Miércoles 5 de Junio de 2002, Ip nº 16

Compiling 'an atlas of depression'
Por Todd Leopold

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- It wasn't easy, Andrew Solomon says, writing his National Book Award-winning work, "The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression."

He traveled to Senegal to take part in a ceremony intended to rid people of mental illness. He went to Greenland to explore the incidence of depression in the Inuit. He talked to mental health professionals, United States senators, drug addicts and other people coping with various facets of the disease.

But, most notably, he took an inner journey, exposing his own addictions, prescriptions, history, emotions, and bouts with his own unsleeping demons.

"People have asked me if writing the book was cathartic," says the well-spoken Solomon, 38, nattily dressed for a day of interviews in Atlanta. "The short answer is no. It was upsetting and painful. But if I'd wanted to cheer myself up, I'd have written about balloons or something."

He wrote the book, he continues, because "I felt a great sense of urgency. I wanted to articulate things that had not been articulated before."

Approaching darkness

The origins of "The Noonday Demon" (Simon & Schuster, now in paperback) came from a 1998 article Solomon wrote for The New Yorker, "The Anatomy of Melancholy."

Depression, particularly in these days of readily available antidepressant drugs, has an image of "a modern, middle-class illness," Solomon says. "I wanted to show that it was part of the human condition."

It had been perplexing part of Solomon's own condition for several years. As he writes, "I did not experience depression until after I had pretty much solved my problems." He'd survived his mother's death and had become a successful writer; he describes his childhood as happy and his life until his depression as containing no more than the usual ups and downs.

Then, suddenly, he started slipping into darkness. He burst into tears at the thought of his analyst -- whom he'd started seeing after his mother's death -- retiring. He was overcome by fear and dread and didn't want to leave his apartment.

Finally, realizing he needed help, he moved into his father's apartment and started taking medication. (The book is dedicated to his father, CEO of Forest Laboratories -- which makes the antidepressant Celexa -- who has remained steadfastly supportive. "We used to have a tense, brittle relationship marked by constant argument; now we are incredibly close and hardly ever argue at all," Solomon has written.)

But still, in the dim light of his illness, he was left with loose threads, unanswered questions. He had tried answering these thoughts by reading voraciously, but his book research wasn't providing any succor, so he set out to find the answers himself.

What he discovered is that, despite all the information about depression that has come out in the last 15 years or so -- that it's a disease as much chemical and physiological as psychological, that it's been a part of human history since time immemorial, that, according to National Institute of Mental Health statistics, 18.8 million Americans suffer from depressive illnesses each year -- the affliction still retains its stigma.

"I'm amazed by the perceptions and stigmas associated with depression," he says.

When he's attended gatherings and talked about his depression, he says, people laugh in an apologetic, that-happens-to-someone-else tone. But eventually they approach, always quietly, one at a time. People tell him stories, in confidence; and if they've bought "The Noonday Demon," they've often done so anonymously, online.

"I feel like I've had a lot of praise for being so open," Solomon says. "I feel a little guilty. ... But if I won't speak openly, who is?"

'A lot of warmth'

And despite his own openness -- and that of others, including Mike Wallace and William Styron -- he ran across that stigma frequently in his travels.

Perhaps it was most pointed when he talked with politicians. Solomon spoke with Sen. Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico), who has been an outspoken advocate for improvement in mental health law. (The senator has a daughter afflicted with schizophrenia.) But, Domenici told him, many obstacles are in the way -- and they won't be removed easily.

"I was saddened by my meetings at Congress," says Solomon. "There are straightforward ways of making things better, but the senators say ... it's not going to happen."

Solomon is working with Tipper Gore, another mental health advocate, to see what can be done to raise public consciousness about mental illness and promote health-care legislation.

Despite its weighty -- and often downbeat -- subject matter, Solomon ends "The Noonday Demon" on a note of hope. It is possible to live with depression, he says, to cope with it and to lead a meaningful life.

He encourages people with depression to speak about the illness with friends and loved ones. "The people who have spoken out say it's been a positive experience," he says. "There's a lot of warmth that comes to those people."

And, he adds, the book has ultimately borne rewards for him as well. "Part of the objective in writing the book was to give people something to explain [depression]," he says. "It felt good to be able to provide that."

  21/05/2002. CNN.