, a companion volume to Noonan’s 2013 book Managing Your Depression: What You Can Do to Feel Better, draws on evidence-based medical information as well as her own first-hand experience of living with a mood disorder. As a physician she has treated, supported, and educated those living with and those caring for a person who has a mood disorder. Noonan is a Certified Peer Specialist at McLean Hospital and a consultant to Massachusetts General Hospital and CliGnosis.

Noonan’s appearance launches “Readings on Mental Health,” a 2017 series featuring authors of books on mental health topics made possible by a grant from The Sophie Fund.

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