by Tara Weiss
Andrew Solomon’s first two book tours were dreadful. His depression was so severe, he could barely get through the day. Others had to dress him and cut his meat at meals. He clutched the podium tightly when reading, to keep himself from collapsing.
So the New Yorker contributor and novelist was apprehensive over the approaching publication of his latest book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (Scribner, $28).
But life is different now. Though depression does loom — it likely always will — he knows the signs and takes precautions to keep it at bay. “I’m actually having a great time,” says Solomon, 37, calling from his home in Greenwich Village, where he works. “I’ve had a wonderful feeling of festivity and an up feeling.”
That he’s able to say he’s happy is reason enough to celebrate. Just a few years ago, Solomon was in such a deep depression that he was completely dependent on his father and close friends. It’s a time he writes about in great detail in The Noonday Demon, which weaves an enormous amount of medical information among the often heart-wrenching stories of other sufferers of mental illness, including Solomon’s intimate description of his own breakdown.
At times, The Noonday Demon is overwhelming, not just from the potent stories of depression sufferers but also by the sheer amount of information packed into the book. Still, Solomon’s eloquent and honest style proves engaging.
He describes a much-anticipated trip to Europe after college graduation that he cut short because of a sudden and overwhelming sense of anxiety and fear. That early experience with depression was mild compared to what would come.
Solomon says he led a happy life, had a close-knit family and lots of friends. He was outgoing and enjoyed traveling.
When considering what caused his depression, Solomon looks back to his “confused sense of sexuality” that started in high school, when he found himself attracted to men and women. His mother, with whom he was very close, died of ovarian cancer when he was in his late 20s. Shortly thereafter, he began seeing a psychoanalyst. Then a romantic relationship ended, and more symptoms crept up on him.
Things got worse. Solomon felt anxious and scared most of the time.
Eventually friends learned the drill, and he used a code to let them know he wasn’t able to socialize: “I’m sorry, I’ll have to cancel Tuesday. I’m afraid of lamb chops again.” Things got so bad, he tried to infect himself with AIDS by engaging in unprotected casual sex.
Solomon tried a number of medications and now takes a combination of five. He will likely be on medication for the rest of his life. And that’s something difficult for people to understand.
“There is no cure for mental illness, but there is treatment,” Solomon says. “They think you’ve been taking pills, and now you feel fine, so you no longer have mental illness. It’s like saying someone doesn’t have a heart problem anymore because of medication. But once you have it, you have it.”
The Noonday Demon was born out of a 1998 article he wrote for the New Yorker. Solomon received more than 2,000 letters from other depression sufferers.
“I’d like to have it [The Noonday Demon] read by people who have suffered from depression and are trying to make sense of it and are coming to terms with what they’ve been through,” Solomon says in his semi-British accent. (He has dual citizenship.) “It’s also for people who have family members who have suffered from depression and don’t quite understand what’s happening to the people around them.
“There is a tendency for people to say it’s all in your head,” he says. “If it’s all in your head, it’s not serious and doesn’t need to be taken too much to heart. I encountered people who said, `You’ve had some rough things in your life, but you weren’t really sick with anything.’ I was so sick, I couldn’t function. People don’t seem to understand that having mental illness is real.”
Now, like anyone else, he has highs and lows. But overall, that feeling of absolute misery has lifted. He’s begun work on a new book, about relationships between children and parents when they are very different from each other.
And there’s the occasional fun article, such as the piece he’s working on for Travel and Leisure. And possibly most exciting is the new relationship he’s in.
“It was very good for me to write this book because I acquired a lot of knowledge about depression, which is something I felt unknowledgeable about,” he says. “I felt I was gaining control. And it took a stretch of my life that felt useless and made it useful.”