In Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, Daniel Smith writes that despite outward appearances of contentment, “a sense of impending catastrophe colored every waking moment” of his life.
Yet Smith sounded perfectly at ease and willing to share his thoughts when we caught up with him following an aborted camping trip along the Appalachian Trail. “I never in my adult life have gone camping—how I avoided it, I don’t know,” he says. “But we got rained out. We couldn’t even stop for lunch without getting soaked. So we cut it short.”
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Smith’s nonplussed attitude is not remarkable in and of itself. However, it is quite a contrast to the man who used to anticipate annihilation at every turn and still must, at all times, keep a tight rein on that slippery simian brain of his. Here, he continues his frank discussion on anxiety, what it takes to beat it back, the power of memoir and what still freaks him out.
Has writing Monkey Mind had any positive effects on your anxiety?
The book was not therapeutic at all. I don’t find writing ever to be therapeutic. If anything, the book has made me more anxious. As we approach publication date, I get more and more anxious about the book’s prospects and how it will be received. So, ironies of ironies, writing about my anxieties has, as of right now, only increased my anxiety.
Have you gained any new insight into your anxiety at all?
The thing about the book is there’s not an inordinate amount of research in it. I didn’t study anxiety so much as a clinical subject, as much as I studied it as an experience. I do have a clearer idea of my own anxiety and how it works, and what its origins are from having written the book. And it is possible that that understanding will result in my being better able to cope with the anxiety as I go forward.
Do you welcome the prospect of meeting others who struggle with anxiety?
I’m certainly not adverse to it. I don’t expect it to help me. I expect it might help others. People who have not spoken about their anxiety to others as often as I have may feel comfort to know that they are not strange or unusual. If that’s a side effect of the book, I’ll be very glad. The only thing that can ease my own anxiety is doing the things that have always eased my anxiety. Which is cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, drinking less coffee. Things like that.
Are more people suffering with anxiety today, or are we simply growing more aware of it?
I’m skeptical of the notion that our age is more anxious than any other age. You often hear the phrase, “The age of anxiety.” I’m sympathetic to the view that ours is an “age of anxiety.” There are certainly a great number of things to be anxious about that other ages did not have to feel so anxious about: global warming, the spread of terrorism and religious extremism, nuclear bombs. But the idea that we are more anxious than people of earlier times is one that I have a hard time getting behind because there have been so many lousy, nervous-making, jittery ages throughout human history.
What attracted you to memoir writing?
I don’t know if memoir by its nature is more beneficial than other forms of writing. In fact, I’m quite sure that it’s not. The whole goal, no matter what the form or genre, is to connect in some way with the reader. Anxiety is such a grim experience, such a physical, emotional, cognitive, physiological experience that it was only through describing my own experience in great detail that I could get across the experience of anxiety in general.
Did writing so vividly about anxiety trigger any of your symptoms?
Very often, writing triggers anxiety in me because it is so damned hard. Because saying anything well takes so much effort. It often feels like swimming upstream. The act of writing itself is very anxiety provoking. But I didn’t find that writing about anxiety was any more anxiety provoking than writing in general. Strangely, it was almost less so in this instance. I think because I found it to be such a release to be writing again in at least a partly a comic mode.
Is there a time limit on overcoming anxiety?
The mind is such a plastic thing that I don’t think there is any one particular window. People can work to mitigate their own anxiety at any time in their lives.
That said, if you’re the type of person who is predisposed to great anxiety, I don’t think there is any point in your life when you are better able to stop it than others. At least in my experience, one can’t stop anxiety completely. One can only learn to tamp down, mitigate it, lessen it, shave off the edges. It’s like clipping your fingernails. You’re going to need to keep doing it. If you’re predisposed to terrible anxiety, you’re going to need to keep doing it until you stop drawing breath. But you would be wise to do it earlier, so you don’t suffer as much. Better to start lessening your suffering now than later.
Any other advice to fellow sufferers?
Drink less coffee. Try not to beat the piss out of yourself because life is hard enough. And find the one or two things that help to beat the demons down. And keep doing those things forever. As Goethe says, “Do not hurry, do not rest.” Slow and steady wins the race with this sort of thing. You just have to keep doing the things that calm you and soothe you. And try to avoid things that started it.