Daniel Smith, 1983
When I interviewed for an editorial internship at The AtlanticÂ in the spring of 2001 as a college senior with sweaty palms and bright literary hopes, little did I know that the young staff editor who was to hire me was a nervous, perspiring wreck himself. I learned that and much, much more about Dan Smith in his new book â€śMonkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety,â€ť to be published by Simon & Schuster on July 3.Â â€śBy 10 a.m. my undershirt would be drenched,â€ť he writes of those days, recalling embarrassingly frequent trips to the menâ€™s room to dry off, â€ś...arms pinned to my sides like Frankensteinâ€™s monster.â€ť
With raw honesty, self-awareness, and perhaps the sharpest sense of humor Iâ€™ve ever encountered, Dan chronicles a family history of chronic anxiety and exposes his own sometimes debilitating symptoms. WhileÂ navigating â€śthe potholes on Future Roadâ€ť -- a.k.a. Life and all its risks -- Dan researches and tests methods for coping, discovering along the way that his wife's maxi pads will adhere to the inside of shirts and do a decent job of absorbing endless pools of armpit sweat.
Now that more than a decade has passed since Dan grilled me in his tiny office in Bostonâ€™s North End, we both live in Brooklyn, and it's my turn to ask questions of him. Read on to learn how a piece of fiction influenced his work of nonfiction and how he's managing in his new role as poster boy for DSM-IV-TR 300.02 (generalized anxiety disorder).
Cara Cannella:Â Does writing so honestly about your anxiety make you more or less anxious? Is it cathartic and/or scary as hell to put yourself out there as you do?
Dan Smith:Â Strangely, it doesnâ€™t really make me anxious to talk about my anxiety. I donâ€™t know why this is, exactly. I think itâ€™s because although I strive for emotional and psychological truth in the book, the person who is telling the story isnâ€™t, in the end, strictly me -- or rather heâ€™s notÂ completelyÂ me. Heâ€™s a narrator, a persona. He has my experiences and feelings and thoughts and concerns, but not all of them. (Thatâ€™d take a work of endless volumes.) So Iâ€™m able to distance myself from whatever fears might come along with wide exposure. I find Iâ€™m far more anxious about literary than biographical exposure. I can tolerate people criticizing my character. But myÂ sentences: now, thatâ€™s scary.
CC:Â What was the trajectory of your anxiety and its impact on your writing from the publication of your last bookÂ to the release of this one?
DS:Â In a word, steady. "Muses, Madmen, and Prophets" was published in 2007, and since then Iâ€™ve had to deal with a lot of stress: financial woes, professional instability, a colicky child. But by the time all this happened Iâ€™d learned how to stop my anxiety from boiling over into complete, paralyzing panic. To put it another way, Iâ€™ve been extensively therapized; I know some tricks. Also, Iâ€™m a husband and a father. I canâ€™t afford to be paralyzed anymore. This isnâ€™t to say I donâ€™t still experience anxiety on a daily basis. I do. Some days really and sincerely suck. But when things get really bad I now have the wherewithal (so far) to stop and do something about it. One of the most valuable things Iâ€™ve learned to about my anxiety is meditate. Itâ€™s a pretty remarkable thing. Just five minutes a day of sitting on a cushion and breathing is able to keep the insanity at bay. Of course, Iâ€™m a stubborn idiot. So Iâ€™m always forgetting to put in that five minutes.
CC:Â Itâ€™s been said that youâ€™re writing in the narrative tradition of Oliver Sacks, who has given the book great advance praise. Were he and "Darkness Visible"Â author William Styron on your mind as you conceived of and wrote it? How did you come to the tone and structure of the book?
DS:Â Iâ€™m of course delighted by the comparison, and by Dr. Sacksâ€™ praise, but I donâ€™t think any one author was on my mind as I wrote this book. In fact, I did my damnedest not to emulate anyone but myself -- which turned out to be hard enough. That said, it does often happen when I write something long, I hone in on some single piece of writing, something that helps me slip into whatever state of mind I find salutary for my own private, unexplored reasons. For many months during the writing of this book, that piece of writing was the great Nabokov short story â€śSigns and Symbols.â€ť I donâ€™t know why reading and rereading, meditating and re-meditating on that story did it for me, but it did. As for structure, I came about it by trial and error. Mostly error. I had no real idea going into the book that itâ€™d end up being divided by the three major episodes of anxiety in my life. Youâ€™d think I would have figured that out early, as itâ€™s a pretty natural and obvious structure. But I didnâ€™t.
CC:Â Your book seems especially relevant in light of Â the recent New York magazine cover storyÂ â€śListening to Xanax," which says that prescriptions for benzodiazepines [including Valium, Klonopin, and Xanax] "have risenÂ 17 percent since 2006 to nearly 94 million a year." Is this really The Age of Anxiety?
DS:Â This is a very difficult question to answer. On the one hand, I think we have a lot of reasons to be very, very anxious: global warming, nuclear proliferation, religious extremism, terrorism, kiddie cappuccinos. On the other hand, I balk at the idea that our lives are more nerve-wracking than, say, a medieval peasantâ€™s. Itâ€™s comforting to have anesthesia, penicillin, and grocery stores. Whatâ€™s different about our time (as Iâ€™ve argued elsewhere) isnâ€™t necessarily that weâ€™re more anxious but that weâ€™re moreÂ awareÂ of our anxiety. Weâ€™ve named it, and learned how to think about itâ€”and yes, weâ€™ve learned how to synthesize compounds that calm us down. (One of which Iâ€™m going to take right now, because I can.) Because of this confusion, I prefer to refer to ours asÂ an, notÂ the, age of anxiety. Why have an ego about it?