Daniel Smith's Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety is his attempt to wrestle his own anxiety to the ground, tracing it to its roots and dissecting it with humor and wit. He talked with PW about the many flavors of anxiety and getting needles in his armpits.
What does Buddhism have to do with anxiety?
Buddhism is a solution to anxiety, perhaps the best solution--though stupidly, I don’t practice it with nearly as much dedication or consistency as I ought to. (Proof of this is that I’m ready to call myself stupid at the slightest prompting, and that I mean it.) The entire purpose of the religion is to tame the out-of-control mind. The Buddhists have a wonderful term that I’ve shamelessly appropriated: “monkey mind.” A person who suffers from monkey mind suffers from a consciousness whose parts won’t stay still, which keep jumping and flipping and howling, making the person distracted and nervous--causing distress. Buddhist practices are designed explicitly to tame these monkeys of the mind.
What physical manifestations has your anxiety taken? Did/do you have any specific tics? Do you have any specific/strange situations you found yourself in because of your anxiety?
I suffer through my anxiety in a state of dread and paralysis. Which is probably why one particular physical manifestation of my anxiety, sweating, has been so pronounced. I sweat a great deal. I mean a lot. I sweat like Patrick Ewing used to sweat in the fourth quarter of an NBA finals game. I sweat so much that now I get Botox treatments to paralyze the sweat glands under my arms. I do this every six months. Do you know how many tiny needles that means I have to get jabbed into my armpits every year? I do. I remember every single one.
Could you give us some insight into the nuances of anxiety? How do you find that it’s divided? Along social vs. internal lines? How do you break it down?
It’s different in every anxious person. Some people obsess over what their friends think of them, some people obsess over success and failure, some people obsess over the possibility that the beauty mark on their cheek is really the tip of a massive tumor that begins in their lower intestine. There are so many flavors of anxiety! There does seem to be a unifying theme, though, which is that all anxiety is a form of taking an assumption, often an irrational assumption, as gospel truth. Anxiety is a stubborn misappraisal of the facts. And that, of course, always happens internally.
How has your anxiety affected others in your life?
It depends whom you ask. If you ask my friends, they might say that my anxiety makes me more interesting--more open, more verbal, more willing to countenance their own complaints. If you ask my wife, she might say the same, but add that my anxiety is also maybe kinda sometimes a pain in the ass. And she’d be right. Acute anxiety is often a paralyzing agent, and when you have pressing domestic responsibilities--like paying a parking ticket or doing the dishes--paralysis is not really very charming.
What has been, for you, the best refuge from your anxiety?
Two refuges: reading and writing. There are things that help in a local-anesthetic kind of way — mindless TV, for example, or a stiff drink. But reading and writing are the true and faithful stalwarts. They pull me away from the flittering, fluttering distractions and return me to what matters, to what I love in an abiding and meaningful way. Reading and writing are what I can always count on.