“The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression” by Andrew Solomon

Read in: March through August 2016
Edition and format: Scribner 2011/e-book
First published: 2000


“I lost a great innocence when I understood that I and my mind were not going to be on good terms for the rest of my life.”

It is going to be dashed difficult to separate the experience of reading this book from the experience of living with depression, just as it was impossible for the author to separate writing about it from living with it.

The great innocence lost that is referred to in the first quotation taken from the book is the sense of being able to rely on your own mind, at least, even when you feel like you can’t rely on anything or anyone else. And finding that this mind has a mind of its own and can work against you instead of for you is probably the bitterest disappointment and letdown that I don’t wish on anyone.

Therefore, I’d like to argue that the most authoritative voices on depression are those of sufferers themselves. Andrew Solomon tackles the subject from a variety of perspectives, ranging from the deeply and painfully personal to the medical and societal, all told with grace and depth.

We are introduced to the many ugly faces of depression, and more importantly, the many voices of depressed people, because each case is different from the rest, and in each case a different combination of factors has conspired to bring about the unwanted result, politics/policy and poverty amongst those Solomon explores.

“Sometimes I wish I could see my brain. I’d like to know what marks have been carved in it. I imagine it grey, damp, elaborate. I think of it sitting in my head, and sometimes I feel as if there’s me, who is living life, and this strange thing stuck in my head that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. It’s very odd. This is me. This is my brain. This is the pain that lives in my brain. Look here and you can see where the pain scratched this thing, what places are knotty and lumped up, which places are glowing.”

Among other new and fascinating things, this book introduces one of the most captivating theories for the cause of depression: the explanation of depression as a relic of evolution. It all serves to show admirably that this condition is valid and should be as visible as physical ailments, because the forces at work behind it are very real and cause almost unimaginable suffering to an unimaginably high number of people.

However, not all is bleak, because, as any good Wikipedia article will tell you, depression is highly treatable, and experience with it will teach you how to live with it. Nobody is happy all the time, not even those who, fortunately for them, don’t add depression to their list of medical problems. On the converse, however, nobody can be sad all the time either. There’s much comfort in the thought that feeling bad all the time is just physiologically unsustainable. The rain and the sun, you know, and all that rot. But, once again, Solomon makes a good point in explaining it:

“The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality, and my life, as I write this, is vital, even when sad.”

Vitality in the face of being unable to get out of bed yet again. Just because life is low doesn’t mean it stops. Depression is here to stay. So what? Like moving in with a new flatmate, your best bet is to get to know them. And now they have an entire atlas written about them.

Highly recommended for depressed people, those who think they might be, as well as their family and friends.

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