Book review: 'Monkey Mind' a dark but funny memoir about living with anxiety
Does the thought of assigned seating at a wedding reception, and forced conversation with people you don't know make you break out in a cold sweat? It does? At work, do you spend so much energy fretting about your performance, ability and job security that you become counterproductive?
Oh, you have? Then read on.
This, my fellow worriers, is anxiety, and it is acutely chronicled in Daniel Smith's "Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety." It's a well-written treasure trove of insights about the causes and development of anxiety straight from one man's lifetime experience of it; this book will change the way you think about anxiety.
Simon & Schuster ($25).
But don't worry -- reading this book won't make you anxious. In fact, it will do the opposite. You won't "catch" Daniel Smith's apprehensiveness.
Mr. Smith takes anxiety seriously, but not himself. His ultra self-awareness makes this book uniquely perceptive, but he also turns his critical powers on himself. "Monkey Mind" is both dark and funny. (For example: Mr. Smith admits to solving the problem of profuse sweating by affixing maxi pads to the insides of his dress shirts.)
Anxiety can be triggered by many things. For Mr. Smith, it is partly genetic, and partly situation-based. His mother suffered from overwhelming anxiety. Her only way out was to delve into it more by becoming a psychotherapist who specialized in anxiety.
Daniel Smith traces his anxiety to "losing my virginity in a way that even my most depraved friends find unfortunate": seduced at age 16 by an adult lesbian, the act consummated in the presence of another, after a tawdry party. Coming home a mess, he confesses all to his mother, who declares, "You were statutory raped!" The anxiety doesn't let up for at least a decade and a half.
He describes how his adolescent anxiety amplified when he left his Long Island home for Brandeis University. Many teenagers falsely believe that the freedom of leaving the constraints of home will be invigorating. Mr. Smith discusses how the opposite is usually true; freedom is linked to anxiety, especially for college students: "Freedom is anxiety's petri dish. If routine blunts anxiety, freedom incubates it. Freedom says, 'Here are the lives you can choose from, the different, conflicting, mutually exclusive lives' ... Freedom says, 'So long as you are aware of your freedom, you are going to experience the discomfort that freedom brings.' "
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An anxious person may become paralyzed with indecision, or allow others to make decisions for them. Mr. Smith craved direction, but then resented being lead by others. This resentment actually heightened the anxiety, and created a vicious cycle of self-loathing. "At moments of decision I treated my intuition in the opposite way everyone treated theirs, not as a handy volitional dispatch from the characterological depths but as a suspicious, mercurial, dubious voice from the same, mired in the chaos of existence and so best to be discounted in favor of more objective-seeming data -- namely other people's opinions. I shut my eyes, held out my hands, and asked other to people lead me. What else could I possibly be but anxious?"
Mr. Smith discusses his own experiences of anxiety, but it's not all about him. In fact, much of the book reads like a cultural history of anxiety. He discusses many intellectuals and writers who suffered from anxiety, and credits the novelist Philip Roth with providing the most clarity on the subject.
For Mr. Smith, Mr. Roth "seemed to articulate my condition with such uncanny precision that his novels came to be not just a comfort but an explanation." By way of Mr. Roth, Mr. Smith explores the connection between anxiety and Jewishness. With his usual wit, Mr. Smith claims that anxiety is "a Jewish disorder. ... This thing I was walking around with wasn't psychiatric; it was ethnic." Despite the brief solace that one has company in his misery, Mr. Smith's anxiety must be dealt with.
Daniel Smith's writing dazzled me. It's full of amazing similes, and beautiful prose. Painful experiences are described with humor, and complex ideas are made accessible.
Even though Mr. Smith claims that this "is no recovery memoir," he offers hope for recovery. After floundering around for years in "talk therapy," he finds cognitive therapy -- mindfully changing thoughts and responses -- the best match for the anxious mind. "Monkey Mind" is a rare gem from which "regular people" like myself and mental health professionals will benefit, gain understanding, and some well-needed comedic release.
First Published July 8, 2012 12:00 am