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Bookaholic Interview with Andrew Solomon

by Cristina Foarfă

Andrew Solomon is the author of one of the most fascinating and overwhelming books: The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, a comprehensive study on this terrible illness with a touching confession about his own experience. In his impressive survey, Andrew Solomon approaches depression from many different points of view: cultural, medical, social, even political. The book won The National Book Award for nonfiction and it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. We are very happy and honored that Andrew Solomon kindly agreed to answer a few questions and speak about depression, personal challenges, thoughts and emotions, about happiness and sadness, his daily habits and especially about family and love.

(Pentru versiunea în limba română a interviului, click aici.)

It’s been 13 years since your book was published. How do you relate to your own book now, both personally and after seeing how people responded to it? Have you changed over all these years? Did you have other major depressive episodes?

I think it would be worrying if I hadn’t changed over 13 years. So much of my life has been worked out: I’ve gotten married to my husband, had children, built a life around love; I’ve had my work reach a much larger audience than before. But I still have the genetic vulnerability to depression, and I still deal with it. I continue to take medication and engage in psychotherpay, and I have occasional relapses. I am better at regulating my own life to avoid them; I am better and getting the meds lined up when necessary; I am able to ensure that sleep and exercise are in place as both have an effect on my psychological state. It’s not nearly as bad as it used to be; I understand it better, and knowledge is power. But it will require a lifetime of management.

As for how I relate to my own book—I am fiercely proud of it, and feel that whatever self-exposure I undertook has more than paid off. I get letters every day from people saying it has helped them to negotiate a crisis; some even say it saved them from suicide. It was not an easy book to write, but I am very glad I undertook it.

You are extremely sincere, emphatetic and generous in this book, sharing a lot of personal, intimate things that other people might find hard to admit even to themselves. I won’t ask if it was difficult (I believe it was), but I’m asking how writing the book changed you – do you believe that writing and talking about your depression was a personal catharsis? Does it help or does it make things worse?

People often suppose that writing the book must itself have been a catharsis, and that is not accurate. Writing the book was a long, slow, often lonely process based on looking squarely at some of the most difficult moments in my life; it kept those moments alive. In talking to others who have battled depression, I was hearing painful stories in excruciating detail, and they made me sad for the people to whom I was speaking and also stirred up much of my own sorrow. So the book was not therapeutic in that sense. However, the book achieved for me a very powerful transformation insofar as it took a set of experiences that felt, as I lived them, like matters of no value whatsoever, and transformed them into something that might be helpful to others. So in that sense, it redeemed what felt like a lost part of my life. And that was very important for me: to have dug some kind of beauty out of the muck of despair.

What were other people’s reactions after reading the book, especially family and friends? Did you ever regret having shared your story?

I do not regret sharing my story. It is sometimes difficult to meet strangers who know the inner truths about my own mind and its challenges, but I have been more gratified by the positive consquences of sharing my story than I have been regretful of the negative ones. My family and friends have been wildly supportive. They have understood much more of what I’ve lived through, and have given unflagging love as a response. I have occasionally had unfortunate experiences with acquaintances who have seemed uncomfortable with what I’ve written or said. Most of them are defending against their own feelings of vulnerability.

What are your daily habits now? Are you afraid of regression? What do you do to keep depression away from you?

I regulate my dient; I exercise even though I find doing so tedious; I am careful about my sleep; I am careful about my diet; I avoid excess alcohol or caffeine; I take my pills every day; I see a psychotherapist once a week when I’m in New York. When I feel an episode coming on, I pull away from stressful experiences. I try at such times to keep my focus on my family and on close friends. In general, I work on mindfulness: on noticing when I’m getting into a bad place, and on trying to catch the problem before it escalates.

You’re an expert on depression. How does it feel to carry this label?

It can be exhausting, of course. It means that total strangers ask me for advice every day, and their stories can weigh heavily on me; and friends and friends of friends are always keen to get introductions to doctors, narratives of anguish, reassuring information of every stripe. That’s very wearing. I write for Travel and Leisure magazine, and recently joked with the editor that everyone wants her to suggest a great resort in the Caribbean and everyone wants me to suggest a psychoactive drug. I think her line of work sounds like better fun.

But sometimes, I can help those people who contact me, and that’s very rewarding. I am thrilled when my expertise is useful. Like all expertise, this gives me the capacity to do good in the world, which is, after all, the meaning of life.

Let’s imagine a world where everyone’s happy. There is no depression, no sadness, no melancholy. How would it be? How would people be? Would you live there?

The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality, and a world without depression would not be a world without sadness. When I was depressed, I was sad and overwhelmed about returning the calls on my answering machine or about taking a shower; now I am sad about global warming, the war in Syria, failed relationships, the loss of people I’ve held dear. I may even be more sad, but it’s a profound, meaningful sadness, not a trivial one. And so in imagining a world in which we could knock out clinical depression, I am never positing a world without sadness. I believe that sadness is at the center of our being. In fact, I think we wouldn’t have love as we know it if it weren’t for the prospect of sadness; it is our dread of loss, our sense of potential devastation, that is the engine of our intimacy. A world without sadness would be tragic; a world without the mood dysfunction that is depression would be an improvement.

What do you think it is the role of depression in truly knowing yourself?

One of the adaptive mechanisms of human being s is the capacity for moods. It serves our interests to be angry sometimes, sad sometimes, joyful sometimes, anxious sometimes, envious sometimes, and so on. Depression is a maladaption of that mood spectrum. But in the experience of it, you have to look deep into yourself and ask the fundamental existential questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What does my life mean in relation to the lives of others? Some people who deal with depression try to avoid these questions, but for those with the will to look deep into their depression, the illness carries the possibility of deep insight.

What does “being alive” mean to you? What defines us as living creatures?

I think; I breathe; I laugh; I love; I weep; I hope; I despair; I run; I dream; I sleep; I give; I take; I eat; I worry; I grow wiser; I behave foolishly; I grow old; I find joy in the rising and setting of the sun; I use language; I feel pain; I smile; I get angry; I rail against injustice; I seek my own advantage; I swim; I pay my taxes; I reproduce; I feel lonely; I climb a tree; I fall from its branches; I tend to my own children; I believe that everything can be made perfect; I am myself.

Which are your biggest fears?

Like all people who have children, I have as my biggest fear some damage or harm coming to them; I don’t know how I could live with that. I fear that I have passed along the capacity for depression. I fear they will get sick, or be in an accident, or end their own lives, or use substances of abuse. I of course also fear for anything happening to my husband or to my father. I fear a relapse into severe depression in which my capacity for reason would be so compromised that I would become suicidal. I worry about whether I would be able to know enough not to act. I fear nuclear catastrophe and the destruction of the environment.

Have you ever talked to your children from your extended and fascinating family about depression?

I have not talked about it with Blaine or George; they are too young now to understand such things. They have occasionally seen that I take medicine, but we haven’t really discussed what it’s for. I have talked to Oliver about it a bit, because he’s of an age at which the possibility of developing such symptoms is proximate. I haven’t really discussed it with Lucy, who is also very young, but I’d guess that it trickles down from Oliver and their mothers.

How can one recognize the early stages of depression and what should one do?

The early signs are dysregulation of appetite, sleep, and energy. Take note of these; then be alert to a loss of pleasure in ordinary experiences that should be happy ones. A sense of isolation is also a key sign. A feeling of being unable to muster the emotions that seem appropriate to situations.

First and foremost, know that this condition is treatable and seek treatment. Figure out which people around you may be sympathetic and open up to them. Regularize your sleep and your diet. Pull back from the use of alcohol and caffeine. Exercise; exercise can have an enormous effect on depression, even if it’s the last thing you feel like doing. And get to a professional as quickly as you can; the longer you wait, the harer the depression is to turn around.

You were saying: “There is so much pain in the world, and most of these people keep theirs secret”. Why do you think this is happening? Do we live in a society where one must be/seem happy to socially survive?

We go about our daily lives with a protective coating of optimism. It’s part of having a healthy psyche. Whe people lose that proection, they are aware of having a different view of reality than those around them, and that’s extremely difficult to explain. People are exhausted by the very prospect. There is a constant feeling that depression is a failure; we associate success with happiness and take a dim view of those who are not able to achieve it. Depression seems to threaten the social order, and it makes us all feel vulnerable; non-depressed people don’t want to talk about it because they fear the contagion. People want to be buoyed by their social contacts, and depression doesn’t buoy anyone.

In Romania, depression is still a stigma, a caprice sometimes and it’s not clearly understood. Also, going to a psychiatrist is a shame and many people refuse this treatment option saying “but I’m not mad”. What would you tell them?

I think depression is the family secret everyone has in common. People always say to me, “Wasn’t it hard to be so open about your condition? Don’t people laugh at you?” But my experience is that what people mostly do is to tell me that they have had an episode themselves, or that they’re terribly worried about their son, or that their aunt has ceased to function. It’s so ubiquitous. The label of “crazy” is a label of disparagement; the acknowledgement that many people bravely face down deep psychological challenges should be given with praise. It is true that some people may be overdiagnosed—but it’s more worrying that many are underdiagnosed, that people are living hollow, painful lives when they have a condition that could readily be treated and resolved. Society has for too long seen depression as some kind of moral weakness, when it is in fact a disease subject to treatment. Life is short: don’t waste it being concerned about social commentaries. They rise from collective anxiety about depression—which is no reason not to get as well as you can.

What’s the best thing to do when someone close is going through depression? People react in many ways, from trying to minimize it to trying to get that person out of the house and forcing them to do stuff.

Remember that depression is a disease of loneliness, and that it’s important never to allow the depressed person to become isolated. If you can, stay engaged. If the depressed person can’t bear it, then sit quietly by his bed. If that’s too much, then sit just outside his room. But never allow him to be truly alone. Depressed people find human interaction very stressful, but if you allow them to become really alone, the depression will worsen and suicide is a possibility. Emphasize to the depressed person that his condition is one he has in common with much of humanity, and that it is treatable. Help him to find good treatment. Be encouraging; the more a depressed person continues to function, the better he’ll feel. But don’t try to push him past what he can do, even if his inability to do that seems bewildering to you. Don’t ask a person with a broken leg to come out dancing; don’t ask a depressed person to cheer up.

Have you met anyone who was completely cured of depression?

I don’t think depression is curable; I think it is treatable. It is in general a cyclical illness, and most people, even if they go untreated, will eventually emerge from it—but they are likely to have repeated episodes. I have met people who have had one bad episode occasioned by something that’s happened to them who eventually recover and seem not to fall into the cycle

You have spent many years working on researching how families accommodate children with physical, mental and social disabilities and differences. Your most recent book, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity was not yet published in Romania. What can you tell us about it? How does it relate to your previous work on depression?

The book is forthcoming in Romanian, and I look forward to its publication in Romania. The book is about how parents who not only learn to deal with their exceptional children but also find profound meaning in doing so. Its central proposition is that diversity is what unites us all. I look at families coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities, with children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who become criminals, who are transgender. While each of these characteristics is potentially isolating, the experience of difference within families is universal. These stories are everyone’s stories.

All parenting turns on a crucial question: to what extent parents should accept their children for who they are, and to what extent they should help them become their best selves. Drawing on forty thousand pages of interview transcripts with more than three hundred families, I set out to mine the eloquence of ordinary people facing extreme challenges. Whether considering prenatal screening for genetic disorders, cochlear implants for the deaf, or gender reassignment surgery for transgender people, I discovered a universal struggle toward compassion and innumerable triumphs of love. Many families grow closer through caring for a challenging child; most discover supportive communities of others similarly affected; some are inspired to become advocates and activists, celebrating the very conditions they once feared. Woven into their courageous and affirming stories is my own journey to accepting my own identity, which culminated in his midlife decision, influenced by this research, to become a parent.

All my writing is about how people turn circumstances of adversity into an occasion of dignity. My first book was about a group of Soviet artists and how their lives changed during glasnost; they, too, built power out of oppression. My second was a novel loosely based on my mother’s illness and death, looking at how she had achieved a great and lasting intimacy in the face of mortal illness. And you know the last two. That’s my recurrent theme.

What’s next? Have you ever thought of writing fiction again?

I have a novel I’ve been working on on a very occasional basis for the last fifteen years or so, and someday, it will see its way to completion. I am putting together collections of my journalism. I am writing a children’s book based on the stories I tell my children. But my primary project is a book about how in an era in which women are likely to work and men are likely to be more involved in childcare than their fathers, our ideas of motherhood and fatherhood are beginning to merge into a single idea of parenthood. I’ve tried to look at how that happens and how it is both reflected in and occasioned by the many new structures of family: single parents by choice; open attitudes toward divorce; gay families; open adoptions; and many other shifting definitions of what constitutes a family.