BY JULIAN SYDNEY ROSENBLUM
Seven years ago, my parents sent me off to magic camp. I was twelve years old and had already shown difficulty being away from home, so we decided it would be a good idea to send me to the flagship institution for aspiring magicians, where I would engage in a weeklong intense and immersive magic experience. About three days into camp, I had to go home, because I had been crying nonstop since my parents left. Something was wrong. This was more than the garden-variety homesickness I had experienced before. Shortly after, I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder, and began learning how to view my life and experiences in a new light.
But lest I ever forget the most traumatic experience of my life, a documentary about magic camp was conveniently filmed that very summer. The movie is called Magic Camp and has won a variety of awards, so if you are interested in hearing more about the “real-life Hogwarts,” I encourage you to check it out.
As documentaries tend to do, the film spotlights a handful of campers with compelling narratives, and I happened to fit right into the mold of the kid who cracked under the pressure of magic camp, cried the whole time, and went home. And I never did a card trick again.
This compelling storyline is great for the screen, but it entirely misses the essence of what happened. Now, I don’t fault the filmmakers for their artistic choice. It’s unreasonable to expect them to understand something that has taken me years of therapy and self-discovery to be able to put into words (plus, my accidental stardom makes for a great story). But since I wasn’t able to have my experiences accurately portrayed then, I’d like to explain myself now. This is what happened that one time at magic camp, and what I and countless others deal with every day.
Let’s start by defining anxiety. I like to think of anxiety as the way your body feels when you’re in danger. Though not everyone has an anxiety disorder, everyone knows what it’s like to feel anxious. The image my therapist always used was that of a bear chasing you. Imagine it. You fear for your safety. How does that feel? Of course, it’s not the same for everyone. For me, anxiety manifests predominantly as a feeling I get in my stomach. Sometimes, my heart rate will speed up or I’ll start to sweat. Sometimes, I’ll get nauseous. These are the particular physiological reactions I associate with being in danger.
It’s very important, and evolutionarily sensible, that I experience these things when I actually am in danger, so that I don’t behave like everything’s fine and dandy when a goddamn bear is chasing me. Suddenly, the logical axioms that I use to make decisions become completely different. I’ll begin to consider doing things that normally would seem outrageous. My primary goal becomes conquering or escaping that bear—fight or flight so to speak. My priorities become completely skewed, and nothing else matters. I don’t act or feel like myself; it is as if my body has been taken over by an external force that processes the world differently from me. All of this is necessary for me to be properly equipped for survival when I’m being chased by a bear.
But what if there’s no bear?
Having anxiety disorder means that I am prone to these anxiety symptoms when I’m not actually in danger—when I’m just, let’s say, at magic camp. There are different flavors of anxiety disorder. For me, it’s primarily separation anxiety, meaning I get anxious when I’m away from whatever my “home” currently encompasses. For most of my life, home meant my parents and my apartment. As I’ve gotten older, grown closer to other people, and spent a year at college, my definition of home has become more complex and now encompasses several different places and people. But the essence of my separation anxiety remains the same: I’m much more likely to get irrationally anxious when I’m away from whatever “home” happens to be at a given moment.
People have irrational anxieties that stem from all sorts of things. Imagine a friend who’s terribly scared of flying. You’ve probably explained that airplanes are statistically much safer than, for example, cars. Your friend has heard this a million times and knows it to be true, and yet, that doesn’t have any effect on the way he or she feels while hurtling across the Earth in a winged, metal box. Your friend is being chased by a bear, regardless of what the statistics about flying say. The same is true of me when I’m away from home.
Having anxiety disorder doesn’t mean I don’t know when my behavior is irrational. But it’s incredibly difficult to convince myself that things are okay when everything in my body is telling me otherwise. Instead, I look for possible reasons to rationalize my feeling of being in danger. Since I’m not in any real danger, any little possible problem becomes greatly magnified in order to be a potential reason why I feel upset. The earliest example of this I can recall is on a school camping excursion in sixth grade. The talk of the trip was, naturally, how we rebels were all going to sneak out of our cabins at night. This idea appealed somewhat until I actually got there. The teachers were cracking down on such hooliganism and threatening to put anyone who snuck out into a really dingy cabin called the “House of Getz,” the conditions of which were much gossiped about. I was homesick and quickly decided I was not going to sneak out. However, I became deathly terrified of somehow winding up in the House of Getz anyway—maybe my bunkmates would sneak out and I’d get in trouble by association. The “how” didn’t matter. Any mention of how someone’s unfortunate stay at the House of Getz featured wet beds, spiders, or other such horrors caused my stomach to perform a three-act play.
Explaining this irrational fear to my teachers was difficult. Homesickness was vaguely understood, but this out-of-proportion panic made no sense at all. I didn’t come to understand it until years later. I was away from home and out of my comfort zone, which makes me inherently anxious. Since I was in no real danger, I attempted to attribute how I was feeling to anything I could find. The only possible threat to my safety was the House of Getz, and so I decided it must have been the source of my anxiety. But the causality was backwards: it was my anxiety that caused me to panic about the House of Getz, not the other way around.
I’ve given some examples of how anxiety affects me at its extremes, but there is also a cyclical, day-to-day component that a casual observer would probably never notice. Anxiety doesn’t just make me a cinema-worthy emotional time bomb in high-stress magic camp situations. It also makes me a chronic worrier. Sometimes I stress and worry about minor things, even though I know my worries are not proportional to the severity of the issues. I’ll worry about whether or not to go to a party or event. I’ll worry if I have to get up early that I’ll be tired all day. I’ll worry that I’m going to have too much work to do at some point in the future. I’ll worry that I’m going to worry. I can explain to myself why this worrying is not productive and how I’m going to be okay in any of these scenarios, but though I know it, I don’t feel it. I have to know when to trust what my stomach is telling me and when to ignore it. I have to fight against my instincts to turn down invitations to do things and stay at home instead. I have to convince myself that I’m worrying for the sake of worrying, instead of planning or problem-solving.
I find this aspect of anxiety to be the most difficult to explain, because it’s so close to “normal” and I can hide it so well. It’s easy to turn down invitations. If I say that I’m tired or not feeling well, I’m only stretching the truth a bit. For this reason, most people who know me and have never been with me in a magic-camp-like situation have no idea that I struggle with anxiety at all. I come across as happy, outgoing, and even-tempered. And I truly am, despite my anxiety. I am fortunate enough that most of the time, my anxiety manifests itself in this tame, concealable way. I choose to open up about it to people. It doesn’t speak for itself.
Today, I can begin to put these complicated, sometimes counterintuitive feelings into words. I couldn’t always—and certainly not at magic camp. I knew my behavior was significantly different than normal, but I couldn’t explain why, let alone figure out what to do about it. It’s been a long journey from panicked child to neurotic adult. In that time, I’ve come to understand how my brain works, but that took therapy and a lot of time spent introspecting. If it took that much for me to get to a good level of understanding of my own brain, there’s no way I could expect it instantly from the fine folks who were filming me.
The question I’ve so far failed to answer is what should the camp-counselor-magicians tasked with taking care of me have done? Going into all the coping mechanisms would require another essay or two. But the number one way to help me or anyone else in the throes of anxiety is to be understanding—to listen, to acknowledge, to validate our feelings while also reassuring us that the dangers they’re predicated on aren’t real. Tell us that we’re safe. Tell us it’s okay to feel anxious and that we can still be happy and have a good time. Anxiety can’t be cured with a magic wand, but it can be conquered.
Julian Sydney Rosenblum is a rising sophomore at Yale University. Photography by Reece Sisto.