What motivated you to create Anxiety Box?
PF: I was experiencing incredible anxiety, especially when I took the train. I had just had children and was very stressed out. I was worried I’d die on the train, that the train would crash, that I wouldn’t be able to see my kids. I started taking a lot of buses.
The idea of isolating anxiety in this way is intriguing – how much do you see your anxiety as a part of ‘you’?
I see everything as one big blob of self. There’s nothing external that makes up ‘me’, just me.
How do you experience your anxiety?
I think it’s that voice when you wake up that just goes, ‘You’re garbage, you’re the monster. You shouldn’t exist, you’re horrible, you will never be done; you will never escape.’ We all hear these things from time to time, either in our own heads or on Twitter; it’s the relentless, repetitive aspect of them that bothers me.
Has Anxiety Box ever sent you anything particularly funny?
Anxiety is never intentionally funny. It’s just mean and banal to a ridiculous degree. It’s funny in its horribleness.
Does your Anxiety Box have a name?
If it could have a face as well as a voice, what would it look like?
Oh, it would just be me. It’s simply the most indifferent, callous, brutal version of myself; the one that is disgusted and horrified by any deviation from the norm.
Should we be more or less expressive when it comes to our emotions?
I think we should be more expressive when it comes to love, or respect, and much less expressive when it comes to anger. People love to perform anger; they rarely perform tolerance, kindness, or empathy. I’m horrified by the behaviour of everyone, including people I agree with. Maybe a little distance could help us be better people.
Is Anxiety Box a way of protecting yourself from your emotions?
It’s a way to give the anxiety less force, so yes. It takes something internal and minimises it, mocks it, makes it less relevant.
It seems to me that anxiety levels are often tied up with the progress-driven nature of our society. You write that, upon meeting, you hold off asking someone what they ‘do’ for as long as possible. Why is this an annoying question?
Because it feels reductive – what someone ‘does’ isn’t supposed to be who they ‘are’. Also it introduces questions of hierarchy and status if one person, say, manages a very large company, and the other person is – who knows – a dog walker. Although god knows I’d love to talk to a dog walker. The reality is that when people start to talk about their work they often forget there is another person in the conversation. So by holding off on that you keep alive the idea that there are two equal partners in the conversation.
How has the way we write, and by implication, think, changed in the age of technology?
We’re faster. We write more. There are more and more spaces to fill, more words to be written. We don’t have time for the paragraphs. We don’t think about the sentences. We don’t outline. We don’t cut and paste. We don’t button up our paragraphs. There are also so many opportunities to get it wrong that we diminish the opportunity that prose gives us to get it right. But if someone writes from a place of joy and exploration that still comes across. However, it happens relatively rarely. The rate of wonderful things remains constant no matter how much media is made.
You write on your blog Ftrain.com, "This is straight-up blogging, amateur prose written quickly and with neither guiding stricture nor sober editing. I am going to tell it like it is, right from the heart" - what does blogging offer us as an intellectual mode?
Oh, I was just being a little silly there. But it’s definitely unedited and there’s no one between me and the reader. You are free to judge me, send me an email, hate me, like me, cut-and-paste me, whatever. It’s a far more personal medium in its native form than many other forms.
How did you give Anxiety Box ‘heart’?
Anxiety Box has no heart. It is a cruel and merciless robot designed to punish. That by doing so it becomes hilarious is just a side effect. I like irony in my software.
Do you think modern technology has led to a lack of connected-ness (or a surplus of connection but a lack of presence perhaps)? If so, how do you think this has affected people's anxiety levels?
I think that more communication is great for us; I think that more conversation in public is very nerve-wracking. It’s hard on people. The global conversation, the unfettered one where everyone can yell at each other, has been an exercise in intolerance. I’ve seen really bright, open-hearted people become nasty and manipulative, and they do it from a position of fear and call it ideology.
What’s next for you (and your anxiety)?
Well, I should eventually re-launch Anxiety Box. I have a book I need to finish in the next two weeks that is more than a year late. I co-founded a company with 35 employees and I’m responsible for bringing in enough business to keep them employed. Plus I have some major, serious illnesses in my family, my wife is building a new career, and I have four-year-old twins. So I think my anxiety will be completely fine.
Interview by Madeleine Dunnigan and GIF by Scarlet Evans
Paul Ford is the co-founder of Postlight, an app and website building platform. Previously, he was an editor of Harper’s Magazine (2005-2010) and a longstanding feature on NPR’s All Things Considered (2003-2007). Most recently he appeared on This American Life (2016).