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If you or anyone close to you has ever suffered from depression – real, total shut-down depression not the “blues” – then you know how devastating it can be for the individual and their loved ones. It diminishes productivity, ruins relationships, sucks the life out of life, brings careers to a halt – it can be, in essence, a living death.
The Noonday Demon is an excellent memoir in which Andrew Solomon discusses in depth his experience with depression and all he has learned about it through his recovery. In many ways, he speaks to the heart of anyone who has experienced depression, in any capacity – he doesn’t just tell his story – he is telling the story of a depressed person. The events and circumstances differ – but the feelings, the pain, the misery and the struggle are universal.
Mental illness – in American culture – is the loony uncle we keep locked in the basement – unwilling to acknowledge for fear of what the neighbors will think. It cannot be discussed; it scares people because it is, in so many ways, wrapped up in people’s own preconceived notions and the subjective nature of its diagnosis and treatment. We can all rally around the guy who was diagnosed with Leukemia – we can sympathize and categorize the illness so we do not feel discomfort personally. Not so much with mental illness.
Of course, there is an additional wrinkle with mental illness – a lot of it is self-imposed, it is a result of beliefs, habits and circumstances and is not medical. That being the case, it is easy for us to dismiss a diagnosis of depression as a sign of individual weakness – and sometimes it is – rather than an actual disability. A medical establishment that is ready and willing to provide a label, hand you a prescription and send you on your way compounds this. Mental health professionals are often focused on managing behavior, not changing the behavior (because it is REALLY hard!). This is compounded by the critical importance of individual desire and effort in their own health. Mental illness is not a tumor; it cannot be diagnosed and extracted by a third party. No one can do it but the individual himself or herself (with a lot of help and support) – the individual who is depressed (or anxious, or self-injures, etc.), who are not the best decision makers.
I appreciated the transparency and depth with which Andrew Solomon shared his story. If I have a disagreement with the book, it is with his total and complete surrender to his “disease.” I am still suspect about mental illness in many ways and believe that much of its impact on an individual can be mitigated through cognitive and behavioral modifications. I believe mental illness is real and is devastating for many families and individuals. However, I also believe that a small percentage are truly biologically or physiologically so. I think, a great percentage are a result of thoughts and behaviors, and that they can be helped through love, support, encouragement, treatment and personal effort. This does not necessarily mean that all can be “cured”, but they can retain control of their lives and thrive. Labels often become shackles, the very thing that limits our ability to thrive – there are many people who profit from these shackles, so – buyer beware. Labels become our identifiers, which have a huge impact on our overall opinion of ourselves – so if we call ourselves “depressed” or “anxious” we will be. You can feel depressed, or anxious – it is a feeling that can come AND go.
Of course, the real challenge is in figuring out, honestly, which is the case for you or the one you love. Is you brain wired this way, permanently, or can you get better. This cannot be accomplished alone – this is critical! This determination can come only after working closely with professionals, undergoing therapeutic treatments and working really hard – little by little your reality will reveal itself. What is really important, once you know, is to accept that as your reality – accept to stigma or feeling of