There is a popular saying in sporting circles used to describe the difficulty of persevering in endurance sports. It goes like this:
"When you're wrestling with a gorilla, you don't quit when you're tired, you quit when the gorilla is tired."
Which is precisely the point of the book Monkey Mind, A Memoir of Anxiety by Daniel Smith (Simon & Schuster, 2012).
From its jarring cover with a frenetic toy monkey ready to clash cymbals together, to its rolling cascade of words revealing anecdotes of real life anxiety, Monkey Mind grabs you in its anxious arms and will not let go.
The terminally anxious know there is not much hope of permanent relief. Smith does give credit to the hope of the mind management technique known as cognitive therapy, in which anxiety sufferers learn to arrest and examine worried, fearful thoughts. But he does not pretend such thoughts will ever completely go away. And his chronicles of the vagaries of electroshock therapy remain cringe fodder for anyone.
People who are wired for anxiety know the potential cures are dodgy and fretful at best. Anxiety drugs have their share of side effects as well as benefits. The human mind is a tricky thing to control as it trims and yaws to one emotional side or the other. Like a sailboat on a restless lake, the best one can hope for at times is to aim the damn thing sideways and hope you cram into a nearby shore. Then call for help.
There is humor but not hilarity in Monkey Mind. Daniel Smith relates jarring first sexual episodes that lead to low self esteem and outright panic over the moral and social implications of screwing a woman or man you do not really love. Then he addresses the horror stories of flop sweats at work, and how work itself can be a self-generating flow of anxious challenges. "This is how the mind of an anxious person works," the book seems to cry out. The world would do well to listen and have compassion.
To the anxious, success is just as daunting as failure. All have their own triggers.
Many people with anxiety do function just fine in society. The truth is this: people learn to adapt, avoid and control their anxiety however they can. And while anxiety is perhaps seen as a sign of weakness, Daniel Smith's book Monkey Mind goes long way toward making the case that anxiety sufferers amount to pillars of strength compared to what most people face. The daily tasks some can take for granted are grinding battles for others. Yet they go on; people persist and go out in the world with conquered and controlled phobias.
Perhaps this condition needs a new label: Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The title of the book comes from an Eastern religion's contention that an anxious mind is equivalent to a "monkey mind," always divided, always distracted. By fear. By the unknown.
Toward the end of the book Smith addresses the impact of his anxiety on his love for a woman. Their relationship first flourishes then curls up and dies. Months pass and both give up. When they get back together she asks the legitimate question: "Are you still screwed up?"
To learn the answer, it is best to read the book. Pscyhoanalysts certainly should. Psychiatrists too. Because Smith makes clear the many flawed practitioners of those professions. Yet he does find a therapist who reaches him in tangible, helpful ways.
If anxiety and depression are two sides of the same coin, then sufferers know that balancing on the edge of a coin can be difficult. But if you learn to see both signs of the coin for what they are, a hard-wired frailty toward uncertainty, then the visage of those coin faces can become less threatening, less disabling to individuals who fight anxiety.
People who love the anxious should also read this book, because the depths of anxiety are often hard to explain. Monkey Mind does a good job. But the cover will haunt you.