In John Irving’s masterpiece “The World According to Garp,” Garp’s youngest child Walt misunderstands when his father warns him to “look out for the undertow,” hearing his words as “look out for the under toad.” The under toad became, for the child in the book, the representation of everything scary and overwhelming and out of his control. I read Garp when I was in college, and that phrase has been rattling around in my head ever since. It’s the kind of thing any child could easily misunderstand and any adult could easily imagine being terrifying to a child. The imagery associated with it – the horrifying under toad, ready to snatch you up at any vulnerable moment – has never left me.under toad, undertow, fear, anxiety, panic, attack, Garp, John Irving, midlife, empty nest

Anxiety can feel like that – a great big beast pulling at your toes, dragging you down into the whirlpool of your fears and phobias. In the New York Times magazine on Sunday, April 22, there is an article by Daniel Smith called”The Maniac in Me”  about him and his brother who experience their anxiety in very different ways. Smith suggests that there are two kinds of anxiety sufferers – stiflers and chaotics. Having been through bouts of severe anxiety during my life this touched a nerve with me. I tended to be more of a stifler – staying as still as possible to try and stave off any free-floating anxiety that may be coming at me – which of course didn’t work at all. The more still I was, the more the anxiety would envelop me, though any movement seemed to aggravate the anxiety too. It was not an easy situation to figure out, believe me.

Those who have never experienced a full-blown panic attack can sometimes be, well, skeptical. It’s hard to imagine the fear and loss of control that can take over when the panic starts. My first panic attack happened while I was driving – alone – across the Coronado Bay Bridge in San Diego.

Coronado Bay Bridge, San Diego, CA


I was seventeen. To say I was scared would be a gross understatement. It took me hours to recover from the terror. I didn’t have another attack until 8 years later, but then the attacks began to occur so frequently that I was unable to drive on the freeways – which was very inconvenient, since I lived at the beach and worked in downtown Los Angeles. I resorted to driving on surface streets the entire 22 miles from home to work and back again – not a pleasant drive. Thankfully my doctor prescribed anti-anxiety medication and I was able to resume a normal life – and commuter schedule – again.

anxiety, fear, panic, attacks, terror, mental health, midlife, empty nest
The under toad is all too real for many people, and shouldn’t be dismissed as a lack of self-control, PMS, hunger, insecurity, bad parenting, drug abuse, imagination, or any other random opinions that have been tossed my way over the years. If you know someone who is prone to anxiety and panic attacks, take them seriously and don’t mock them for being out of control or in need of a brisk walk. The under toad is a dark and scary entity that often runs in families, which is another point Smith talks about in his article. Panic attacks can ruin people’s lives if they don’t understand what is happening to them and don’t seek the help they need to manage the anxiety that causes the panic attacks to happen. With therapy, medication, and self-awareness, anxiety and panic attacks can be managed effectively.

I rarely feel the pull of the under toad anymore – getting older and having lived through a lot of what scared me in the first place has something to do with it – but I know it’s out there, waiting to pull me down into the darkness. I am always on alert for the under toad.

For information about panic attacks, anxiety attacks, and how they can be managed and treated, click here