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2.28.14 Issue

by Ozzie Nogg

According to New York Times book reviewer Ben Greenman, the long list of “panic buttons” that, over the years, have made author Daniel Smith nervous includes sex, death, work, water, food, air travel, disease, amateur theater, people he’s related to and people he’s not related to. By Smith’s own admission, there was a time when anxiety would force him to hide behind rocks so no one would see him walking to his therapy appointments. “I went through years of that,” Smith said in a July, 2012 NPR interview. “Years of embarrassment and shame.” Publishing a book on the subject, he said, “helped wipe away those feelings.” Smith will discuss his book — Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety — during an appearance on Wednesday, April 2 at Temple Israel. The presentation, which runs from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. will be followed by a book signing. The event is free and open to the community.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older — 18% of U.S. population. “Anxiety is the most common of psychological complaints,” Smith says, “not only the clinical condition that applies to the most people but, it’s often said, a universal and insoluble feature of modern life. Everyone has it; everyone must deal with it.” Jewish Family Service Executive Director Karen Gustafson, M.S., N.C.C., L.I.M.H.P., added, “During the past year alone, the therapists in our agency clocked almost 1500 sessions, and helping clients with anxiety issues made up the bulk of those services. Daniel Smith pulls no punches when he describes his battle with anxiety, and he inspires others who suffer from this potentially debilitating condition to keep going towards their dreams and goals. Our community is lucky to have Daniel visit and share his personal story and insights with us.”

Daniel Smith describes himself as anxiety personified. Anxiety lurked in his genes from birth. Both his mother and father suffered from severe anxiety and his brother from hypochondria. As a child, Smith writes he was, “hypersensitive and neurotic. There are many flavors of anxiety. My childhood was a taster’s menu.” By his mid-20s, Smith had suffered multiple serious anxiety attacks, and though on the surface Smith’s life seemed happy — he graduated from college with honors, had a great job, loyal friends, a nice place to live and a wonderful girlfriend — he writes that, “Every day was torture. I slept fitfully, with recurring nightmares — tsunamis, feral animals, the violent deaths of loved ones. I have intestinal cramps and nausea and headaches. A sense of impending catastrophe colored every waking moment.” In her review of Monkey Mind, critic Sara Nelson says, “Anxiety once paralyzed Daniel Smith over a roast beef sandwich, convincing him that a choice between ketchup and barbeque sauce was as dire as that between life and death.”

Monkey Mind cvr webPraise for Monkey Mind is legion. Kirkus Review describes the work as, “an intimate, compelling memoir exploring the boundaries of the author’s severe anxiety.”  Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Bliss and Man Seeks God, said, “As a fellow sufferer, I balked at reading Monkey Mind, fearful that a book about anxiety might send me over the edge. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Daniel Smith maps the jagged contours of anxiety with such insight, humor, and compassion that the result is, oddly, calming. Read this book. You have nothing to lose but your heart palpitations, and your Xanax habit.” Heller McAlpin of NPR says, “Here’s one less thing for Daniel Smith to worry about. He sure can write. In Monkey Mind he defangs the experience with a winning combination of humor and understanding.”

Readers of the New York Times Opinionator columns are familiar with Daniel Smith’s essays. In Do the Jews Own Anxiety? Smith begins lightheartedly. “Let’s say that, on a whim, you decide to form a baseball franchise made up of history’s greatest anxiety sufferers –a sort of neurotic all-star team (too) debilitated to make it out of the dugout. What would you call the team? Last Rosh Hashana, I asked a group of friends this question, and the answers I got suggested that the team would be exclusively… Jewish. Responses included but were not limited to the following: the Los Angeles Kvetches, the Brooklyn Nazi Dodgers, the Kansas City Mohels, the Chicago Schlubs, the Miami Meshugeners, the Westchester Rhinoplasties, the Hollywood Indigestives and — my favorite, a late entry from my brother Scott — the Upper West Side Ativans.” In the essay, Smith suggests that though Jews seem to think they’re the anxiety Gold Medalists, other American minorities — Korean-Americans, Greek-Americans, Italian-American, Arab-Americans — invariably point to their own tribes as the nuttiest, most nervous, most irreparably self-conflicted people in the world. In short, the Jews don’t own anxiety and never have. So why do so many people think otherwise? “The answer to this question, I think, is that we, the Jews, have encouraged the world to think of us as anxious. We’ve done this by propagating the figure of the Neurotic Jew — our hysterical clown.” On the clown list, Smith includes Tevye, with his almost pathologic Talmudic indecision (“On the one hand, on the other hand”); Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy; the Coen brothers’ nebbish idealist Barton Fink; and above all, Woody Allen, who plays the consummate neurotic in most of the 40-plus movies in which he’s appeared. “The relationship between the Jews and nervousness is by now so widely accepted that it barely registers,” Smith says. “The Chosen People, at least in the American consciousness, are the very image of anxiety. And I am here to tell you: this is a really dangerous position to accept.”

Daniel Smith’s website, The Monkey Mind Chronicles, is a treasure. His hectic work and travel schedule keep him from updating the site — often for months — but hit the link, Ask Dan’s Mom, and you find a picture of his mother (cutline reads: the lovely woman) along with this post from the son. “Shown here is my mother, Marilyn Smith. Marilyn/Mom is a psychotherapist who specializes in anxiety disorders. Which means that she was first a human being who suffered from anxiety. That, after all, is usually why people become therapists: because first they were patients. You like the smell of paint, you become a painter. You’re scared that the fumes from an open can of paint are going to give you leukemia, you become a shrink. Most Fridays, when I’m not too overwhelmed by work and life, I publish an exchange with my mother — psychotherapist, anxiety expert, and genetic wellspring of my neuroses — about anxiety and anxiety disorders. She’s a great resource. And it has occurred to me, as I’ve completed Monkey Mind, that it isn’t quite fair to keep my mother to myself. Her knowledge and wisdom should be shared with the world.” Ah, words to make any Jewish mother kvell.

On the Monkey Mind Chronicles home page, Smith says, “Greetings to all, anxious and calm.” He then announces the paperback publication date of the book and writes, “It’s a lovely looking thing, in my opinion, and even soothing (paperbacks, soft and non-lethal as they are, can be very soothing). I’m going on tour to promote the paperback’s release and would love to see you. I’ll do a little reading, answer some questions, maybe do a spot of hyperventilating if I’m asked nicely. I hope you can make it out. As always, bring Xanax. I tend to run out.” Smith’s book tour is officially over, but Omaha welcomes him to our community, with or without pharmaceuticals.

The program is sponsored by Jewish Family Service in partnership with Temple Israel, Beth El Synagogue, Beth Israel Synagogue and National Council of Jewish Women Omaha Section, and is underwritten by a grant from The Lazier L. Singer Memorial Fund for Youth, a component fund of, and administered by, the Jewish Federation of Omaha Foundation.