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Anxiety-ridden author keeps sense of humour

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Have you ever felt anxious? Have you ever felt so overwhelmingly anxious that you feared you might, at any given moment, "projectile weep" onto the person with whom you were conversing?

If you haven't, count yourself lucky. If you have, Daniel Smith is a kindred -- anxiety-ridden -- spirit. And what a spirit he has.

For all the gut-wrenching agony and hamster-wheel brain activity that the 30-something New York-based teacher and author's anxiety has burdened him with, he has not lost his sense of humour.

In this short but surprisingly comic account of his personal struggles, Smith describes scenes that elicit empathy and concern, but also audible laughs, thanks to the layers of unexpected, often self-deprecating accounts of torturous scenarios.

Smith's style is reminiscent of American humorist David Sedaris -- if Sedaris were suffering therapy-grade anxiety from the aftermath of a near-drowning experience, a scarring, uniquely unpleasant loss of his virginity, and all the burdens that accompany growing up Jewish on Long Island.

Smith borrows his title, Monkey Mind, from the Buddhist term used to describe a mind full of excess thoughts and emotions.

Broken into three "episodes" rather than parts, Monkey Mind weaves its way through Smith's three most intense bouts of anxiety. They occur in high school, college and adulthood, with ever increasing intensity.

When Smith's panic-attack prone, teacher-turned-therapist mother tries to help him pinpoint the origin of his anxiety, earlier anxious incidents from his childhood are also revealed. "There are many flavours of anxiety. My childhood was a taster's menu."

In truth, Smith hails from a family riddled with a spectrum of anxiety issues. When he was nine, his mother went back to school to become a therapist -- partly in an effort to conquer and understand her own anxiety issues.

Smith's father suffered extreme anxiety over the voices he heard. (While this topic is not discussed, it is the topic of Smith's first book, Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Hearing Voices and the Borders of Sanity.)

Smith's brother, Scott, is also an anxiety sufferer. "Scott and I talk about anxiety the way some brothers talk about money," he writes, "which is to say often, and always with an eye on who has more of it."

In describing some of the issues with which his family members have suffered, Smith not only gives us a glimpse into his family and home life, but also touches on the scope and variety within the diagnosis of an anxiety disorder.

This gentle educating of the reader on the subject of anxiety takes place throughout book. Smith quotes from Freud and Kierkegaard and he shares the names of well-known artists and intellectuals who are or were sufferers. He also discusses anxiety's copious symptoms, frustrations, treatments and therapy styles.

The exposition of anxiety's inner workings can only be a good thing. Any book that contributes to making mental health a household discussion is a welcome book indeed.

And recounted as they are with such humour, the painful stories of Smith's anxious life are actually entertaining, which means that even non-sufferers will find this book hard to put down.

CindyMarie Small is a retired Royal Winnipeg Ballet dancer and an emerging actor.

Monkey Mind

A Memoir of Anxiety

By Daniel Smith

Simon & Schuster, 212 pages, $29

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 7, 2012 J8

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