Getting Past Anxiety by Melissa A. Woods is a surprising and enjoyable book. The title suggests it may be a self-help book, but it’s really a novel intended to inspire the reader to overcome his or her own anxiety issues after reading how the main character, Stella Maris, overcomes hers.
The story begins when Stella, who lives in the Seattle area, is about to get on a plane to fly to New York to visit her boyfriend. Because of her anxiety issues, Stella finds that she just can’t get on the plane, and the situation just gets worse from there. Her anxiety eventually leads to the end of the relationship with her boyfriend. It also makes her afraid to drive, which in turn makes it impossible for her to fulfill her duties in her sales career.
Stella begins looking for answers so she can try to return to a normal life. Eventually, one special person arrives in her life who leads her to another person who leads her to another until she finally meets Rachel, a therapist, who helps her resolve many of her issues from her past that are causing her anxiety.
Rachel is not a conventional psychotherapist but rather someone who uses metaphors and different tools and techniques to help Stella deal with her issues. The foremost of these tools is a special cloth cord that she gives Stella to wear when she feels anxiety. The cord symbolizes the link between Stella and Rachel so it will feel like Rachel is with her in her times of anxiety. On one level, the cord symbolizes the umbilical cord between mother and child, and Rachel takes on a mother role for Stella, healing the pain caused by Stella’s past relationship with her biological mother.
While readers may not want to try out every kind of therapy that Stella tries and may have different results upon their own journeys, the power of this book exists in watching how Stella works through her anxiety issues and the encouragement it gives that the same is possible for the reader. Nor does life stand still as Stella works on her anxiety. Just as things start to get better for her in one area of dealing with her anxiety, life will throw her a curveball.
The novel is very realistic in this regard, and I applaud Woods for how she portrays all the family dynamics and other concerns that Stella has to deal with. Not only has Stella had a difficult and even abusive relationship with her mother, but she has had to deal with grief over her brother who died while in high school. She also has an estranged sister, a somewhat distant and remarried father who ends up coming down with a terminal illness, and a daughter she has raised as a single mom. Her daughter is now ready to go off to college, a situation that only adds to Stella’s anxiety about being alone.
But in the end, Stella does overcome all the issues that confront her. She gets to the root of the causes of her anxiety and she learns how to heal the pain. She explores her past, awakens and soothes repressed feelings, and even comes to an understanding in her relationship with her mother.
For me, Stella is the greatest kind of heroine. No, she doesn’t rescue anyone from a burning building, but she rescues herself. She finds the courage to get on an elevator when she is afraid to. She finds the strength not to go visit her daughter constantly at college but to rein in her separation anxiety. And best of all, she never completely gives up on the possibility that she can be part of a loving family—even if it remains a bit dysfunctional—and at the center of that is her discovery of how to love herself.
Anyone who is dealing with anxiety, or any of its accompanying issues like depression or loneliness, will be surprised and relieved to find Stella is a mirror of his or her own life. And that’s the best message of all from this fascinating debut novel: You are not alone other people suffer from anxiety too, and they have overcome it, and so you can do the same.
For more information about Melissa Woods and Getting Past Anxiety, visit the author’s website.