Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Learning How to Be Unhappy in Better Ways: An Interview with Andrew Solomon

noonday demon.jpg
I’ve been a longtime fan of Andrew Solomon, author of “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression,” which won the 2001 National Book Award and was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize. When I reach a low place, as I have lately, it is immensely helpful for me to go back and read the words of writers who have lived through the tumultuous storm and emerged stronger and wiser.
As I was researching something else the other day, I came across Solomon’s interview with PBS, and I soaked in his responses. I let myself process them the entire day, because they go against the current of New-Age advice I’m bombarded with on a daily basis: If you can’t change your biochemistry with your thoughts, then you are one weak, pathetic chick.
I thought I’d excerpt the paragraphs that were especially helpful for me. You can find the full interview by clicking here. Maybe you will find a hero in Andrew too.
PBS: Can you describe your experience with depression?
Andrew: It was like an iron structure that rusts for ten years and then one day it just collapses. A breakdown involves getting to the point at which your mental state prevents you from doing the normal things of your everyday life. I remember from my own experience that I was completely ambushed by mine.
I had always thought of myself as fairly tough and fairly strong and fairly able to cope with anything. And then I had a series of personal losses. My mother died. A relationship that I was in came to end, and a variety of other things went awry. I managed to get through those crises more or less intact.
And then a couple of years later, I suddenly found myself feeling bored quite a lot of the time. The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and it was vitality that seemed to seep out of me. I remember particularly that I would come home, and I would listen to the messages on my answering machine, and instead of being pleased to hear from my friends, I would feel tired, and think, that’s an awful lot of people to have to call back. I was publishing my first novel at the time, and it came out to rather nice reviews. I simply didn’t care. All my life I dreamed of publishing a novel, and now here it was, and all I felt was nullity.


Then the sense of life being effortful kicked in. Everything began to seem like such an enormous overwhelming effort. I would think to myself, oh, I should have some lunch. And then I would think, but I have to get the food out. And put it on a plate. And cut it up. And chew it. And swallow it. And it began to seem like the stations of the cross. Then I would think, oh, I should have a shower, but I just couldn’t organize myself enough for that.
One of the things that frequently gets lost in descriptions of depression is that the depressed person often knows that it is a ludicrous condition to feel so disabled by the ordinary business of quotidian life. And so, while (the depression) was going on, I became annoyed at myself, because I knew that what I was experiencing was idiotic. It was nonetheless vivid and physical and acute, and I was helpless in its grip.
Then the anxiety set in. If someone told me I had to be depressed for the next month, I would say that as long as I knew it was temporary, I could do it. But if someone told me I had to have acute anxiety for the next month, I would kill myself, because every second of it is intolerably awful. It is the constant feeling of being terrified and not knowing what you’re afraid of. [Anxiety] resembles the sensation you have if you slip or trip, that experience you have when the ground is rushing up at you before you land. That feeling lasts about a second and-a-half. The anxiety phase of my first depression lasted six months. It was incredibly paralyzing.
PBS: How did you initially find help??
Andrew: At the time, I was in treatment with someone whom I fondly call the incompetent psychoanalyst, who kept telling me that it was very courageous of me to avoid medication and to try to work things through at a psychodynamic level. I think psychodynamics are very powerful, and have gained great insight into my own depressive tendencies through continuing analytic work. But at that time, I was headed into a serious breakdown, which could have been controlled.
Now had my breakdown been controlled sooner, I wouldn’t have written my book, which would have been a shame for me professionally. But in other ways, things could have gone a great deal better than they did. I got sicker and sicker until one day I woke up and I actually thought that I’d had a stroke. I remember lying in bed and thinking that I’d never felt this bad in my life, and that I should call someone. And I was lying in bed and looking at the telephone on my night stand. And I could not reach out and dial the telephone. So I lay there for four or five hours, just staring at the telephone.
Finally the telephone rang, and I managed to answer it. It was my father, and I said, “I’m in terrible trouble.” After that, I finally sought antidepressants and began the serious treatment of my illness. For me, it took years of experimenting to find the right medications, and some considerable time to find the right talk therapist.
PBS: Can you describe what you do on a daily basis to stay healthy? ?
Andrew: When I began researching depression, I was a real medical conservative. I thought it was all about the meds. But now I believe that there are multiple elements involved.
For me, the medications are essential; I’ve tried going off them over and over, and I feel fine for a little while, and then I begin to come unraveled again. So I no longer make those rash experiments. I also see a therapist once a week for a 90-minute session, and I find that very stabilizing. Sometimes it feels like a little bit of a nuisance, but I know there is a trained professional keeping an eye on my mental health. My therapist can give me advice or steer me in directions that help me avoid catastrophe.
I also try to lead a fairly well-regulated life. Sleep is my great indulgence, and I get eight hours every night. Being chronically overtired raises stress levels in a bad way and is responsible for a lot of depressive breaks. I am not by nature strongly drawn to exercise, but I make sure that I work out at least three times a week, because studies have shown that regular exercise can be as effective as medication in bringing people out of a depressive state and in keeping them out of it. I also limit my alcohol intake (alcohol is a depressant). I avoid caffeine, and I am careful about diet.
Most of all, I try to keep my life in balance. I attempt to be among people who can countenance my occasional lapses. The secure knowledge that they are there can prevent those very lapses from taking place. And when I feel as though I’m getting super-stressed, I pull back. If I have another breakdown, it’s not going to be useful to anyone.
PBS: Do you still have low days? Are those days different now??
Andrew: Oh yes, I certainly have low days. I feel that in treating the depression, it’s not so much that I’ve become happier as it is that I can be unhappy in better ways. So instead of being utterly overwhelmed by the difficulty of taking a shower, I am overwhelmed by the difficulty of achieving peace in the Middle East. Instead of feeling that I’d rather be dead, I feel that the world is full of sadness that I’d like to help assuage.
That’s the poetic part. But I also just have blue days, or anxious days. And when I have such days, I always worry. Am I feeling just a bit sorrowful and have too much on my plate, or am I headed toward the abyss?
All that being said, sometimes it’s nice just to feel sad, and to inhabit the mood, and to feel like it’s not going to lead to total decay and that I can therefore live in it. It’s like coming to rest on the pavement but not sinking through it into the sewer.
PBS: What do you say to people who ask if you’ll eventually stop taking medication??
Andrew: I say to people that they don’t expect a diabetic to stop taking insulin, or someone with a heart condition to stop taking blood thinners. I have a chronic, lifetime disease and the only responsible thing for me to do is stick with my medications.
People wonder about medications’ long-term effects on the brain. I explain that while the medications’ effects appear to be reversible as soon as you stop taking them, the long-term effects of having repeated depressive episodes appear to be absolutely dire. There is lesioning of the hippocampus, and brain cells die. And this is in addition to the havoc that such repeated episodes cause in your daily life.
Imagine you have heart disease. You’re prescribed medication, you do better for a while, so you stop the meds. Then you have another heart attack, so you go back on the medication to get better. Twelve heart attacks later, what kind of shape are you in? It’s obviously crazy. If you have recurrent depression, you are not being “courageous” or “genuine” to go off your medication. You’re being foolish.
PBS: Can you explain the importance of balancing therapy and medication??
Andrew: Different treatments work for different people, and I am open to the endless possibilities out there. But for most people, a combination of medication and therapy is the surest-fire way to handle depression.
The medication alleviates the worst symptoms and lets you function again. It makes life and the world bearable. But once you have emerged from the horror, you need to learn skills for managing the illness. You need to understand where it comes from. You need to make your peace with the idea that you cannot be fully yourself without the use of medications or other support structures. And you need someone capable who can keep an eye on you.
Ideally, you also need to understand the structure of your own personality and who you are; this gives you a feeling of peace and allows you to get through a difficult time with dignity.


Click here to subscribe to Beyond Blue and click here to follow Therese on Twitter and click here to join Group Beyond Blue, a depression support group. Now stop clicking.

  • Ashley S

    Wow, what a helpful post. Especially the part about continuing medication as the responsbile thing to do. I’ve been on and off antidepressants/anti anxiety meds for almost five years, and have just recently began a new one. This time, I’m going to stick with it. Thanks for the encourangement.

  • my name

    “The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and it was vitality that seemed to seep out of me.”
    Wow – what a profound statement, and so true! Also the line about letting a mood settle on the pavement, rather than sinking into the sewer. I would like to be in counseling, but my last one was very mediocre and I feel overwhelmed at the process of finding a new one. At least that experience got me started on the healing path (e.g. I’m on antidepressants now).

  • Your Name

    I like the comparison to the iron structure that rusts and eventually collapses. I can relate to the feeling of being overwhelmed with life’s basic tasks. I remember one time not being able to go the store to buy toiletries. His advice on medication is solid. I’ve also accepted that I won’t go off. I went off once after 4 years of taking Paxil. I crashed terribly about three months later and have continued to take medication for the last 9 years. Exercise, regular sleep and a routine are important as well. Remember GRAPES – Gentile w yourself, Relaxation, Accomplishment, Pleasure, Exericse and Social activities. I just saw this on a show about Depression.

  • Barbara Bowman

    I like what he has to say, and how he says it.

  • Chi Straightener

    Ok, so I just returned my Chi flat iron, because frankly it sucks. IT didnt get hot enough and it didnt straighten my normal slightly wavy hair. Also it felt soo cheap. Well, i was at the mall today, and this guy from the kioski was trying to sell me this straightener called the AMIKA flat iron that retailed 250 or something like that. It worked really well, and straightened great, but i noticed that the heat only went up to 200 degrees. IT got really hot when i tried it on my head, but that was a shocker because the CHI says it goes up to 370, and it wasnt even as hot as the amika. Well, anyway, the guy said i could have the iron for 100 bucks with a shine serum and a hot iron stand for free. I only paid 75 for my chi, and I didnt really want to pay more than that for its replacement, but i would if it was worth it

  • Your Name

    Therese, thank you SO much for posting this. I am a big fan of Andrew Solomon and absolutely LOVE “The Noonday Demon!” It is very resourceful and real, and I’ve highlighted nearly the entire book–a great tool to turn to when I’m feeling depressed. I am encouraged by both his story and your story, as they give me hope for my journey with depression.

  • Christina W

    Once again, right on the mark of what’s inside me. I struggle with taking medication – been on it a year – because there is so much negative abut it – but when I think about losing this life line that has worked for me the anxiety I live with starts to turn to panick. More and more the “world” is realizing depression is a disease – not a character flaw or weakness. I’m realizing that too. Thank you again for this site – you have no idea how much it helps. And comforts.

  • susan

    I love Andrew Solomon. I read Noonday Demon right before a very bad hospitalization and recall throwing the book against the wall thinking it was no fair that someone could write so well and I how inferior I felt compared to him. Then I picked the book up again and started reading, I read it twice in two days….. absorbing falling in love with every word and relating.
    I still think he is one of the best living authors around, but instead of being upset , he motivates me to write harder and better, if that makes sense. But man, that book should be on everyone’s bookshelf- next to your magnum opus too Therese. You also motivated me. to write harder.

  • Ellen

    I love Solomon’s book and it has given me great comfort. I have been wondering lately about therapy and how much depressives and Bipolar individuals need this as a tool. I have been going regularly but feel bad about it. Like, stop complaining already… Can any of you share your experiences? And where would be a good place to post a question like this??

  • Jen

    This is – hands down – the BEST article I have ever read on depression. Absolutely the most helpful, the most honest, themost straightforward. THANK YOU for featuring it.

  • shut eye doll

    This interview is a Godsend to people suffering from Bipolar Disorder. How many times have we been told that we lack “Will Power.” Our reaction to this is varied – from wanting to kill the person who says it to believing it and going off medications.
    I’m one of the few whose Mantra is Compliance! Compliance! and Compliance. I have learned to ignore these IGNORANT people. Believe me it was not easy, but in the long run very worthwhile.
    Depression and Mania are very real illnesses and need very real Medications. Never never let ignorant people steer you from this belief.

  • David

    Excellent questions by Therese and thoughtful, insightful answers by Andrew. I’m a psychotherapist in Washington, D.C., and I see a lot of depressed patients so I hear a lot of descriptions of depression but Andrew nailed it by framing his depression mostly in lethargy, boredom and indifference, as well as feeling so overwhelmed by relatively minor tasks/activities. There’s a myth out there among the general public that depression is horribly debilitating, but for those in the know it is much more subtle than that. There are a lot of “walking wounded” out there.
    Also, congratulations to Andrew for firing his therapist and finding another who helped him. I’ve seen many patients who have stayed with their therapist for too long, getting poor results. If you’re not getting what you need from your therapist, whether it’s due to his/her therapeutic orientation or personal style, talk to him/her about it, and if need be, fire your therapist.

  • M.A.

    I found everything from this post useful. My favorite part, though was this comment: “I feel that in treating the depression, it’s not so much that I’ve become happier as it is that I can be unhappy in better ways.” It made me laugh, and view my illness realistically.

  • Jill

    This article was excellent, thanks so much for posting it! :)

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