It is not easy to confront your personal maladies, to understand why you think and behave in certain ways. Sometimes the human condition is debilitating, a life of uncertainty, seemingly hopeless, and forever conflicted. This is the picture Daniel Smith gives us in Monkey Mind, his raw, uncompromising, and funny memoir of living and coping with persistent anxiety. Describing himself as "anxiety personified," Smith's profile is consistent with a psychiatric diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), an enduring state of unrealistic worry, fear, and apprehension. In separate chapters arranged chronologically he describes the onset of anxiety symptoms starting as a child and intensifying into his teenage, college, and adult years. Smith's mother is featured prominently in the book, herself "the queen of anxiety" and a practicing psychotherapist who saw patients at home while her then adolescent son listened attentively from an upstairs room. In later years Smith's mother played a vital role in getting him into therapy that has since put him on a more stable course. As you might imagine, there is more than a hint of ambiguity when Smith writes about his mother and the influence she had on him.
Throughout the book Smith both educates and entertains. Although the chapters are dominated by his personal recollections and anecdotes, there are also reasonable explanations of anxiety symptomatology, neuroscience research, cognitive processing, and contemporary therapeutic approaches such as cognitive-behavioral and exposure therapies. But it is the comic exposes of his afflictions that are most memorable: persistent nail-biting, chronic perspiration, obsessive thinking, and a host of compulsions and phobias. Essentially, Smith bares all, invites you into his world, and with a deft hand makes you laugh at and with him. He also documents his experiences with diagnosticians, psychologists, medications, and numerous treatment options that he considered or tried without success. He eventually reaches the conclusion that "To be human is to be anxious" and "the only non-negotiable approach to the anxious life is discipline." By the end of Monkey Mind Smith seems to have reconciled his past and moved on, not quite overcoming his anxiety, but achieving insight into what he is able to change and what he should accept. It is a treat that Smith writes with a clear lens, a curious mix of Augusten Burroughs, Oliver Sacks, and David Sedaris, which is always entertaining and well worth your consideration. And if not already in the works, I predict a movie version of Monkey Mind somewhere down the line.
© 2012 James K. Luiselli
James K. Luiselli, Ed.D., ABPP, BCBA-D is a psychologist affiliated with May Institute and a private-practice clinician. Among his publications are 9 books and more than 275 book chapters and journal articles. He reviews books for The New England Psychologist.