This book took me a long time to read. I had to put a lot of effort in to reading it. Usually, that is a sign that I am finding the book boring, or a chore. That is not true in this case: the sheer effort involved here was to overcome the deep sense of sadness held within the pages.
Andrew Solomon’s comprehensive masterpiece on depression is an incredibly painful read, especially if the experiences described are familiar to you. I’m fairly certain that everyone knows someone who has at some time suffered from clinical depression (whether mild or major), and it is still even now treated with some awkwardness, to say the least. As Solomon points out, “our society has little room in it for moping” – a common phrase thrown at depressives is “pull yourself together”. Solomon relates an incredibly provocative life event (which lead to his third breakdown) in which he dislocated his shoulder pretty badly: knowing his own body and how he reacts to prolonged physical pain (they are a large cause of his depressive episodes) he calmly asked the doctors at A&E to look up his psychiatric history in order to hurry along pain relief. He knew that without pain control, he was likely to plunge into a deep depression. Rather than listen to their patient, and be sympathetic to his suffering by offering a psychiatric consult, doctors told him: “Pull yourself together and stop feeling sorry for yourself”. He was also accused of being “uncooperative” and “childish”. Solomon later lapsed into suicidal ideation and later ended up having a minor breakdown.
Solomon bases this book around his own experiences of major depression (including three breakdowns, thousands of dollars worth of therapy and a rainbow of medications) but this is by no means a self-indulgent, autobiographical look-in. He relates stories from many cultures and classes, from people of all walks of life, all sharing a terrible common ground. Solomon shows us the world of self-help groups, animistic rituals to cure depression in Senegal (the ndeup ritual, in case you want to pursue further reading), the quiet world of Greenlandic depression and the ignored population suffering below the poverty line. All are fascinating. All are equally distressing. Much of it made me angry. All of it moved me deeply.
You know what you’re getting in to from the first page of the first chapter: Solomon tells us, truthfully, that “no matter what we do, we will in the end die”. It does not get any cheerier, even when Solomon devotes a chapter to statistics. But it is illuminating: within the first ten pages, I was already thinking that this should be essential reading for anyone working with depressives, be they psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, helpline volunteers… It explains an awful lot, and does so without fear and without apology.
Solomon mentions in the foreword that he is not a doctor or a psychologist, and this is a purely personal book, with interpretations only, and is not a substitute for appropriate treatment. However, early on, he throws away common misconceptions about depression: for example, that it is “just chemical”. Well, if you want to be accurate, EVERYTHING is “just chemical”, but that doesn’t make it any less personal or painful.
Depression isn’t intrinsically linked to suicide, but a lot of depressives do think suicidal thoughts (even if they do not enact suicidal acts). It’s incredibly sad to consider the logic behind suicide: the pain so great that you wish everything could just go away, forever. Solomon includes a beautifully poignant quote from one of my old favourites, G. K. Chesterton:
The man who kills a man kills a man.
The man who kills himself kills all men.
As far as he is concerned, he wipes out the world.
But it is not all doom and gloom (hah!). Solomon also shares with us his journey towards managing his depression, as well as the stories of others, and how their lives were turned around by patience and treatment. The final chapter of the book is lovingly titled “Hope”, and Solomon ends his work beautifully, asking us to “Hold on to time; don’t wish your life away. Even the minutes when you feel you are going to explode are minutes of your life, and you will never get those minutes again”.
In his foreword, Solomon warns us that he is “not a doctor or a psychologist or even a philosopher”. I disagree with the last part, and I urge you to read this book.