Little Panic

Dispatches from an Anxious Life


By Amanda Stern

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In the vein of bestselling memoirs about mental illness like Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, Sarah Hepola’s Blackout, and Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mind comes a gorgeously immersive, immediately relatable, and brilliantly funny memoir about living life on the razor’s edge of panic.

The world never made any sense to Amanda Stern–how could she trust time to keep flowing, the sun to rise, gravity to hold her feet to the ground, or even her own body to work the way it was supposed to? Deep down, she knows that there’s something horribly wrong with her, some defect that her siblings and friends don’t have to cope with.
Growing up in the 1970s and 80s in New York, Amanda experiences the magic and madness of life through the filter of unrelenting panic. Plagued with fear that her friends and family will be taken from her if she’s not watching-that her mother will die, or forget she has children and just move away-Amanda treats every parting as her last. Shuttled between a barefoot bohemian life with her mother in Greenwich Village, and a sanitized, stricter world of affluence uptown with her father, Amanda has little she can depend on. And when Etan Patz disappears down the block from their MacDougal Street home, she can’t help but believe that all her worst fears are about to come true.
Tenderly delivered and expertly structured, Amanda Stern’s memoir is a document of the transformation of New York City and a deep, personal, and comedic account of the trials and errors of seeing life through a very unusual lens.


Author’s Note on Sources

The images and IQ test questions that run throughout this book came from a variety of sources. The first is, believe it or not, my memory. When you take as many IQ tests as I have, they stick to your anxiety and never let go. Where I drew blanks, I turned to the actual tests and their guidebooks. They include: WAIS Object Assembly (The Psychological Corporation, 1955); Measuring Intelligence: A Guide to the Administration of the New Revised Stanford-Binet Tests of Intelligence by Lewis M. Terman and Maud A. Merrill (Houghton Mifflin, 1937), 102 (Form L / 4); WAIS Manual, Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale by David Wechsler (The Psychological Corporation, 1955); WAIS Object Assembly H (The Psychological Corporation, 1955). The images that appear are renditions inspired by Stanford-Binet and WAIS (Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale) picture-completion and design cards.

Other books I read to refresh my memory and accurately portray the sequence of testing include: Capturing the Essence: How Herman Hall Interpreted Standardized Test Scores by James Shapiro (Joukowsky Family Foundation, 2004); A Method of Measuring the Development of the Intelligence of Young Children by Alfred Binet and Th. Simon (Chicago Medical Book Co., 1915); Emotional Disorders of Children: A Case Book of Child Psychiatry by Gerald H. J. Pearson, MD (Hayne Press, 2011); Diagnostic Psychological Testing by David Rapaport, Merton M. Gill, and Roy Schafer (International Universities Press, 1968); Foundations of Psychological Testing: A Practical Approach by Leslie A. Miller and Robert L. Lovler (SAGE, 2015). Since 1977 I have kept journals, and I also used those as reference.

I Am Not a Clock

Time sticks numbers on the world and marks spaces I can’t see. My teacher says the hands do this, and clocks are how we know when to come and go, but I am not a clock, and I always know when I have to leave my mom.

I don’t have a watch. My best friend, Melissa, does. When I learn to read time on a clock, I can get one, too.

“See? The small hand is on the two. The big hand is on the three,” Melissa says. “And if you cover it, you can see it glow.”

I nod. We are standing next to the bright light of the baby chick’s cage, across the room from the fluffy red reading rug, and I’m hot. Does time glow when you hold your hand over its numbers, or only watches? I don’t ask in case I’m supposed to already know the answer. I sneak a quick glance at our classmates, who are playing a clock game I don’t understand. Our teacher, Allegra, asked Melissa to help me, but I know I’m being left behind.

Melissa’s fingers are gummed with orange juice from recess. I duck my eyes down to the trapped neon, green under our cupped hands. The raised black plastic surrounds the clock glass like a medieval fortress, but the numbers are just horses standing in a circle—they mean nothing to me. I like the watch’s buckled bigness and I want one around my wrist for the comfort, the extra weight when my body turns into a leaf and floats away. Maybe Melissa will let me try hers on.

When I look back, Melissa’s face is bigger than before. She’s pushed in close to me, warming the air with her nearness, making energy out of the nothing between us. The sudden change reminds me of the truth about time only I seem to know: It can’t be trusted. To me, time feels good or bad, but to everyone else, time isn’t a feeling, it’s something outside their bodies they can see; it doesn’t hurt them. If time is visible to others, why won’t anyone catch it and make it stop, so I never have to leave my mom? Maybe the meaning of time is taking people away from each other.

“So…what time is it?” Melissa’s nose is an urgent inch away. Her eyebrows are impatient. I feel the dread before school every day; I feel the dread leading up to weekend visits with my father. I know something is wrong with me. I feel the dread all the time.

Our classmates are running clockwise on the reading rug, calling out minutes and hours from the center of the room. Their clapped vibrations catch in the middle of my body; their carefree jumps pass from the floor into my feet and knees.

Allegra claps twice, and everyone freezes. In the corner of my eye, I watch Naomi whispering to Kyra, eyes locked on me. Melissa asks again, but I still don’t know the answer. Once I understand what they do, we can join the game, but until then, I’m keeping Melissa stuck. My lungs feel tight. What if she’s worried I’ll never let her go?

“You can play with them if you want,” I tell Melissa. “You don’t have to stay with me.” I don’t mean it. The instant I say it, I am homesick for her.

“I can’t,” Melissa says, frustrated. “Not until you know the time.” She lifts her wrist to my face and lumps out my view. “How ’bout now? What time is it now?” She’s not even looking at me. Outside of my mother, my sister, and my brother, Melissa is my favorite person. Her hair is always a little tangled, and her dresses are always the wrong size, so she looks messy, like me. We have lots in common. When I don’t understand something, she waits for me. When I accidentally suck my fingers at school, she knocks them out of my mouth or signals from across the room—a tug on her hair; but now something sounds gone. She’s not being motherly, and her voice rings the emergency feeling in my body telling me to hurry up, hurry up. This makes the world speed up and everything goes double.

“Is it a.m. or p.m.?” Melissa thinks she’s helping, but she’s not.

I look at the board where a chalk sun rises over a.m., and the moon sinks down to p.m.

“It’s a.m.,” I say. There is too much going on around me. I am in nineteen different places at once.

“No, it’s p.m.”

“But the sun is out,” I say, pointing.

“At twelve things turn p.m.,” she explains.

“Then what turns everything a.m.?”

“Twelve,” she says. “There are two twelves. One turns everything p.m., and the other turns everything a.m.”

I look back at the clock. Melissa steps in and out of her clogs.

“Where’s the other twelve?” I ask.

“The one twelve is two twelves,” she says. “All the numbers happen twice.”

“When?” How can one number mean two things? This makes no sense to me.

Melissa pushes her lips together, frustrated. “When the clock says.”

Does everything mean two things? When Allegra writes things on the calendar, like “Class Picnic” or “Field Trip,” they become true. Before she wrote them, they didn’t exist. Before I was born, I didn’t exist either, and after I die I won’t exist again. What else of the world can’t I see?

I look back at the watch on Melissa’s dark-haired wrist. Two hands stand perfectly still while a third skips past in a race by itself. How is 2 p.m. different from 1 p.m.? They both feel exactly the same, and they both happen over and over, day in and day out. Maybe they even happen at the same time. Time changes, hands move, but the same things don’t always happen at the same time. If someone fell down every Tuesday at 2 p.m. in front of me, then I’d always know, Oh, today is Tuesday, and it’s 2 p.m.!

If I never understand, will I become a stay-behind kid who stops growing older? No one says it’s possible to just not-learn something, which means it doesn’t happen to regular people, only people like me. None of my friends have to watch their mom all the time to make sure she doesn’t die or disappear.

My mom tells me over and over that nothing bad will happen to me, or to her, or to my big sister, Kara, or to my brother, Eddie, or to anyone when I leave home. She says, “Trust me.” I do, but I also know with my body that bad things happen. If I turn away for just one second, the world might swallow my mom, or me, and I will never find her again. I worry that I’m the only person who knows about this, and I am in charge of this knowing, which is not a job I want.

Melissa starts playing with her necklace. A bright yellow M. “It’s really not that hard. I promise,” she says. A spicy-cool peppermint rises sad from my belly and closes hot and tight in my throat. I want to cry. This means she agrees with Allegra, who acts like there is only one type of world, one way to feel and be and think, and even one way of knowing. I am beginning to worry all people think this way.

“Can’t you just tell me?” I ask.

“I’m not allowed,” she says. “You’re supposed to learn it by yourself.”

If my mom were here, she’d tell me. At home she always tells me the time so I don’t have to do it myself. Is Melissa changing her mind about me? Is she ashamed to be my friend?

“The game’s almost over,” she says.

“I know,” I say. “I’m sorry.” I can’t hear my voice.

“It’s okay,” she tells me and then leans down. “It’s twenty after two,” she hot-whispers.

“But…I don’t even see a twenty,” I say.

Melissa sucks in an inside-out breath and sighs. “The four is twenty. And the three is fifteen, and the two is ten and like that.”

Why isn’t the two just two and the four just four? If everything really does mean two things, why can’t I ever understand the second thing?

The sound in the classroom has quieted. My classmates have stopped running; they’re staring. Everyone is waiting for me to get it: Melissa, my family, my teacher, the class, the street, the Village, the entire city; everyone in the world is waiting, but I will never get it. Something is wrong with me, and no one is helping me fix it.

My body feels drained, like I’ve just finished ten back-to-back relay races, and my head is crowded with cloudy chatter whose words don’t make sense. I want to go home, where I’m safe, and get back into bed with my mom. Everyone is ahead of me; I’m always trying to catch up, but I never do. I’m always the littlest and the last to understand. I picture their brains with long legs racing down the block, but my brain has little-kid legs, too short to keep up. Melissa understands things on the first try, but not me. The space between us is growing; I can feel her pulling away, and I’m afraid she’ll stop being my friend. A burning glows in my throat when people leave. The only way to keep my family close, to keep my friends, is to try to make my brain keep up.

“You get it now?” Melissa asks, eager for me to say yes.

The edges of the room smudge with black fog, and a slow suction pulls me away from her, from all of them. Soon my classmates will be far ahead of me. I’ll watch them move without me to the grade above, and the grade after that, and they’ll go to college and get married and have babies and families and jobs and houses, and I’ll be right here, still trying to tell time, still trying to understand the secret second thing, stuck and alone and six forever. Maybe like the number twelve, there are two worlds. They’re in one together, while I’m in mine alone.

Everyone wants me to learn how to read time, but no one understands that I don’t want more ways that say good-bye.

Intelligence Test: Number Concepts

This is a clock that is missing some numbers. You have to figure out which numbers are missing. Can you see which number is missing? No, eleven is right there, see it? What number should be here? Yes, good, twelve. Now, can you point to the minute hand? Are you sure that’s the minute hand? Right, good, yes…Can you put the hands at nine fifteen? No, no…Three is fifteen, remember? If it’s nine fifteen, can you tell me what time it was a half hour ago? Do you want to say your words out loud, or would you rather keep nodding? Nodding, okay. Look at this clock. You have to draw the numbers and the hands. Can you draw noon? Can you show me where twelve is? Can you put your pencil on twelve? Good. Now draw a little line. Now where do you draw the minute hand?…Are you okay? Dizzy? Do you want some water? Do you need a snack? What will help with your dizziness? You want to go visit your mom? Okay. Okay, let’s stop for now. Let’s take a little break.

Not the Right Kind of Human

I’ve been tested for ambidexterity, amblyopia, astigmatism, auditory processing disorder, focal dystonia, and essential blepharospasm (eye twitching). I’ve been evaluated in language, learning, speech, and motor skills; tested for visual and hearing disabilities; rated on intelligence, cognition, aptitude, personality, development, and functioning. I’ve undergone Wepman’s Auditory Discrimination Test and Auditory Memory Battery, the Beery-Buktenica Developmental Test of Visual-Motor Integration, the Beery Tests of Oral Comprehension, the Draw-a-Person Test, the Denckla rapid automatized naming test, the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, the Detroit Test of Learning Aptitude, the Illinois Test of Psycholinguistic Abilities, the Spache Diagnostic Reading Scales tests, the McCarthy Scales of Children’s Abilities test, the Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children test, Frostig’s Developmental Test of Visual Perception, the Gray Oral Reading Tests, Raven’s Progressive Matrices test, the Bender Visual-Motor Gestalt Test, and neuropsychological batteries including the Wide Range Achievement Test, the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, and the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales test, four times each.

I’ve pointed to pictures of shapes, cartoons, numbers, and letters, hoping my final answer matched what belonged in the empty grid. I’ve told them what was wrong with that picture, what was silly about it. I’ve drawn pictures and written stories. I’ve recited number sequences backward and forward. I’ve reconstructed cube patterns in the allotted time. After a while, all the patterns began to look the same.

My brain has been divided into fourths, eighths, and twelfths. I’ve been measured and sent to labs, measured and weighed against calculations, measured and assigned diagnostic codes, measured and measured and tested and compared to the standards by which measuring was held. I’ve spelled words I’d never heard, guessed their definitions. I’ve suffixed, prefixed, compounded, conjugated, diagrammed, defined, duplicated, reiterated, guessed, multiplied, divided, added, subtracted, elided, recited, confided, lied, cursed, and cried. I’ve repeated numbers, words, and rhymes. I’ve seen doctors, learning specialists, and tutors; I’ve stood on scales, languished in waiting rooms and on examination tables; I’ve raced against stopwatches; I’ve hung upright in trays affixed to the backs of doctors’ doors. I’ve sat at Formica desks and in play areas, and been surrounded by white coats, pantsuits, pearl necklaces, bifocals, year-old issues of Highlights, Cricket, WOW, and Dynamite; I’ve climbed poles, marked on boards, put together oversized puzzles, threw suction darts, sat at low worktables to draw with colored chalk; I’ve met more new receptionists in more clinics than I can recall.

I’ve filled in the blanks: Mary had a _________ lamb. Boys run; babies __________. I’ve been timed, watched, and notated.

I was confused by the tests. I couldn’t understand why adults believed that state capitals, equations, or analogies could determine why I was always afraid. I waited for someone to tell me the answers to what was inside me, but the focus was on what I didn’t know, and never on what I did. The tests didn’t care about my experience of the world; no one asked me questions they didn’t already have answers to. There was a way I was supposed to be, and I didn’t match. I was off the charts I should have been on, below the percentiles I was expected to reach, and outside the limited check boxes inside which I didn’t easily fit. There were norms, categories and particular systems too narrow to include me. There was a single standard used to evaluate everyone, and that meant there was a single standard type of person, defined by a basic human trait that I did not possess: intelligence. I did not match the person I knew I was supposed to be. I feared I was not the right kind of human.

I knew where to go, what time to be there, and the name of each doctor, but I could not tell you why I took those tests, I could not tell you how I scored, or what they were supposed to teach me, my mother, or my doctors. Until I was twenty-five years old, I could not tell you what was wrong with me.

Dr. Rivka Golod


Language and Learning Evaluation

Developmental History


Pregnancy, birth, and developmental history were all normal. Amanda has no allergies and no unusual cognitive problems were noted in early childhood. Strengths of Amanda’s include her ability to play piano by ear, her good memory, and acting skills. Amanda’s mother and father separated when she was two years old. Mrs. Stuart is remarried and Amanda currently lives with her biological siblings and three stepbrothers and sister.

Maybe I Am Not a Person

On MacDougal Street between Bleecker and Houston, a row of multicolored houses, dyed like Easter eggs, backs up to a matching row on Sullivan Street. In the middle is a secret garden, reachable only through the homes. Its cobblestone and grass stretch the length of the entire block. Almost thirty kids live here, including my best friend, Melissa, and we think it’s the greatest place on earth. Bob Dylan used to live here, too, but he’s long gone, and besides, I don’t even know who that is. Still, people ring our doorbell and ask for him all the time. I say, “He moved away. Now good-bye to you, home invader!”

On the street side we have an extra-wide stoop, which we share with our next-door neighbor. At night, the local bums, Ciggy and Sasquatch, turn the stairs into beds. Unlike the steps of normal stoops, ours lead up to the street, not down, sinking our house below the sidewalk. During the day, tourists duck down and peer through our kitchen window; we see their maps and wide, curious faces. Ten seconds later our doorbell rings.

“Is this a restaurant?” They crane their necks to look around me.

“Nope.” I can tell they’re trying to see into our secret garden, but I won’t let them.

“What happens here?”

What happens here is a question that asks what we’re hiding. As though being a family isn’t good enough. I don’t like disappointing people, so I say, “I’m not allowed to tell,” or “You don’t want to know.” This way, they won’t feel I failed them. They might be embarrassed by their question, but that’s fine by me since that’s how I feel most of the time. (Sometimes it’s nice to have a break.) Even when I want to lie and say this is the headquarters of the Members-Only Evel Knievel Fan Club or the Truant Officer School for Juvenile Delinquents, I don’t because then they’d want an explanation I don’t have. People always expect right answers to their wrong questions. All that happens here is us, and we’re not questions and can’t be answered.

“Who is it?” my mom, still in her nightgown, yells from her bedroom upstairs. I can tell from her voice she’s talking on the phone.

“Beats me,” I say, shutting the door on the tourists, shoving my two sucking-fingers into my mouth and hurrying back to her.

*  *  *

The secret garden is where I’m not erased. Some people think I’m funny; the adults call me a character. Outside of Melissa, my favorite garden friends are Marcel and Margaux, and although adults are always smacking my hands out of my mouth whenever I bite my fingernails, I like everyone. Some people fight, but mainly we tromp in and out of one another’s houses, sharing toys, food, and moms. When I’m not cursing, or teaching other people how to curse, I speak with a fake Russian accent or pretend I’m an old-timey spy. Once I cut Marcel’s hair with pinking shears.

We climb trees, read books on the branches, and rope-swing our way down. We tap-dance on the sandbox cover, circle the entire garden on the low balance beam of bricks without touching the ground, play freeze tag, and have chestnut and bottle-rocket wars. We build igloos, and we ice-skate when snow freezes over in wintertime. In the fall, I peel apart the helicopter wings and stick them on the end of my nose. We set up ramps and ride our Big Wheels like they’re scooters and jump daredevil-style from one to the other. On the jungle gym swing, we lay the seesaw across the canvas seat and stand a kid on each end while someone turns us round and round until the ropes are twirled, as tight as they can go. When you unspin, the colored houses, the trees and the fences, the sandbox and the cobblestone all swirl together, mixing up a fast new world in a brand-new color. You can feel the air of that new world whoosh your face, and the tight sensations in your belly are from excitement nerves, not worry ones. I am always happy when my body remembers to feel things other than scared.

There are garden rules and garden meetings and garden gossip and garden life. We’re like a small town with traditions and holiday celebrations. On Halloween we have a haunted house and our own parade with prizes; on Easter we hunt for eggs in the bushes; on Digging Day we plant grass and repaint the green benches and black gates. In winter we have weekly Christmas-caroling rehearsals in different living rooms. My mom throws her own Christmas party every year, even though we’re Jewish.

On the garden side, houses are sun-bleached and worn, the color of faded vegetables. Ivy covers only a couple of house faces, and a lucky few have their own balcony. I take pictures of everything to keep life permanent.

Everyone shares the big garden, but the little garden is your own. Ours has a sour cherry tree. There’s a cobblestone area for tables and chairs, and a small rectangle of grass where you can plant flowers if you like that sort of thing. Sometimes I set out a blanket in our little garden and bring snacks and a book and pretend the blanket is a raft and the grass is the ocean. I crank the crooked pole round and round and watch the awning open, imagining it’s a sail. The dark green cover makes me feel safe. I shut my eyes and feel the raft bob over gentle waves and smell the salt water. In the middle of the ocean, I’m protected from the whole scary world. When I open my eyes, my house is still there. It never leaves me.

When it rains the maple leaves grow heavy and brush against the house like a bedtime back rub, taking care of us. It is a home sound, one that happens only here. In the mornings, we hear birds before humans. Light catches and holds in wide stripes on the wood-planked floors. Kara, Eddie, and I lie sleepily on a couch near the garden doors, listening to the country sounds in the middle of the city, letting the spill of the sun warm our faces. When I was a baby, we lived uptown with our dad and mom. Kara and Eddie remember that, but I don’t. I only remember living here. I want to only ever live here, in my same house, always.

The garden has legends, like Dead Man Smith, who lives under the Lesters’ house and comes out only at night. But even with Dead Man Smith, it’s not dangerous here. If time worked the way it does in the garden, I wouldn’t have any problems telling it. When the high-pitched clamoring of small lungs first shrieks a hole in the weekday quiet, it’s 3 p.m. The quick flick of the bell from Minnie Lester’s wrist chiming Arthur and John to dinner is 6 p.m. When you wake up to voices and running, it’s either the weekend or the summer. When I’m in the garden, I can always feel my mother. If I need her, I know where to find her. The brownstones protect us. Like uptown doormen, they guard us from murderers and intruders, keeping us safe inside our secret world. We’re reminded of the outside only when the subway rolls its vibration under us.


On Sale
Jun 19, 2018
Page Count
416 pages

Amanda Stern

About the Author

Amanda Stern is the author of the novel The Long Haul and the nine book Frankly Frannie middle grade series. Since 2003, she has helmed the Happy Ending Reading series and she’s been a NYFA Fiction Fellow and held residencies at the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Salon, Post Road and St. Ann’s Review.

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