I was watching broadcast television at the beginning of the year at a friends house. My friend and I were babysitting and being forced to endure some inexplicable kids show. During the ad break there was an toy advertisement for something called ‘Worry Eaters’. Children are to write down their worries and concerns and feed them to these knitted creatures who devour and digest the issue and presumably absolve the child. I was struck dumb by this; In a world where children can be prescribed anti-depressants toys are now marketed specifically for the purpose of removing anxiety from children.
The Worry Eater dolls are German in origin and probably have some sort of cultural or folk lore precedence, akin to native American ‘Dream Catchers’. The idea of making an intuitive worry or fear a physical object so as to dispense with it is an old one practiced by witch doctors and shamans since early man but this was normally perceived as a supernatural concern and one that was not usual to afflict children specifically. The dolls themselves are cute-ified monsters and were apparently quite a hot seller at Christmas so can only be seen as a reflection of something that is a growing prevalence in the young. That they are scared and anxious, even depressed at an age when we assume it is all puppy dogs tails and playing Tag.
In the brief bit of research I made on these toys the highest entry on Google was, alas, the Daily Mail with its typically reactionary and scare-mongering article about how this is an epidemic and no doubt that “something must be done” or “ban this filth”. I don’t know, I didn’t read that far because as I began reading the drivel about why the BBC/the Labour Party/Immigrants/ Benefit Scroungers were to blame for this epidemic my eyes flitted to the side bar of latest articles all containing a montage image with a click-bait headline. Normally involving a half-naked woman or some sort of lascivious detail. This basically explained everything I needed to know.
Historically we have fewer cases of ‘Anxiety’. That’s not to say it didn’t exist but I doubt we had as sophisticated diagnoses or diction to describe this mental state prior to the mid 20th century. Before psychoanalysis developed these kind of mental afflictions were probably described as ‘ Fatigue Syndrome’ or ‘Exhaustion’ etc. You need only read a 19th century novel to see how many people collapsed from ‘Shock’ or a similar ailment and then put that alongside a modern Panic Attack to see that a similar problem did occur but it does seem to be a much higher percentage of people suffer from these kind of mental health issues today. I wrote about the growing number of Mental Health patients on the NHS in another post but this notion of children suffering to the extent even their toys are used as a way of relieving symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression leads me to some different rather more horrifying conclusions.
Recently I have been reading a lot more Horror. This was prompted by watching the first series of True Detective which under the guise of American Gothic storytelling told a truly murky, bleak and horrific tale of cosmic horror, incorporating the intertextual horror of the likes of Ambrose Bierce, Robert Chambers and HP Lovecraft. Delving into this world of episodic cosmic horror has been quite a revelatory thing for me. This kind of writing, far from giving you a monster or ghost to fear simply gives you yourself and the cold, uncaring universe which, frankly, is the most chilling thing of all. The fallibility of our minds and our temperaments and the perilous knife edge on which we survive against incredible odds everyday should be enough to chill anyone’s blood. Lovecraft wrote at a time when we were learning more and more about our place in the universe and when civil rights was at a tipping point (Lovecraft himself was a notorious racist with some dodgy opinions on sex and women to boot) and crafted these feelings of being buried under a tide he could not fight or little comprehend by personifying them as ineffable monstrosities from beyond the stars.
Today we are bombarded with information, development and growth of our species that only serves to place us sheep in a vast herd, desperately bleating for significance on a windswept rock on a lonely mountain. That is enough to make anyone anxious. As our populace grows and we create more to distract ourselves and try so hard to ensure the fleeting breath between cradle and grave have some lasting meaning the more we will feel the crushing weight of nothingness that surrounds our little blue dot pressing down on us. The more we search outside ourselves the more we discover and the more alone we feel. The growth of apocalyptic fiction in recent years is a good indicator of this mentality too. we hope for a reset or a recasting in a world that makes more sense, where one person can make a difference whereas in truth there is no purpose and we all know that, probably why so many billions still turn to faith to salvage their sanity and hope there is something beyond that infinite black. All of which recalls Neitzsche’s warning of “Gaze not into the abyss for the abyss gazes also into you”.
So yes Daily Mail, anxiety and its fellow mental health issues is a more modern problem but is probably a symptom of humanity coming to terms with our own growth and development, a mental evolution following our physical one, the awkward teenage years of the human race as it realises its powerlessness and insignificance in the face of a much larger world. For me as a teenager I took any method I could to relieve that fear and worry so personally I think everyone should have a worry eater doll if it makes you feel better.