Award-winning writer and lecturer Andrew Solomon shared an account of his experiences with depression and anxiety to an overflowing crowd in Gasson 100 on Thursday. His talk, “Depression: The Secret We Share,” detailed the immense knowledge and understanding that Solomon has acquired from years of research and extensive interaction with people suffering from depression and anxiety all around the world.
Solomon, the author of award-winning bestsellers The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression and Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, speaks and writes on a variety of topics within psychology, politics, and culture.
After opening with a poem by Emily Dickinson, Solomon discussed his own personal journey of living with depression and anxiety.
“Part of what’s so poisonous about depression when you live it is the feeling that it will never end, that things will never get any better,” he said. “It’s the feeling of being completely out of control.”
The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, said Solomon, who described how people dealing with depression and anxiety come up with a mix of sometimes delusionary, but sometimes vividly realistic and accurate understandings of the world.
“You don’t think in depression that you’ve put on a gray veil and are seeing the world through the haze of a bad mood,” he said. “You think the veil has been taken away—the veil of happiness—and that now you are seeing truly.”
It can be rather difficult, according to Solomon, to bring positivity and optimism into the lives of people dealing with depression. Solomon said he has seen how intensely critical and self-deprecating the disorder causes people to feel about themselves and their place in the world.
Although depression manifests itself in significantly different ways from person to person, it is an extremely prevalent disorder within society—more people die from gun suicide than gun homicide in the United States every year, Solomon said. It is a commonly shared experience, yet it also appears to be generally hidden and covered up like a secret.
Solomon outlined the various obstacles there are when it comes to having open, honest discussions about depression today.
“People tend to think of depression as a modern Western middle-class illness, and I wanted to establish that depression has existed across time, it’s existed across cultures, it’s existed across socioeconomic groups,” he said.
People have been debating the most effective ways to overcome depression since ancient times, Solomon said—even Hippocrates and Plato had ongoing arguments about the nature of depression and the most effective ways of coping with it.
Another difficulty, according to Solomon, lies in the way people use the word “depression” itself. Since the word is used to describe such a wide range of emotions—from the way a child feels when his baseball game gets rained out to the way someone feels the moment before commiting suicide—it is easy to confuse grief, sadness, and depression with one another.
Solomon told the story of one of his college friends, who reached out to Solomon by email saying that he was feeling very depressed while he was studying abroad in Rome. Knowing his friend to be a cheerful and easy-going guy, Solomon wrote back an upbeat email kindly offering his support. The friend later committed suicide.
“My blindness to what was going on remains shocking to me and remains deeply, deeply sad to me,” Solomon said.
Solomon emphasized how important it is for people with depression to have good relationships with other people, and he explained his understanding of the relationship between depression and love.
“Love as we know it has to do with the sense of anticipation of loss, that sense of I might fall apart without this person—that sense of vulnerability—and depression is the extreme end of that vulnerability,” he said.
But Solomon also explained the positive results that have come from his relentless journey of coping with both depression and anxiety—Solomon noted how he believes he’s gained a greater and more in-depth understanding of what kindness and forgiveness are.
Solomon followed this statement by saying he sees the happiest parts of his life in a more dramatic contrast against miseries and difficulties he has faced.
In his final remarks, Solomon asserted the importance of compassion in our current political and historical context.
“I think we do live in a moment of a crisis in compassion,” he said. “The rate of hate crimes is up. I think everybody knows the extent to which we are integrating people who are different into our society is down. I think a lot of people have felt very threatened by the move toward greater openness.
“In this political moment, we need the voices of people who are acquainted with vulnerability to say that there should be love and justice for everyone,” he said.
Featured Image by Celine Lim / Heights Editor