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The Noonday Demon

There are books you read through, books you read into, and books with which you end up having a conversation. Andrew Solomon’s extensive 443 page survey on depression (not including the 55 pages of notes and 34 pages of bibliography) is such a book. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, a 2001 National Book Award winner and a 2002 Pulitzer finalist came to me by way of my then boss’s suggestion.

I think, at some point, I would have found this text on my own or through another avenue. The Noonday Demon has become essential to my understanding of how I move through the world. It gave me the vernacular to understand my own depressive disposition, my brother’s anxiety-driven depression, my mom’s displaced sadness, and, most surprisingly, it gave me a way to empathize with a father who I considered a monster.

I was scared of my father my whole life, and when I turned twelve I disowned him emotionally. Years of fear turned to hate, and that hate turned to recurring homicidal fantasies. Luckily, I did not kill him. Other than a few thrown dinner plates and a couple serious fistfights, my father was finally dispelled from my family after my mom found her courage and my parents divorced in my early twenties.

The Noonday Demon is part memoir and part journalistic report. Solomon creates his “atlas of depression” through his own personal accounts in and around his study of the science of depression, including the social, political, psychological, psychiatric, neurobiological, and pharmaceutical. In the chapter titled “History,” I learned that depression was called “melancholia” until the 17th century, which brings up images of a fainting couch – I would like one, please.

In chapter five, the section titled “Populations,” Solomon explores groups of people from different cultures, including homosexual men, women, teens, individuals with religious affiliations and so on. On page 178-179 Solomon asserts, “The literature makes much of the distinctive qualities of women’s depression and says very little about any distinctive qualities of men’s depression. Many depressed men are not diagnosed because they tend to deal with feelings of depression not by withdrawing into the silence of despondency, but by withdrawing into the noise of violence […].” He goes on to give three anecdotal stories (hardly scientific), but he deduces that, “The batterer who believes that hitting his wife is the only way for him to exist in the world manifestly buys into the idea that emotional pain is always a call to action, and that emotion without action negates him as a man.” Solomon continues on to reveal his own horrific episode of violence in which he beat his friend into the hospital, much like my father, who put my mom in the hospital on two occasions.

LIT_Andrew Solomon_young pic.jpg

For 29 years, I thought my father was soulless and inhuman. Then, on one page of Solomon’s incisive book, I found a person. Looking back, I realize that my father was massively depressed. This is not to excuse his bad behavior, or the emotional effects it still has on our family. My brother, my mother, and I are continually rebuilding our relationships. My father’s depression will certainly not make up for the damage it’s had on my own and my brother’s mental development as children. Scientific studies have revealed that individuals who grow up in abusive homes have higher stress responses which release cortisol. Continual and high releases of cortisol has been shown to negatively effect the hippocampus, which plays a role in the ability to remember new information. To make matters worse, increased stress on the brain has shown measurable reduction in the size of the amygdala, which performs a primary function in the processing of memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions. Intelligence is measured by one's ability to retain information, and abuse is detrimental to this intellectual development.

For example, my 23-year-old brother complains about his poor memory. Even the smallest decisions tend to incapacitate him. Constant anxiety makes it hard for him to develop relationships. He's a smart and empathic person, but he has a distorted perception of himself that often manifests in antisocial behaviors. He has the debilitating fear of failure – in everything, even the smallest social interactions – that causes him to retreat from the world. There was a point when my brother was happy as a child. I have faith that he will be able to live a healthier less pained life if only he learns how to recognize this amorphous disease, we call depression. Studies show brain plasticity (changes in brain matter manifest as changes in our abilities, and vice versa) well into old age, meaning that there's hope to build new neural pathways from the trenches dug into our minds by depression.

My father was a ticking time bomb. He slept a lot, and would go hours without speaking, then suddenly, he would lash out. He ruined every holiday, birthday, vacation, and even our sit-down meals, until our family stopped eating together at all. He referred to my mom as a whore. He kicked me in the stomach when I was five years old, because I couldn’t get out of his way fast enough. He was less abusive to my brother, but no less harmful.

Most traditional Chinese men value their sons more than their daughters, but he still neglected the most basic needs of my brother. There was no hope for my father, he was too proud to admit that he needed help, and probably too scared of being emasculated. I don't even know if he knew he was depressed. But I assume because of his behavior that he at least knew he was angry. To re-quote Solomon, “The batterer who believes that hitting his wife is the only way for him to exist in the world manifestly buys into the idea that emotional pain is always a call to action, and that emotion without action negates him as a man.” He was a terrible father, but he’s a human being, and he was suffering. I know that now.

Solomon uses the personal and the impersonal, the anecdotal and factual, to build what I can only call the most humane overview of an affliction that is essentially invisible and grossly misunderstood by all except those who are experiencing it. Solomon aptly quotes Emily Dickinson, who described depression as “a funeral in the brain.” The symptoms are mercurial and idiosyncratic to the individual, and because most of us who suffer depression have all our limbs and no visible deformities, it’s hard to perceive that anything is wrong. To most, a person who can’t interact with the world should be avoided, except she might be someone’s mother, or sister, worthy of empathy.

Stay Backwords,

Jenny M. Chu

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