Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety
Daniel Smith is the youngest of three sons in an upper middle-class Jewish family. The brothers dubbed their mother "Hurricane Marilyn" due to the chaos left behind in her wake. Marilyn was an anxious sort, and she fed off whatever was going on around her. Her husband also was very anxious, but attempted to harness his feelings of anxiety by stifling them. He spent some time as a mental health inpatient, so it's safe to say that the boys lived in a continual atmosphere of amped-up anxiety.
"With self-effacing humor...the ability to allow the reader to feel the dreaded icicle of fear that he experiences, and a lengthy stroll through psychotherapy written in laymans' terms, the author has written a book that will resound with all of us."
One son Scott, another anxious type, was a hypochondriac. His anxiety manifested itself in somatic symptoms. Daniel certainly didn't escape the curse. His mind looped over and over the same tracks with "what ifs?" and rarely gave him any peace. Just making a decision of whether to put ketchup or barbeque sauce on a roast beef sandwich was enough of a choice to send his monkey mind spiraling out of control. To attempt to function in a heightened sense of anxiety was his daily and endless challenge. He was a nail biter, a cuticle nibbler, a shirt soaker.
In a chemically-induced haze, Daniel's first sexual encounter as a teenager was anything but normal or even pleasant. He had sex with a lesbian coworker while another lesbian looked on. Prior to that time, his only knowledge of female anatomy was via magazines, the usual centerfolds with staples in unusual locations. He arrived home distraught and ashamed. He guiltily confessed his deed to Hurricane Marilyn, who informed him "You've been raped." His monkey mind (so named by Buddhists who believe the chattering, senseless noise drifting in and out of our consciousness is like an untamed monkey) went wild with thoughts of gloom and doom. He fancied that he might succumb to AIDS. He would have given anything to be able to erase the very existence of that encounter.
Because the incident itself was so unexpected and not at all what he thought it would be, it assumed a huge importance in his untamed thoughts. His mother, a trained therapist herself who counseled patients suffering from anxiety, supplied him with Xanax, which helped take the edge off his out-of-control anxiety that was always ready to erupt.
A few years later, Daniel began college at Brandeis University. With this first taste of independence and freedom thrust upon him, Daniel was overwhelmed not only by the sheer numbers of people everywhere and the utter lack of privacy that dorm life entailed, but by the vast array of choices available to him. Everything seemed like bedlam and chaos. All these noisy, directionless, suddenly independent teenagers --- Daniel referred to this as Jewish Mardi Gras. He called home more than once a day upset and crying to his mother, who tried to calm her son.
Soon the anxious parents arrived on campus and presented Daniel with a choice: return home with them (Daniel quickly rejected that option as an admission of failure) or remain on campus and undergo therapy. Daniel had tried therapy before but felt no real relief from voicing his fears to a stranger. He wanted someone to rescue him, to tell him what to do, to take away the decision-making that kept him stuck in his busy monkey mind.
As the memoir progresses, Daniel graduates from college and becomes employed. But what kind of bad karma causes an anxiety-ridden, obsessive-compulsive person to work as a fact checker? He meets a lovely and kind young woman who seems to have more of a calming effect on him than Xanax. But all is far from well. Maintaining a serious relationship is hardly easy for the perpetually-frantic young man. And being sued for libel over a freelance article he wrote about electric shock therapy just adds to his misery.
With self-effacing humor (Daniel discovered that feminine hygiene products work pretty well as shirt shields), the ability to allow the reader to feel the dreaded icicle of fear that he experiences, and a lengthy stroll through psychotherapy written in layman's terms, Daniel Smith has written a book that will resound with all of us. That is, all of us who have experienced homesickness, stage fright, sweaty palms, racing thoughts, the inability to make a minor decision, and feeling that life is just beyond our control --- which is all of us at one time or another --- can understand and appreciate MONKEY MIND.
Reviewed by Carole Turner on July 20, 2012