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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Alumnus author provides tips on anxiety

Published: September 7, 2012
Section: Features

Class of 1999 alumnus David Smith’s new memoir “The Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety,” is a blend of the tragic and the comic with a dash of honesty. Smith’s memoir travels broadly, exploring life with a disorder that is becoming more and more rampant in America, eventually focusing on his own experience at Brandeis.

An English major and Russian History minor here at Brandeis, Smith said that “I always thought I might want to be a writer. I always loved literature.” A biweekly columnist at the Justice, Smith remembers slaving away at his humor column for far longer than the average student. “I discovered a lot of people, to my understanding, those that did that kind of work [and] wrote them fairly quickly. I gnashed my teeth; I spent almost every minute drafting and redrafting and revising. They weren’t bad columns, but they were painful.”

While Smith drifted away from steadily writing in his later years of college, he returned to it as soon as he graduated, landing a job editing at the Atlantic. “I always knew I was going to write: I just didn’t know how to deal with the anguish part of it,” he claims. “The only way to do it is to keep going until you become a little less anguished.”

Smith’s struggles with writing reflect his struggles with his generalized anxiety disorder, which is defined as excessive worrying that does not have a specific cause. Smith, in a column for The New York Times, describes how he is “always braced for the next recurrence. Anxiety, like the tide, is forever receding and returning, receding and returning.”

In writing his memoir, Smith somehow has made this serious disorder funny. “The Monkey Mind” falls under the genre of tragicomic, which is a work that manages to blend both the funny and dark sides of life.

“I didn’t choose the genre so much as I chose how to approach the material. The material was obviously a lot of suffering and anxiety, but the way it seemed to me, anxiety is the only funny mental illness that we have,” Smith said. “You can’t really make jokes out of depression or schizophrenia, but you can for some reason make jokes about anxiety. The reason is it entails so much absurdity, you realize you are being absurd and dramatic.”

Smith also believes the reason that “The Monkey Mind” is funny is because writing the way he did is integral to his roots. While at the Atlantic, “I wrote serious journalism and a lot of feature articles about everything from electrical shock therapy, to science under Bush, to economics of higher education as well as a serious book about hearing voices.”

In releasing “The Monkey Mind,” Smith is revisiting and embracing his younger self from his humor column at Brandeis.

“I had written outside the bounds of my own voice for so long that I wanted so much to slip back into the comic—it is natural for me.”

“The Monkey Mind” is in no way fictionalized; Smith speaks with harsh honesty throughout the entire memoir. When asked whether or not it was hard to write so openly about his own life, Smith retorts, “No, I don’t give a shit what people say about me or what they know about my life. People keep praising me for my honesty, and it is strange because I don’t fear exposure. It doesn’t scare me for people to judge what I’ve done or what I think. It scares me more for people to judge my writing.”

Since “The Monkey Mind” spans years of Smith’s life, a portion of it deals directly with his time at Brandeis. Smith believes that going away to college is extremely anxiety-provoking.

“You are given freedom at the exact same moment you are being robbed of your routine, which you’ve become accustomed to and forced into a situation when you have to come off as someone good and interesting for social reasons.”

While Smith does claim that “Brandeis probably wasn’t any more anxiety-provoking than any other college would have been,” his own first year here was strained. “I discovered myself in a place that I didn’t feel myself suited and I didn’t feel it met the criteria I had in my own head. I grew up on Long Island with upper middle class Jews, and it was still that way in college: It didn’t give me the ability to expand my horizons. I didn’t find Brandeis in the first year to be very socially conducive to comforting me—it didn’t ease my nerves.”

While Smith did encounter struggles in his first year, he eventually found a group of friends to whom he still remains close. Given his position as an alum and anxiety sufferer, Smith is in a place to give advice to Brandeis students who may be in the same position.

Smith realizes that “in college, the things that you are surrounded by that relieve anxiety are not the useful things. They are things like drugs and alcohol and sex. They are really effective but don’t relieve it long-term.” His advice is to make habits now. “My tip is to find these things early on in your life when you can still learn. Your brain is still malleable, and you can form the habits that will lessen your anxiety long term.”

Smith believes “College is a great time to do that: You are surrounded by so many possibilities and books. Study cognitive psych, Buddhism, prayer meditation—anything that will allow you to discipline your mind over time.”

In addition to penning “The Monkey Mind,” Smith has contributed to The New York Times, which ran a series on anxiety this summer and whether or not it is increasing in this era. For Smith, he is unsure. “It is really hard to say if it is increasing, but I do think it is an anxious time for sure, especially with terrorism, changing social structure and gender dynamics. It is very confusing.”

He admits that the likelihood of being diagnosed may have increased. “We are simply more aware of our anxiety. We now treat it more like a disorder.” Since it has only been a small amount of time that patients with the disorder have been documented, it is still unsure whether or not the numbers are rising. With technology on the rise and the sheer business of everyday life, Smith claims that anxiety is “the disorder of our time. So many people have been diagnosed with it and are aware about this problem in our lives. It is spoken about openly.”

Whether students are chemistry majors or prospective writers like Smith, his advice on remaining calm in times of stress remains the same: “Try and find helpful things that work for you while you are still young. Form those habits and then don’t deal with what I had to deal with in my 20s.”