I’m not even sure how to start writing about Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety. Actually, strike that – because yes I do. I knew that I wanted to read this book, but I was torn over whether or not I wanted to buy it. My track record on books like this (i.e. non-fiction) is pretty dismal. After the first read, who honestly rereads them? Despite my best intentions, I usually don’t. I figured that I was probably better off getting this from the library, reading it once and spending my money on something else. In any event, I downloaded the sample to give it a try and all I can say is that the sample was just perfect. The sample ended with Daniel Smith losing his virginity and a vagina doing something that usually only an eye can do. I had no choice but to buy the book. With a cliffhanger like that, how could I not? Publishers take note: the sample should sell the book and Monkey Mind‘s sample totally did.
I’m happy to report that Daniel Smith’s account of a lifetime of dealing with anxiety is more than worth the money that I spent on it. And unlike so many other books like this, I can easily see myself rereadng this book. It’s funny and sad and honest and heart-breaking. You’ll rejoice in his triumphs and frequently want to give him a hug. I know I did. But perhaps it’s because the book hit very close to home for me and I frequently saw myself in his story. It’s been a long time since I’ve plugged into a memoir like I did in Monkey Mind.
Smith traces his anxiety to its roots in his childhood and attributes it both genetic (his mother suffers from anxiety as well) and environmental influences. He follows it through his life and paints a very vivid picture of what anxiety feels like. Much like the cymbal-banging monkey on the cover of the book, anxiety is a state of constant readiness. The anxious person is always on the lookout for danger. While this served our prehistoric brethren quite well when danger lurked around every corner – be it a saber toothed tiger or poisonous plants or any number of other potentially life threatening situations – it’s all a bit overkill in our modern world. Still, some people’s brains are hardwired to be this way and even though danger is not imminent, their brains think that it is, that the only way to be safe it be ready for anything. In the absence of real danger, the anxious brain finds it in every day situations, most of which are illogical and make no sense, but good luck convincing the reptile brain of that.
The book is divided loosely into three sections, each of which is concerned with a particular anxiety-inducing incident in Smith’s life. The first was the previously mentioned loss of his virginity, the second his arrival at Brandeis University as a college freshman and the third being his reaction to what can only be described as wildly negative feedback on an article he wrote for The Atlantic. In each section, we are privy to how anxiety shook his worldview and affected him deeply. But no section spoke to me more than his experience with anxiety upon leaving home and going off to college. When I finished this book, I told my wife that his experience with anxiety as a college freshman could have been written by me with only minor modifications.
It’s no secret to those that read this blog that I’ve spent years (and countless dollars on counselors and therapists) coming to grips with the anxiety and depression that characterized my young adulthood. Although I didn’t carry the official diagnosis until 1998, I maintain that I had undiagnosed depression and generalized anxiety as far back as my mid-teens. Up until just a couple years ago, I had been saddled with great shame that I didn’t have it as “together” as everyone around me did. And don’t kid yourself – there are still days that even at 40 years of age I feel exactly the same way. As much as I say you can’t take the 12 year-old boy out of the man, you also can’t take the 18 year-old college freshman or 30 year-old new dad out of the 40 year-old man. Nor would you want to, but there are definitely days that are more challenging than others. One of the benefits of growing older has been the ability to be able to own up to that and mostly not feel shameful about it. But as I alluded to, reading Monkey Mind (and especially his college freshman section) completely vindicated my college freshman experience. He makes a very valid point that the freedom associated with moving away from home is paralyzing to someone suffering from anxiety. You’ve taken away the comforts of a familiar environment, tossed them into a dorm with no privacy and then you expect them to function in a healthy way? No can do – it’s NOT going to happen unless you are way more put together than I was at that time. All the feelings of inferiority and anxiety that I had? So did Daniel Smith. It’s almost like we would have gotten along so well then, only neither one of us would have thought to talk to the other because of how the anxious brain works. Similar to the club for people that ate by themselves, the people that would have benefited from it most would never have joined it.
At the end of Monkey Mind, I felt as if I had read the words of a kindred spirit. My anxiety takes a different flavor than his does, but it’s all cut from the same cloth. It colors everything you do and how you approach things. Smith’s years of therapy have taught him something similar to what mine have taught me, and that is anxious feelings are just that – feelings. And feelings aren’t facts. Especially for those of us that have a mind that operates much like the cymbal-banging monkey. Give them a chance and the anxious thoughts build on themselves and before you know it, you’re down the road to the worst case scenario, riddled with financial destitution, terminal illness with no one around to help. The ideal thing to do is to notice them but not fuse with them. The best analogy I’ve heard for it is watching a roller coaster without actually getting on it. You see it, but you remember you aren’t on that ride.
Smith’s book is a gift to anxious people everywhere. I would encourage to anyone who struggles with anxiety and also to those that love them because sometimes it gives a glimpse into a mind that sometimes doesn’t make much sense. I’ll end this post with the Post Secret postcard that hangs above my desk. I’ve shared it several times before, but it never gets old.
My only addition to it would be “my anxiety is not the boss of me, nor is it my enemy.”