I am always interested in hearing others’ experiences with depression, because as Andrew Solomon himself points out, no two depressions are the same. He does not spend much time, for instance, discussing my particular brand of depression, which is atypical. Nevertheless, I saw myself in the good and bad of so many of the people Solomon interviewed for this book, which is part memoir, part research, and part expansive meditation on the nature of the disease.
It’s not necessary to have experienced depression yourself, or even to know someone who has, to appreciate the book, because the nature of depression is such that it exists on a spectrum of human emotion. In one of my favorite passages, Solomon writes, “Even people who do not suffer from depression have had the experience of waking up too early with a sensation of ominous dread; in fact, that fearful despairing state, which usually passes quickly, may be the closest that healthy people come to the experience of depression.” Nearly everyone has had the experience of waking up at two or three in the morning and feeling somehow wrong, because they are not supposed to be awake. It’s quite different from the groggy feeling of simply staying up that late; you feel anxious, vulnerable, and strangely alone because everyone else is asleep. You are out of sync with the world as you know it. Your mind begins to latch onto the smallest worries of the day ahead of you, and you are powerless to resolve them because of the time. They seem insurmountable. The difference between you and a depressive is that your problems will shrink back to size in the light of day. For the depressive, the hours between two in the morning and dawn never end.
This is only one of the eloquent, bone-cuttingly true descriptions Solomon gives, and though I damn near wore out the buttons on my e-reader highlighting relevant descriptions, the book is much more than that. Along the way, he gives some great advice. In one such instance he describes the importance of finding a good therapist and what a good therapist is, and especially isn’t: “One [therapist] had covered all her furniture with Saran Wrap to protect it from her yapping dogs; she kept offering me bites of the moldy-looking gefilte fish she was eating from a plastic container. I left when one of the dogs peed on my shoe.” For all the times in the book I shed tears, I also laughed aloud at descriptions such as these. (Another favorite: “I would sometimes start to cry again, weeping not only because of what I could not do, but because the fact that I could not do it seemed so idiotic to me. All over the world people were taking showers. Why, oh why, could I not be one of them?”)
Solomon also covers the role of depression in evolution and current societies, its role in the different populations it afflicts, the state of play in schools of thought concerning treatment/medication, and its specific part in the lives of people he has painstakingly and compassionately interviewed, some of whom are committed to living, though it be through circumstances I could not imagine facing myself. His point is not to make value comparisons between the troubles of one individual versus another, but to demonstrate the widespread nature of the disease and how it can occur in those in a multitude of life situations. Despite the scope of the topics he covers, or perhaps in acknowledgement of their complexity, Solomon makes no attempt to be objective and is forthcoming on that point: “It would not be a good idea to title this book The Little Golden Book of Depression,” (a thought that occurred to him while he was high on Ecstasy, an experience he does not recommend).
The overwhelming sense of humanity that pervades this book is not least reliant on Solomon’s fearless honesty. I cannot imagine sharing with the general public the heartbreaking, unflattering, and deeply private information Solomon shares here. But he does, and after my crying and cringing, I was grateful to and in awe of the pieces of himself he gave to me, the reader. I’ve said that I highlighted many passages from the book, but one of the handful that touched me most deeply was a passage in which Solomon describes why he has consistently chosen to remain alive despite the torment that has attacked him in the past and will certainly strike again at some point. It touches me because it is one of the few things I have to hold onto when I am in the throes of my worst times: “When I have wished not to be alive and wondered what it would be like to be dead, I have also recognized that to be dead would defeat the wondering. It is that wondering that keeps one going: I could give up the externalities of my life, but not the puzzling.” The desire to be conscious enough to understand defeats my desire to lose all consciousness of my suffering. That, and the knowledge that even though I can’t see it at the time, moments of connection and beauty can occur which validate all moments of suffering before or after. The Noonday Demon, for me, was one such moment of connection.