A Memoir of Anxiety
(Simon & Schuster)
I think we should immediately vote Daniel Smith in as president of the NAB. Not the National Association of Broadcasters but the Nail-Biters of America.
You and I can do this if we can just make it out of bed, down our first Xanax of the day, and start our first harried steps out into the ever-dangerous world.
Once we have mastered that, we can join together to vote him into office.
He's the first writer I've found --- and I've been looking for years --- to tell the world about panic: the daily facts of all-consuming wretchedness.
And he does so without turning tedious, wallowing in a tedious tangle of self-dramatization.
Because panic is tedious. Not only does it go on and on, hours, weeks, months at a time, it manages to consume our days and nights so that we find that we have nothing to do while it possesses us. It won't let us play computer games, drink booze, read a newspaper, go for a walk: going for a walk! Smith has a riotous passage on what it is like to try to put one foot before the next while we are on our way to our first, or third, or eleventh appointment to see our first, or third, or eleventh shrink. To see if he or she can figure out what has turned us into this bowl of Jell-O. A paid "helper" who may turn out to be of no help whatsoever: the very embodiment of our new-found dread. Dear god, give us this day our daily dread.
Just because we want it to go away, it certainly won't go away. It's the seizure from outer space, the one that bedeviled Charles Darwin, Virginia Woolf, Scott Joplin, Samuel Beckett, Ludwig von Beethoven, James Joyce, Mark Twain (and his fellow-sufferer Samuel Clemens), Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and the grandest old nail-biter of them all, Søren Kirkegaard. He wrote,
And no Grand Inquisitor has in readiness such terrible tortures as has anxiety, and no spy knows how to attack more artfully the man he suspects, choosing the instant when he is weakest, nor knows how to lay traps where he will be caught and ensnared, as anxiety knows how, and no sharp-witted judge knows how to interrogate, to examine the accused, as anxiety does, which never lets him escape, neither by diversion nor by noise, neither at work nor at play, neither by day nor by night.
Fresh from his practice, twenty-five years with the day and night shakes, Smith summarizes it all: "This could only have been written by someone who understood anxiety from the inside. It's a sufferer's account." As is the book Monkey Mind.
Smith's tremors started when he was in college, when, he explains, he was raped by Esther. We won't go into an extended disquisition here on a healthy young man, with full use of arms and legs, the vital ability to pick himself up and run like hell --- whether his tête-à-tête with an older, somewhat corpulent lady could even be called "rape," statutory or no.
For that's what his mother and father called it: "statutory rape."
Our parents always at the ready to comfort us, thinking, as they inevitably must, when they are heaping blame on a drunk and stoned concupiscent lady doing tricks in her bedroom (even though he got himself up there, didn't run away). She must be at fault.
See: there is something more important lurking about in their minds. Such as, "did we inflict this on our own child? Are we responsible for his year and years of what Dostoevsky referred to as 'self-laceration.'"
The parent's gift ... to themselves. The one that keeps on giving.
Let's accept for a moment the author's claim that Esther pushed him over the brink ... caused his subsequent drift into the pit of o-god-why-am-I-alive? Let's give all the responsibility to Esther, even though, later in the book, when he finally begins to stumble across the real reason, he will more or less refute it.
§ § §
Back when this dark train first arrived in my own station, there wasn't even a word for it. The drugs they had for what Freud had called "spells" were primitive. In those days, you could only beat it only by (1) taking drugs --- Librium, Valium --- that would turn you into a cow; (2) just hunkering down; or (3) killing yourself.
I got my induction papers long before Smith even saw the light of day, but I couldn't blame it on rape, damn it. I had to fall back on that old wheeze, Bad Drug Trip. Those dratted peyote buds. Perfectly legal in those days. To bake your mind with the exotic and hellishly scary spooks that came screaming in from the nether world. That was my excuse.
Smith spends a fair part of the book trying to define what we old hands used to call "free-floating anxiety." He quotes Freud, who called it not only a spell (or "spiel") but "a meaningless frenzy." David Barlow explains it further. Panic "is a primitive alarm in response to present danger." Whereas anxiety is "a future-oriented emotion ... a rapid shift in attention to the focus of potentially dangerous events or one's own affective response to these events." This last phrase, says our author, "is just a fancy way of saying that anxious people pay a lot of attention to their own anxiety." And then, he asks, building his own sublime koan: "what do you do if you are afraid of being afraid?"
§ § §
In the midst of all this misery, Smith shows himself to be a canny phrasemaker.
- "To be anxious wasn't shameful, it was a high calling."
- "In sixteen years of anxiety, I have had six therapists --- as many shrinks as Henry VIII had wives --- and five out of six have been almost completely ineffectual, like taking aspirin for leprosy."
- "The experience is unified by its painfully hermetic character. Anxiety compels a person to think, but it is the type of thinking that gives thinking a bad name: solipsistic, self-eviscerating, unremitting, vicious."
- [When his family comes to get him for a weekend away from his college] "together we drove into Boston for the most uncomfortable tour of a city since Mussolini was dragged through Milan on a meat hook."
- "What everyone with chronic anxiety eventually realizes is that time, on its own, means exactly nothing."
- "I looked like I'm on a weekend pass from a methadone clinic."
At home when I was anxious I could count on two places in which I was free to freak out as extravagantly as I wanted: my bedroom and the bathroom. Even in high school the bathroom was usually available for a quick nervous breakdown, because the improved security had driven the smokers outside, across the property line. In the dormitory bathroom [of his university], I discovered it was almost impossible to find the solitude a real anxiety attack demands."
Smith ultimately ventures into a completely unlikely area for someone who grew up with his mindset (Long Island; mother a clinician; thoroughly middle class). He ventures into Buddhism, and he has interesting ideas about it. He proposes that "Buddhism was made for the anxious like Christianity was made for the downtrodden or AA for the addicted." The title of the book is taken from Eastern religion, the monkey mind
being a consciousness whose constituent parts will not stop bouncing from skull-side to skull-side, which keep flipping and jumping and flinging feces at the walls and swinging from loose neurons like howlers from vines."
The meditation practice is designed to "collar these monkeys and bring them down to earth."
When Smith happens onto what he suspects is a panacea for his attacks, he reveals another truth out of the east (I say "panacea" and not "cure," for those of us with the old anxiety habit, like alcoholics, never get truly cured. We just find some --- usually not too much --- relief).
His fix comes from his sixth shrink ... and from Zen (by way of Allen Ginsberg). It's known as "First Thought Best Thought." Or, what do you think about before you think about thinking? Or, when you start another round of mental self-abuse: what is it that you accuse yourself of.
In other words, his shrink told him to figure out what's going on in his head just before he headed down the tunnel on his way to full-blown panic. He tells us that his psychologist's idea of a way out "was not as simple or straightforward an assignment as it may seem. Not only did attending to my own thoughts sound dangerously akin to, say, petting scorpions, the idea that those thoughts preceded the feeling of anxiety contradicted everything I knew about how my anxiety and mind operated."
The exercise itself was salutary; it was invigorating to put the self-obsession of anxiety to sanctioned clinical use ... The more attention I paid to the mechanics of my anxiety the more I began to notice an aspect of my mind I'd never noticed before --- a sort of subconscious chatter, just beneath the surface of awareness, that was always going, always yammering, always commentating, like a little newscaster perched on my frontal lobes.
"And this newscaster, it turned out, was not the kind of person you'd want to sit next to at a dinner party. He was very pessimistic, my mental homunculus. If there was even a slim chance that a situation could end in calamity, he'd toss it up on the teleprompter and treat it like news."
Smith's book is a jim-dandy bit of writing. It is droll, jokey in a way that most self-eviscerating books are not. It definitely could be helpful to those poor souls who are about to join our dismal confraternity. Because a few moments looking through Google's offerings when you type in "panic attack" are very grim, items sure to depress you beyond all reason.
But when you pick up Monkey Mind, you will find, on the very first page, the author telling us that his shrink "had a beard and moustache the color of ripe mangoes." When he wasn't listening to neurotics like Smith he was boning up on his next week's on-stage presence in the local community theatre.
As opening night for The Secret Garden approached, he trimmed his beard progressively thinner while he grew his moustache thick, extending it down along the sides of his mouth. Smith reveals,
"It was like getting counseling from General Custer."