Monkey Mind

Monkey Mind by Daniel SmithFull Title: Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety
Daniel Smith
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (2012)
Number of Pages: 212
How long it took me to read: 3 days
Where I got this book: Amazon’s Kindle Store
ISBN: 978-1-4391-7732-7

Like a Moth to a Flame

To be completely honest, the reason I first noticed this book was that it was on sale. Like, super on sale. is a vice of mine. Yes, I have a problem, okay? Get off my back already. Anyway, even though I’ve owned it for a good two months and am only now ready to give it a peek, I remember specifically choosing it because of one word in its title: Anxiety. That word set off a spark in my brain. Stories about anxiety can be a lot of things: anxiety-induced neuroticism can be a riot; anxiety-induced depression can be tragic. It really all depends on the combination of the author’s experiences and his or her perspective on them. In this case, I can’t really say which possibility entices me more, but the odds seem good I’ll find something on this reading journey that will resonate.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “A typical line of thought went something like this: I am anxious. The anxiety makes it impossible to concentrate. Because it is impossible to concentrate, I will make an unforgivable mistake at work. Because I will make an unforgivable mistake at work, I will be fired. Because I will be fired, I will not be able to pay my rent. Because I will not be able to pay my rent, I will be forced to have sex for money in an alley behind Fenway Park. Because I will be forced to have sex for money in an alley behind Fenway Park, I will contract HIV. Because I will contract HIV, I will develop full-blown AIDS. Because I will develop full-blown AIDS, I will die disgraced and alone.” (pp.4-5)

4. “Freedom is anxiety’s petri dish. If routine blunts anxiety, freedom incubates it.” (p.86)

3. “The brain is good at pleasure; it likes orgasms, glucose, and companionship. But it is exceptional at fear. If the brain wasn’t a first class fear-monger, if it wasn’t always ready and poised to pound on the alarm bells, then a threat to the organism might end the whole game before there was any chance to experience pleasure. In evolutionary terms, fear trumps all else.” (p.123)

2. “It didn’t take a sociologist to confirm that well-educated, upper-middle-class Jews seldom end up sleeping in dumpsters.” (p.202)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “To be anxious wasn’t shameful, it was a high calling. It was to be alive to life’s true contradictions, more receptive to the true nature of things than everyone else. It was to be a person who saw with sharper eyes and felt with more active skin. It was to be a writer, and I wanted in.” (p.144)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

A lot of my hesitation over reading memoirs comes from the string of self-defensive thoughts that they often conjure: what makes this person more interesting than me?; why should I read about their life?; and how can I stop the façade of my own raging narcissism from slipping? For Daniel Smith, I see no reason why there would be an exception. However, anxiety is a subject that has always reached me on a very personal level. I know that it’s an issue with which many people struggle, but I can confidently say I’ve witnessed incidents, mostly with close loved ones, that have touched the severe end of the anxiety spectrum. This personal history of mine has definitely made me more interested in psychiatric disorders and how others have experienced them.

“That being said, I had to find out if Smith was the real deal or not. When an author throws around a subtitle like ‘A Memoir of Anxiety,’ he’d better be able to back it up. Smith even seemed to anticipate the pseudo-skeptics like myself with his aptly titled first chapter: ‘why i am qualified to write this book.’ At the end of the chapter, he hasn’t completely validated himself, but he’s certainly on the right track. I’m beginning to feel the panic he describes creeping up from my chest; his sweat stains becoming my own (unfortunately). When he says, ‘I was anxiety personified’ (p.7), I have the feeling that he’s going to make a true believer out of me soon enough. Continue your tale, good sir. Continue on with your anxiety-riddled self.”

“I’m glad Daniel Smith is comfortable with everything that he’s been through. There’s a lot of depressing material he sort of glosses over, and the more I think about it, the more impressed I am by his ability to recover from the more disconcerting details of his clearly troubled life and present them to us so brazenly. The opening, in which he first describes losing his virginity, is one of my favorite examples of this. While this is actually one of the incidents that he uses greater detail examining, it’s as detrimental to him as it is important (if all of the sections devoted to the events leading up to, during, and after this encounter are of any indication). Despite the momentousness of the occasion, he still provides us with visual cues like, ‘But the vagina is businesslike and gruff. An impatient vagina, a waiting vagina. A real bureaucrat of a vagina’ (p.12). He really must have found humor in it all to be able to write this book; I like that in an author. It takes a lot of chutzpah to air your dirty laundry for the world to see. For a person who has extreme anxiety about the world, I can’t fathom what it took to put his life on display and open up about topics that I have trouble talking about with my closest of friends.”

“Ugh, the pain of the self-destructive relationship! His chapters about Joanna are all too familiar; I’m eating them up with the same painful gusto with which I tell my own failed relationship stories. Regardless of how his might end, Daniel’s telling of it is just mesmerizing. There’s something I can’t help but appreciate about the self-aware conductor who is behind his own train wreck, even if the controls have been taken over by the irrational part of his thoughts. It scares me how convincing the logic of anxiety can seem to someone so afflicted, and I can only wonder if I’ve made similar decisions in my life in trying to justify my own fears. These sections focusing on their relationship really prove how keen Daniel is at being both a spectator and a victim (or guilty party, occasionally). He seems like the type of writer who could pleasurably turn mundane situations into an introspective journey.”

“That the ‘Esther incident,’ the supposed ground zero of Daniel’s problems, takes place in Binghamton, New York, tickles me in ways I haven’t been tickled for a while. I’ve spent much time in Binghamton. It holds a special place in my heart. It may not be a great part of my heart (perhaps a cholesterol encrusted artery), but it’s an important part nonetheless. Most memoirs/non-fiction stories I’ve read take place in big cities that I only know from a tourist’s perspective, or in small towns too faraway for me to find that sweet spot of relatability I crave. I just never seem to encounter MY places; never my stomping grounds, old or new. There’s nothing wrong with that. I like learning about new places, especially through the eyes and ears of someone else. However, my eyes always widen a little when I come across a story from a place that I’m more-than-casually familiar with. Binghamton is one of those places.

“Now, when Bing finds its way into media, it always seems to have a rather negative light shone on it. This book is no exception, but it’s still refreshing to see such a familiar depiction of the city. It’s not from a news article. It’s not from a resident’s perspective. This is a story by an unfortunate outsider. Bad parties, regrettable girls, unbearable road trips: it gives me a powerful case of nostalgia, even if the nostalgia is pretty rancid. Yay Binghamton!”

“As pleased as I am with the book by the time I approach these last few pages, I was still expecting a little more advice than I’ve been able to find. Actually, that’s not fair. I was just hoping to find a little more advice. I know that my disappointment is unjustified, even if it’s lingering a bit. The memoir doesn’t promise to be anything but a memoir, and there was never any indication that I was going to get some grand solution to dealing with anxiety. I just assumed that, for a book that focuses on anxiety, the path would naturally lead towards the author’s own personal salvation. He definitely makes progress, and there are epiphanies that spring up now and then that seem to give him more clarity and control over his mental state, but nothing conclusive or affirming enough for me to be able to apply to my own life. That’s not to say that I took nothing away from this journey; for someone with such severe anxiety that he used to stick maxi pads to his armpits to curb his sweat stains, he definitely provides a lot of hope for those of us who’ve found ourselves in similar situations.”


Jared Dee

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