Following basic introductions during a phone interview, whether or not the person on the other end of the line can detect your voice quivering, it's not becoming to admit that you're nervously pulling your hair out. That is, unless you're talking to Daniel Smith.
Reassuringly, the author recalls a similar experience, pitching to publishers his memoir about anxiety, "Monkey Mind." It occurred to him then that having written about the disorder gave him license to panic, to be comfortable in his own sweat-sodden skin. "Now I can just come right out and say it," Smith boisterously exclaims. "Not only do I not I have to hide it, but I should tell [people]! I should have thought about this years ago."
In "Monkey Mind," Smith divulges adolescent traumas and subsequently, the pivotal attacks and everyday pangs of anxiety. Through trial and error-after-error, he learns to mitigate them, finding comic relief along the way. He recounts, for example, discovering that maxi-pads best trap armpit sweat, second only to Botox injections. To unabashedly laugh out loud or cry -- or both -- at Smith's naked confessions is inevitable and apropos. "I'm easily embarrassed and self-critical, but not easily shamed," he insists, adding that he exposed his own agonizing struggle with anxiety in order to show the ubiquity of it. "There's no one who hasn't experienced anxiety in one form or another. Built into the project is the idea of universality."
According to Smith, anxiety differs from fear in that the former is the looming, unpleasant feeling brought on by the latter. Chronically anxious people are acutely aware of themselves and what triggers those feelings to arise within. "Anxiety is self-centeredness," he says, speaking slowly now, with a sudden equanimity. "It's not narcissism because narcissism is self-love. The word I love is solipsism, which means a locked-in syndrome, an obsession with what's inside your own head and how the world comes at you."
Although he says he hasn't found writing in general or about anxiety in particular to be therapeutic, Smith does offer suggestions for how to combat restlessness beyond momentary stopgap measures like drinking, taking a pill or even orgasms. "I'm not convinced that [anxiety] can be cured or even that it would be desirable to be cured," he says, conceding that the only effective disciplines to have eased his worried mind are meditation and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
The Buddhist meditative technique of training oneself to see that thoughts often rise and fall away is useful, he says, "because it turns you away from self-absorption, ironically, because while meditating you're looking only at yourself." Smith draws comparisons between Buddhism and psychotherapy insofar as that both emphasize awareness. "CBT takes the statements that otherwise the mind considers assumptions and jumps straight to anxiety and catastrophe and questions them." Whereas Buddhism advises letting go of uncontrollable thoughts, "CBT asks you to scrutinize them."
For Smith, with consistency and practice, these methodologies ultimately don't conflict with each other. "It's all about day after day fighting the good fight against your wormy, screwed up habits of mind." But he resigns that falling off the wagon and back into anxious patterns is easy to do. "You have thought a certain way for years," he says. "Nothing is going to be able to train you out of that completely because the circuits are there."
While his stories of transition through various stages of anxiety treatment support that suffering is virtuous -- that sitting with unsettling feelings makes you more equipped and resilient in the end -- Smith doesn't romanticize the struggle. "I make no plea to specialness for being more crazy than other people," he says. "I don't think there's anything glorious about it, I don't think it ennobles me, but I also don't think it diminishes me in any way."
The age of anxiety
You say "freedom is anxiety's Petri dish." In a marketplace with so many options, do you think contemporary culture breeds anxiety disorders?
Anxiety is about freedom, but also uncertainty. It's far nicer to know that if you cut your finger while slicing a bagel, you're not going to die of a bacterial infection. You can get penicillin and that's f--cking great! I'm glad I live in time that I don't have to worry about gangrene.
But there is something about the culture that tends to breed anxiety. The purpose of a large swath of the advertising industry is to make consumers anxious about themselves, to the point that they're willing to shell out money for a product that will purportedly make them less anxious. These messages are incessant and ubiquitous.
That's the paradox of modern life. Along with all of the great things about living in the modern first-world also comes an exponential growth of options. It's easy if you feel anxiety to become nostalgic about a more rigid time because it seems like it could be more secure, and it probably would be in one respect. [But] you still have to worry about dying, about your loved ones getting ill -- the essential anxiety provoking things. They have been there forever.
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