Andrew Solomon: Depression, the secret we share (3)
I was really moved by these experiences, and I decided that I wanted to write about them not only in a book I was working on, but also in an article, and I got a commission from The New York Times Magazine to write about depression among the indigent.
And I turned in my story, and my editor called me and said, "We really can't publish this." And I said, "Why not?" And she said, "It just is too far-fetched. These people who are sort of at the very bottom rung of society and then they get a few months of treatment and they're virtually ready to run Morgan Stanley? It's just too implausible." She said, "I've never even heard of anything like it." And I said, "The fact that you've never heard of it is an indication that it is news." (Laughter)
"And you are a news magazine." So after a certain amount of negotiation, they agreed to it. But I think a lot of what they said was connected in some strange way to this distaste that people still have for the idea of treatment, the notion that somehow if we went out and treated a lot of people in indigent communities, that would be exploitative, because we would be changing them. There is this false moral imperative that seems to be all around us, that treatment of depression, the medications and so on, are an artifice, and that it's not natural. And I think that's very misguided. It would be natural for people's teeth to fall out, but there is nobody militating against toothpaste, at least not in my circles.
People then say, "But isn't depression part of what people are supposed to experience? Didn't we evolve to have depression? Isn't it part of your personality?" To which I would say, mood is adaptive. Being able to have sadness and fear and joy and pleasure and all of the other moods that we have, that's incredibly valuable. And major depression is something that happens when that system gets broken. It's maladaptive.
People will come to me and say, "I think, though, if I just stick it out for another year, I think I can just get through this." And I always say to them, "You may get through it, but you'll never be 37 again. Life is short, and that's a whole year you're talking about giving up. Think it through." It's a strange poverty of the English language, and indeed of many other languages, that we use this same word, depression, to describe how a kid feels when it rains on his birthday, and to describe how somebody feels the minute before they commit suicide.
People say to me, "Well, is it continuous with normal sadness?" And I say, in a way it's continuous with normal sadness. There is a certain amount of continuity, but it's the same way there's continuity between having an iron fence outside your house that gets a little rust spot that you have to sand off and do a little repainting, and what happens if you leave the house for 100 years and it rusts through until it's only a pile of orange dust. And it's that orange dust spot, that orange dust problem, that's the one we're setting out to address.
So now people say, "You take these happy pills, and do you feel happy?" And I don't. But I don't feel sad about having to eat lunch, and I don't feel sad about my answering machine, and I don't feel sad about taking a shower. I feel more, in fact, I think, because I can feel sadness without nullity. I feel sad about professional disappointments, about damaged relationships, about global warming. Those are the things that I feel sad about now. And I said to myself, well, what is the conclusion? How did those people who have better lives even with bigger depression manage to get through? What is the mechanism of resilience?
And what I came up with over time was that the people who deny their experience, and say, "I was depressed a long time ago, I never want to think about it again, I'm not going to look at it and I'm just going to get on with my life," ironically, those are the people who are most enslaved by what they have. Shutting out the depression strengthens it. While you hide from it, it grows. And the people who do better are the ones who are able to tolerate the fact that they have this condition. Those who can tolerate their depression are the ones who achieve resilience.
So Frank Russakoff said to me, "If I had a do-over, I suppose I wouldn't do it this way, but in a strange way, I'm grateful for what I've experienced. I'm glad to have been in the hospital 40 times. It taught me so much about love, and my relationship with my parents and my doctors has been so precious to me, and will be always." And Maggie Robbins said, "I used to volunteer in an AIDS clinic, and I would just talk and talk and talk, and the people I was dealing with weren't very responsive, and I thought, 'That's not very friendly or helpful of them.'" (Laughter)
"And then I realized, I realized that they weren't going to do more than make those first few minutes of small talk. It was simply going to be an occasion where I didn't have AIDS and I wasn't dying, but could tolerate the fact that they did and they were. Our needs are our greatest assets. It turns out I've learned to give all the things I need." Valuing one's depression does not prevent a relapse, but it may make the prospect of relapse and even relapse itself easier to tolerate. The question is not so much of finding great meaning and deciding your depression has been very meaningful. It's of seeking that meaning and thinking, when it comes again, "This will be hellish, but I will learn something from it." I have learned in my own depression how big an emotion can be, how it can be more real than facts, and I have found that that experience has allowed me to experience positive emotion in a more intense and more focused way. The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and these days, my life is vital, even on the days when I'm sad. I felt that funeral in my brain, and I sat next to the colossus at the edge of the world, and I have discovered something inside of myself that I would have to call a soul that I had never formulated until that day 20 years ago when hell came to pay me a surprise visit.
I think that while I hated being depressed and would hate to be depressed again, I've found a way to love my depression. I love it because it has forced me to find and cling to joy. I love it because each day I decide, sometimes gamely, and sometimes against the moment's reason, to cleave to the reasons for living. And that, I think, is a highly privileged rapture.