Daniel Smith's "Monkey Mind"
Daniel Smith's "Monkey Mind"

Memoir on living with anxiety exposes the monkey mind

Anxiety is something everyone feels from time to time, and it serves an important role in alerting us to potential danger. It also can be humorous, especially if you’re Woody Allen. But for millions of people, anxiety is a daily scourge that makes normal functioning impossible.

Writer Daniel Smith describes it this way: “Every day was torture. I slept fitfully, with recurring nightmares … intestinal cramps and nausea and headaches. A sense of impending catastrophe colored every waking moment. Worse, I had the distinct sense that catastrophe had already occurred. I had made the wrong decisions … [and] screwed up in a ruinous, irrevocable, epoch-making way.”

Smith, who has lived with anxiety since he was a teenager, does not need to make a case for himself, but he does anyway in his memoir, “Monkey Mind,” naming the opening chapter “Why I Am Qualified to Write This Book.”

Daniel Smith

He will make book appearances Feb. 12 to 14 in San Rafael, Palo Alto and San Francisco.

An estimated 18 percent of adult Americans, or 40 million people, have diagnosed anxiety disorders, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“It’s not hard to find a book that gives you clinical information about anxiety,” Smith says in a phone interview from his home in Brooklyn. “What didn’t exist, to my surprise, was a book that described what it was like to live with anxiety.”

Smith, 35, a journalist and editor whose first book was about auditory hallucinations, says he didn’t want to take an academic approach this time. “I wanted to be an expert on the experience of anxiety,” he said. “I’m not pretending to be something I’m not. I’m just a writer and a neurotic.”

“Monkey Mind” — a Buddhist metaphor for restless, uncontrolled excesses of thought and emotion — recounts three major episodes of anxiety over a nine-year period. Smith shares the intimate, painful details of these experiences with insight, clarity and ironic humor — all strengths in short supply when he is feeling his worst.

Smith traces the roots of his anxiety, defines it with a kaleidoscope of examples, and explains in detail how it feels — from the “icicle dragging itself around my chest” to the bitten-raw fingernails, profusely sweaty armpits, compulsive throat-clearing, tingling limbs and clenched muscles.

He also folds in perspective from therapists, philosophers, fellow writers and family. His equally funny and anxious brother appears regularly. “Scott and I talk about anxiety the way some brothers talk about money,” Smith writes, “which is to say often, and always with an eye on who has more of it.”

The trigger for Smith’s first serious bout with anxiety, he believes, was losing his virginity in a fashion he found traumatic and regrettable, and readers may find hilarious and cringe-worthy. “It all starts with Esther,” he writes about the offbeat woman with a “penchant for teenage boys” who seduced him at age 16. “Either that or it starts with my mother.”

Both parents suffered from anxiety and panic disorders (the two are related but “radically different experiences,” according to Smith); his mother ended up going back to school in midlife and becoming a psychotherapist who specializes in anxiety issues. As a child, Smith wasn’t aware of her distress, but he notes that “the more practiced anxiety sufferers are adept at the art of subterfuge.”

Smith, who grew up in a secular Jewish home on Long Island, knows precisely what triggered his second major episode: his first day at Brandeis University, “one of the world’s anxiety epicenters.” It was his mother’s idea that he attend the Jewish-sponsored institution, not his, and when he was offered a full scholarship he acquiesced. “My anxious mother had delivered her anxious son to the land of the anxious: to the Jews,” he writes.

This was the conclusion Smith reached after discovering Philip Roth and quickly developing an affinity for the angsty Jewish writer. Reading Roth’s fiction convinced him that “anxiety was my birthright. … This was a Jewish disorder.” Moreover, Roth’s characters “seemed to transform the idea of anxiety from a pathology into nothing less than a virtue. … Their suffering was indivisible from their brilliance.”

Some 15 years later, Smith no longer adheres to that position. In a May 2012 piece in the New York Times called “Do the Jews Own Anxiety?,” he acknowledges its historic relationship to Jewish identity and collective suffering, but rejects the notion that it is an elevated state of consciousness.

“I don’t think there’s anything particularly ennobling about anxiety or that it speaks to a higher level of intelligence,” he said in the interview. Anxious thinking “is tethered somehow to the rabbinical or Talmudic state of constant cerebration, analysis, exegesis. But just because there is excessive intellectualization doesn’t mean there’s excessive intellect.”

Smith, who is married and has a 5-year-old daughter, still has daily anxiety but says it’s not as acute as it once was. “It’s still a regular problem, but I don’t fear falling into those horrible pits of anxiety,” he said. Two tools he’s found helpful together are cognitive behavioral therapy and meditation, both of which “ask you first and foremost to pay attention to the content of your mind.”

Humor is another not-so-secret weapon he uses to “declaw the experience.”

“Comedy operates by inflating things, and that’s how anxiety operates as well,” he said. “It inflates certain features of your life and inflates concerns in such an absurd and ridiculous way.

“You look at great comedies, from Aristophanes to Charlie Chaplin, and it’s often men or women behaving in a way they know is not good for them that causes trouble. Anxiety is very much like that, and for that reason it’s comic fodder,” Smith said. “Thank goodness.”

“Monkey Mind” by Daniel Smith (212 pages, Simon and Schuster, $25)


Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is J.'s managing editor. She can be reached at sueb@jweekly.com.