“The Noonday Demon,” Part 2

the noonday demonContinuing with my thoughts on Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon, he dismisses “chronic poisoning” too easily in the “Alternatives” chapter; it’s not just one’s house that may or may not harbor harmful off-gassing and poisons, we are pumping the air, soil, water, food (GMOs anyone?) full of toxins and foreign substances.  Even if you do manage to live in a relatively clean home, you cannot avoid the relentless deluge of chemicals and poisons rampant in our world (and their constant mismanagement by the government).  He also claims, “If you have depression and try an exotic treatment and think you are better, then you are better” (137).  This can lapse into blaming the victim: all you have to do is think you are better and you are better!  If you’re better, it’s because you don’t think you are, as if depression does not drastically affect how you think in the first place.  But what qualifies Solomon to make such statements as, “Depression is a disease of thought processes and emotions, and if something changes in your thought processes and emotions in the correct direction, that qualifies as a recovery” (137)?  Not only does this again reinforce the idea that people who are depressed are so because they want to  be (especially without further specification on what *causes* disordered thought processes), but do we know enough about depression to definitively make such statements?  What of otherwise happy people who report being “suddenly struck” with a depression, like Frank on page 162?  Also, what is the “correct” direction?  Is hopelessness in the face of helplessness at a world thoroughly destroying itself an “incorrect” response?  Why all this pressure to be constantly happy?  Later he writes, “depression is a bodily affliction and the physical helps” (141).  Well, which is it: a thought disorder or a physical disease?  Not that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive but it’s not clear if Solomon conceptualizes it as both.

In his overly critical passage on natural substances vs. synthesized ones, he reveals where his bias lies: Solomon relays a “ludicrous ad” for St. John’s Wort, which claims that the gently dried leaves and cheerful yellow flowers kept “Kira, sunshine girl” in high spirits,” then states, “as if the gentle drying or the yellow color had anything to do with the efficacy of the treatment” (146).  But, didn’t he earlier say, basically, that, “if you think a treatment worked, then it did because depression is a thought disorder”?  Is he above this line of thinking, as if he “really” knows what’s effective but patronizingly concedes that some people can trick themselves into recovery by thinking that cheerfully yellow dried leaves makes them well?  Finally, while  “it should be remembered that many naturally occurring substances are extremely toxic” (146), it should also be remembered that many lab-made substances have black-box warnings on them.

I very much appreciate the chapter on populations.  The differences between depression in women vs. men, childhood depression, depression in the elderly and in other minorities all are very helpful considerations in the treatment of depression.  The chapter on addiction sort of gave me the impression that pills are the way to control mood but it mostly reinforced the fear I have of substances.  Solomon’s chapter on suicide was riveting.  If you read nothing else from this 450 pager, read this chapter.  I appreciated the sweeping chapter on history, if for nothing else than its reminder that the withdrawal from persons suffering under depression’s weight was, in the time of Saint Augustine, designed as a punishment; this should be taken as an indictment for the fact that we still abandon depressives today.  However, Solomon’s statement that “anxiety is distress over something that will happen; depression is distress over something that has happened” is far too simplistic, clichéd and can be alienating: I am deeply depressed about the future state of the environment, people’s rights, ability to have their basic needs met, etc., given the current complacency to corporate takeover and my powerlessness to do anything about it/my sense of meaninglessness and lack of purposelessness in life.  Those are very much future/present things, not past hurts, though I’m sure my sense of self worth and ability to commit to meaningful work has been very much affected by past events.

It is commendable to bring attention to depression among the poor as – and Solomon points this out – this is very often overlooked or assumed to be “just the way it is.”  However, I sharply disagree with Solomon’s prescription for treatment: drugs and talk therapy (336).  He does suggest that poverty alleviation is important, too, but claims that, since that is more “impractical” that treating the mental health issue, the latter should be pursued first.  Factually, this may be correct, but I’m a bit disappointed in the defeatist attitude toward the healing of social ills.  Yes, it’s hard to remediate gender and racial inequality, to close the appalling and ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, but we shouldn’t put it on the back burner simply because it’s hard.  We should work towards a fairer world AND attend to mental suffering equally doggedly.  He relays the story of Lolly, a horrifically abused woman with unimaginable hardship who was relieved to be diagnosed with depression because it meant there was something “specifically wrong” (341).  This makes me nervous: saying depression is a disease can imply that the only problem is the depression.  But what was “wrong with Lolly” was not primarily about her; it was how she was treated by others.  Abuse and neglect can cause depression, but the problem is not just depression and we should not claim final victory even when the abused person recovers from depression.  If Lolly could recover without medication – she says it was “simply” people caring for her that did it (342) – we need to think seriously about the role our treatment of each other plays in our well being.


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