That’s It Exactly: ‘Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety’

It happens all the time. I start to worry about something–big or small. The worry turns into a palpable feeling of failure and self-doubt. Then the feeling dives deep into body to nag my thoughts and soul. The nagging tugs at my stomach and lungs causing butterflies and trouble breathing. The tugs, if I’m not careful, can turn into panic. Panic envelops me, making me dizzy, nauseous and fearful of death.

Luckily, none of this is life threatening. It’s just anxiety. I’ve dealt with it more years than not. In college, I’d lose sleep over exams, boys and money. In my late twenties, after a blood-letting breakup, I collapsed from a panic attack outside of busy Bloomingdale’s department store. I immediately started seeing a psychologist who prescribed Xanax. Relief came in that bottle. I also talked openly to the therapist and my best friend about my fears. At the time I had been rejected and was terrified of growing old alone and childless. My best friend took my phone calls at all hours to talk me down from my nervous ledge–and she wisely reminded me to take my medicine.

Things improved. I married, had kids and worked. But like a large mole that can never be removed, anxiety persists. Now, my nerves come undone over my new things, especially my kids. It goes something like this: Will I get up in time to get them to school? If they are late to school, will the teacher think badly of my family? If I make them late once, I’ll just do it again and again. I’ll teach my kids that being late is okay, but it’s not. They’ll be late to everything in their lives–and they won’t be able to keep their friends or get into a decent college. Now I’ll never be able to fall asleep.

I need to know that I’m not alone. That’s why I picked up Daniel Smith‘s new book, The Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety.

For years, I have been following Smith’s articles about mental health–many about himself–in the New York Times. I was consoled by his willingness to come out and tell the truth about this common, cloying and completely annoying psychological affliction. I was hoping that he’d found the panacea.

I hoped I could fire my shrink after reading this book.

That’s not going to happen. But it’s not Smith’s fault. His book is amazing. He writes candidly about the root of his anxiety: the disturbing, underage and vaguely rapey way he lost his virginity. Everything was downhill for him after that. He reassures me that the racing thoughts and heart are a normal part of the anxiety process, as is talking it out. Smith writes that he often calls an anxious close friend and they swap war stories. ”And it helps. It feels good to be reminded that you aren’t the most anxious person on the Eastern seaboard…Talking to a friend who does not balk at your insanity is like having a stiff drink. It fills you with a glow. But when it wears off, everything is the same.”

Through recaps of his attacks, rebounds and relapses, Smith accurately describes the crazy cycle that plagues 18 percent of Americans. He breaks down complicated anxiety research from Freud and others to give his memoir gravitas. He discusses how he gets through his days as a husband, father and writer–and it’s not pretty. But it is true. That’s where Monkey Mind excels. No book can offer a cure, but it can extend comfort. I felt like Smith was commiserating with me, like he understood my wildest thoughts and feelings. This book is great for anyone who’s ever been anxious or loved an anxious person. It offers insight and advice–along with a prescription for hope.

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