May 2002

Jessa Crispin

nonfiction

The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon

Writing about depression tends to fall into one of two categories: cliche or incomprehensible medical babble. Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression manages something remarkable: a comprehensive, unflinching study of depression that doesn't linger in either one.

The book spans the many different facets of depression, from breakdowns to treatment, from povery to history. It takes us from Solomon's bedroom from which he is unable to move to Africa for a healing ceremony to Cambodia to interview survivors of Pol Pot. He tells his story of crippling depression and thoughts of going mad and also relays the interviews of countless other sufferers.

Being a fellow sufferer myself, this book hit me in the gut. Solomon wrote things doctors tend not to tell patients, such as the high rate of recurrence and how dangerous an anxiety disorder coupled with a depressive disorder really is. The book is also an understanding nod. Only other depressives truly understand; it's somewhat of a cliche, but in my own experience, true. Noonday is proof that there is company along the way.

Which is why a series of articles Solomon wrote on depression prompted a massive outpouring in letters. Many of the interviews in the book originated in letters written in response to those articles. The desire to talk with someone who understands in the midsts of such an isolating disorder can be overwhelming. And even if you don't write Solomon yourself, this book is the next best thing.

If Solomon had written only the analytical section of the book, it would have been a good examination of depression, but it would not have been comprehensive. Depression is above all personal. To get the whole story, you have to go to its true source: the sufferer's mind. Depression attacks you at your very sense of self. In its grasp, you can't even trust your own thoughts.

"When depression comes," he writes, "it degrades one's self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection. It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself."

Solomon is at his best telling the personal stories. He manages to wrangle language around the indescribable pain, and does it in an eloquent, clear headed manner. Many personal accounts of depression are lacking. Either it is recalled in a manner-of-fact, detatched way or there isn't enough distance and the description is wild and overwrought. Solomon manages to find a balance between the two and stays there throughout most of the book.

One fault in his book, however, is his enthusiasm for the drug companies. Medication did wonders for him, as it does for many people. However, most depressives don't have access to psychopharmacologists who can fine tune doses and drug combinations. Many are simply handed a handful of free samples and wished good luck. Anti-depressives and anti-anxietants are prohibitively expensive for the un- or under-insured. Throw in psychotherapy and treatment can seem unattainable. Solomon focuses some on the ideal treatment and some on the poorest of the poor, but breezes through the situation for the middle- and working-class, where most people fall. Those who may have health insurance but no mental health coverage.

What he does get right about treatment is the desperation involved. And it does take desperation to convince yourself to try something like Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT) or psychosurgery. Imagine signing a consent form to allow someone to induce a grand mal seizure with the nasty little side effect of losing chunks of memory. Solomon himself does not undergo ECT or psychosurgery, but gives in-depth interviews with those who do. Solomon himself travels to Africa to participate in a ceremony that involves covering himself in chicken blood.

The Noonday Demon is weighted with despair. Solomon's own relapses and the stories of people absolutely intent on hurting and killing themselves at times do not seem to offer much to look forward to for depressives. However, the book ends with a chapter entitled "Hope". The truth is that most people who are able to look back on their depression are able to take something away from it. And that, if nothing else, is hope. "I have discovered what I would have to call a soul, a part of myself I could never have imagined until one day, seven years ago, when hell came to pay me a surprise visit."

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon
Published by Scribner
ISBN: 0-684-85466-X
Non-Fiction
570 Pages