In high school, I spent Saturday afternoons in the public library, because I was awesomely neurotic even then, and loved the smell of books that had been read and handled by other people. I came home with all sorts of things, but at the moment, the book I remember is Listening to Prozac, by Peter Kramer.
When my mother saw the book, she said, angrily, “This does not make you my psychiatrist.” I didn’t think that it did, but I thought that maybe it could have been mine, although after my mother’s comment, I couldn’t even look at the book.
The other day in the bookstore, I came across a copy of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, by Andrew Solomon. I must have seen it a hundred times before, but in the way books find you when it’s the right time to read them, there it was. I finished the book last night, and it is covered in pencil marks.
The book is giant, an examination of the history and politics of depression, as well as treatments/alternatives, suicide, and the intersection of depression with gender, class and race, as well as Solomon’s accounts of his own breakdowns.
It’s both lovely and scary to have someone’s experiences clearly reflect your own patterns and thoughts, and yet, one of the most restorative moments of the book was Solomon’s assertion that everyone’s depression is different. As I read, I kept thinking, everyone in here is on more drugs than I am. Maybe I’m lucky? Maybe I’m not really depressed? Maybe I’m just lazy? (I am wondering if it’s a hallmark of depression in women that so many of us try so hard to subsume our symptoms and question if our suffering is real.)
In addition to what’s been going on with me lately, I can think of two specific instances when I knew I was crumbling, and both times I was committed to hiding it. The first was when I was eleven, which I only see in retrospect, of course, and the other was the year my mother died, when it came in waves. The people around me probably saw it, but I still felt like I couldn’t reveal the depth of my fear. It’s hard to understand it or explain it when it’s happening. There were a thousand times, and a thousand ways in which I could have asked for help, people who were waiting and willing, and yet when you’re in it, it’s impossible to see a way out, even when someone is offering it. The level of self absorption is outstanding, that’s one of nastiest parts.
My plan is to read a lot more about depression now, specifically in regard to women, while trying to get up above my brain and stay there. This will not be fun, or easy, and I anticipate failure, at least once, but maybe I’ll be able to apply something I’ve learned. The poet Jane Kenyon wrote about her emergence from a breakdown, how surprising and fragile the world seems now:
“….With the wonder
and bitterness of someone pardoned
for a crime she did not commit
I come back to marriage and friends,
to pink fringed hollyhocks; come back
to my desk, books, and chair.”