Andrew Solomon: Depression, the secret we share (2)
A lot of the time, what they are expressing is not illness, but insight, and one comes to think what's really extraordinary is that most of us know about those existential questions and they don't distract us very much. There was a study I particularly liked in which a group of depressed and a group of non-depressed people were asked to play a video game for an hour, and at the end of the hour, they were asked how many little monsters they thought they had killed. The depressive group was usually accurate to within about 10 percent, and the non-depressed people guessed between 15 and 20 times as many little monsters --
as they had actually killed.
A lot of people said, when I chose to write about my depression, that it must be very difficult to be out of that closet, to have people know. They said, "Do people talk to you differently?" I said, "Yes, people talk to me differently. They talk to me differently insofar as they start telling me about their experience, or their sister's experience, or their friend's experience. Things are different because now I know that depression is the family secret that everyone has.
I went a few years ago to a conference, and on Friday of the three-day conference, one of the participants took me aside, and she said, "I suffer from depression and I'm a little embarrassed about it, but I've been taking this medication, and I just wanted to ask you what you think?" And so I did my best to give her such advice as I could. And then she said, "You know, my husband would never understand this. He's really the kind of guy to whom this wouldn't make any sense, so, you know, it's just between us." And I said, "Yes, that's fine." On Sunday of the same conference, her husband took me aside,
and he said, "My wife wouldn't think that I was really much of a guy if she knew this, but I've been dealing with this depression and I'm taking some medication, and I wondered what you think?" They were hiding the same medication in two different places in the same bedroom.
And I said that I thought communication within the marriage might be triggering some of their problems.
But I was also struck by the burdensome nature of such mutual secrecy. Depression is so exhausting. It takes up so much of your time and energy, and silence about it, it really does make the depression worse.
And then I began thinking about all the ways people make themselves better. I'd started off as a medical conservative. I thought there were a few kinds of therapy that worked, it was clear what they were -- there was medication, there were certain psychotherapies, there was possibly electroconvulsive treatment, and that everything else was nonsense. But then I discovered something. If you have brain cancer, and you say that standing on your head for 20 minutes every morning makes you feel better, it may make you feel better, but you still have brain cancer, and you'll still probably die from it. But if you say that you have depression, and standing on your head for 20 minutes every day makes you feel better, then it's worked, because depression is an illness of how you feel, and if you feel better, then you are effectively not depressed anymore. So I became much more tolerant of the vast world of alternative treatments.
And I get letters, I get hundreds of letters from people writing to tell me about what's worked for them. Someone was asking me backstage today about meditation. My favorite of the letters that I got was the one that came from a woman who wrote and said that she had tried therapy, medication, she had tried pretty much everything, and she had found a solution and hoped I would tell the world, and that was making little things from yarn.
She sent me some of them.
And I'm not wearing them right now. (Laughter)
I suggested to her that she also should look up obsessive compulsive disorder in the DSM.
And yet, when I went to look at alternative treatments, I also gained perspective on other treatments. I went through a tribal exorcism in Senegal that involved a great deal of ram's blood and that I'm not going to detail right now, but a few years afterwards I was in Rwanda, working on a different project, and I happened to describe my experience to someone, and he said, "Well, that's West Africa, and we're in East Africa, and our rituals are in some ways very different, but we do have some rituals that have something in common with what you're describing." And he said, "But we've had a lot of trouble with Western mental health workers, especially the ones who came right after the genocide." I said, "What kind of trouble did you have?" And he said, "Well, they would do this bizarre thing. They didn't take people out in the sunshine where you begin to feel better. They didn't include drumming or music to get people's blood going. They didn't involve the whole community. They didn't externalize the depression as an invasive spirit. Instead what they did was they took people one at a time into dingy little rooms and had them talk for an hour about bad things that had happened to them." (Laughter)
He said, "We had to ask them to leave the country." (Laughter)
Now at the other end of alternative treatments, let me tell you about Frank Russakoff. Frank Russakoff had the worst depression perhaps that I've ever seen in a man. He was constantly depressed. He was, when I met him, at a point at which every month, he would have electroshock treatment. Then he would feel sort of disoriented for a week. Then he would feel okay for a week. Then he would have a week of going downhill. And then he would have another electroshock treatment. And he said to me when I met him, "It's unbearable to go through my weeks this way. I can't go on this way, and I've figured out how I'm going to end it if I don't get better." "But," he said to me, "I heard about a protocol at Mass General for a procedure called a cingulotomy, which is a brain surgery, and I think I'm going to give that a try." And I remember being amazed at that point to think that someone who clearly had so many bad experiences with so many different treatments still had buried in him, somewhere, enough optimism to reach out for one more. And he had the cingulotomy, and it was incredibly successful.
He's now a friend of mine. He has a lovely wife and two beautiful children. He wrote me a letter the Christmas after the surgery, and he said, "My father sent me two presents this year, First, a motorized CD rack from The Sharper Image that I didn't really need, but I knew he was giving it to me to celebrate the fact that I'm living on my own and have a job I seem to love. And the other present was a photo of my grandmother, who committed suicide. As I unwrapped it, I began to cry, and my mother came over and said, 'Are you crying because of the relatives you never knew?' And I said, 'She had the same disease I have.' I'm crying now as I write to you. It's not that I'm so sad, but I get overwhelmed, I think, because I could have killed myself, but my parents kept me going, and so did the doctors, and I had the surgery. I'm alive and grateful. We live in the right time, even if it doesn't always feel like it." I was struck by the fact that depression is broadly perceived to be a modern, Western, middle-class thing, and I went to look at how it operated in a variety of other contexts, and one of the things I was most interested in was depression among the indigent. And so I went out to try to look at what was being done for poor people with depression. And what I discovered is that poor people are mostly not being treated for depression. Depression is the result of a genetic vulnerability, which is presumably evenly distributed in the population, and triggering circumstances, which are likely to be more severe for people who are impoverished. And yet it turns out that if you have a really lovely life but feel miserable all the time, you think, "Why do I feel like this? I must have depression." And you set out to find treatment for it. But if you have a perfectly awful life, and you feel miserable all the time, the way you feel is commensurate with your life, and it doesn't occur to you to think, "Maybe this is treatable." And so we have an epidemic in this country of depression among impoverished people that's not being picked up and that's not being treated and that's not being addressed, and it's a tragedy of a grand order. And so I found an academic who was doing a research project in slums outside of D.C., where she picked up women who had come in for other health problems and diagnosed them with depression, and then provided six months of the experimental protocol. One of them, Lolly, came in, and this is what she said the day she came in. She said, and she was a woman, by the way, who had seven children. She said, "I used to have a job but I had to give it up because I couldn't go out of the house. I have nothing to say to my children. In the morning, I can't wait for them to leave, and then I climb in bed and pull the covers over my head, and three o'clock when they come home, it just comes so fast." She said, "I've been taking a lot of Tylenol, anything I can take so that I can sleep more. My husband has been telling me I'm stupid, I'm ugly. I wish I could stop the pain." Well, she was brought into this experimental protocol, and when I interviewed her six months later, she had taken a job working in childcare for the U.S. Navy, she had left the abusive husband, and she said to me, "My kids are so much happier now." She said, "There's one room in my new place for the boys and one room for the girls, but at night, they're just all up on my bed, and we're doing homework all together and everything. One of them wants to be a preacher, one of them wants to be a firefighter, and one of the girls says she's going to be a lawyer. They don't cry like they used to, and they don't fight like they did. That's all I need now, is my kids. Things keep on changing, the way I dress, the way I feel, the way I act. I can go outside not being afraid anymore, and I don't think those bad feelings are coming back, and if it weren't for Dr. Miranda and that, I would still be at home with the covers pulled over my head, if I were still alive at all. I asked the Lord to send me an angel, and He heard my prayers."