In the introduction to his insightful, moving, and darkly funny new “Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety,” Daniel Smith shows how quickly the anxious mind can plunge from a single thought into full existential crisis. “I am anxious. The anxiety makes it impossible to concentrate. Because it is impossible to concentrate, I will make an unforgivable mistake at work. Because I will make an unforgivable mistake at work, I will be fired. Because I will be fired, I will not be able to pay my rent. Because I will not be able to pay my rent, I will be forced to have sex for money in an alley behind Fenway Park. Because I will be forced to have sex for money in an alley behind Fenway Park, I will contract HIV. Because I will contract HIV, I will develop full-blown AIDS. Because I will develop full-blow AIDS, I will die disgraced and alone.’’
Funny stuff. Of course, anxiety is no laughing matter. Kier-kegaard viewed it as just a part of the human condition. However, there is normal situational anxiety, then there is the clinical variety, which Smith claims afflicts three of every 10 Americans and can be painful, heartbreaking, debilitating, even paralyzing.
“Monkey Mind,” which chronicles Smith’s long struggle with chronic anxiety, puts a spin on it that elicits both absurd hilarity and deep compassion. Intimate and searingly honest, the memoir is laced with vivid, colorful prose offset by a droll tone. Along the way, Smith refers to psychiatrists from Freud to Aaron Beck, detailing with eviscerating wit and impressive insight how the anxious mind can malfunction and offering some successful strategies for keeping it in check.
Smith, essayist, onetime Globe freelancer, and author of “Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Hearing Voices and the Borders of Sanity,” splits “Monkey Mind” into three seminal “episodes,” starting with childhood, largely colored by the anxiety of his parents. His mother, a psychotherapist specializing in anxiety disorders, converts anxiety into energy, transforming herself into “a living example of how will, wisdom, and clinical psychology can triumph over nature.”
Smith’s own anxiety stubbornly defies reason, snowballing from the catastrophic “what if” into dread “sparking down the spine and rooting out into the body in the form of breathlessness, clamminess, fatigue, palpitations, and a terrible sense that the world in which I find myself is at once holographically unsubstantial and grotesquely threatening.” He dates the onset of his anxiety to an ill-fated ménage a trois at age 16 in which he squanders his virginity, hilariously described but poignantly resonant.
His second “episode” begins during freshman year at Brandeis University, sparked by the combination of unlimited possibility and cramped living quarters, driving him to the bowels of the library for solitude and solace in literature. It is there that he finds his anxiety’s “Rosetta Stone” in the works of Philip Roth and discovers his calling as a writer, leading to a job at The Atlantic.
The third episode deals with his first serious love interest, now his wife, and the cognitive behavioral therapy that brings a stunning revelation about how to manage his anxiety.
Like most memoirs, “Monkey Mind” has periods of tedious solipsism, and it is full of torturous switchbacks and roller coaster ups and downs. But by book’s end, Smith has come to embrace the hard work needed to discern between appropriate anxiety, one of nature’s great protective resources, and the kind that quickly leads down a path of anticipated doom. He may never cure his anxious mind, but he’s learned the power of acceptance, laughter, and hope.