Jun 17

“The Noonday Demon”: Andrew Solomon Examines Depression

Listen to the people who love you. Believe that they are worth living for even when you don’t believe it. Seek out the memories depression takes away and project them into the future. Be brave; be strong; take your pills. Exercise because it’s good for you even if every step weighs a thousand pounds. Eat when food itself disgusts you. Reason with yourself when you have lost your reason. Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon

Recently I posted about Andrew Solomon‘s new TED talk “Forge Meaning, Build Identity.” Also pertinent to Minding Therapy is his 2001 The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, a book that’s both personal and sociocultural in scope.

Last year he gave the following TED talk, “Depression, The Secret We Share”:

If you’ve neither watched the above talk nor read The Noonday Demon, you may be interested in some of these quotes from The Noonday Demon:

The Opening Lines

“Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.”

The Nature of Depression

“Antonin Artaud wrote on one of his drawings, ‘Never real and always true,’ and that is how depression feels. You know that it is not real, that you are someone else, and yet you know that it is absolutely true.”

“Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance; depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance.”

“The most important thing to remember about depression is this: you do not get the time back. It is not tacked on at the end of your life to make up for the disaster years. Whatever time is eaten by a depression is gone forever. The minutes that are ticking by as you experience the illness are minutes you will not know again.”

What Helps Depression  

“The people who succeed despite depression do three things. First, they seek an understanding of what’s happening. They they accept that this is a permanent situation. And then they have to transcend their experience and grow from it and put themselves out into the world of real people.”

“A sense of humor is the best indicator that you will recover; it is often the best indicator that people will love you. Sustain that and you have hope.”

“It is important not to suppress your feelings altogether when you are depressed. It is equally important to avoid terrible arguments or expressions of outrage. You should steer clear of emotionally damaging behavior. People forgive, but it is best not to stir things up to the point at which forgiveness is required. When you are depressed, you need the love of other people, and yet depression fosters actions that destroy that love. Depressed people often stick pins into their own life rafts. The conscious mind can intervene. One is not helpless.”

Being on Medication

“Since I am writing a book about depression, I am often asked in social situations to describe my own experiences, and I usually end by saying that I am on medication.
“Still?” people ask. “But you seem fine!” To which I invariably reply that I seem fine because I am fine, and that I am fine in part because of medication.
“So how long do you expect to go on taking this stuff?” people ask. When I say that I will be on medication indefinitely, people who have dealt calmly and sympathetically with the news of suicide attempts, catatonia, missed years of work, significant loss of body weight, and so on stare at me with alarm.
“But it’s really bad to be on medicine that way,” they say. “Surely now you are strong enough to be able to phase out some of these drugs!” If you say to them that this is like phasing the carburetor out of your car or the buttresses out of Notre Dame, they laugh.
“So maybe you’ll stay on a really low maintenance dose?” They ask. You explain that the level of medication you take was chosen because it normalizes the systems that can go haywire, and that a low dose of medication would be like removing half of your carburetor. You add that you have experienced almost no side effects from the medication you are taking, and that there is no evidence of negative effects of long-term medication. You say that you really don’t want to get sick again. But wellness is still, in this area, associated not with achieving control of your problem, but with discontinuation of medication.
“Well, I sure hope you get off it sometime soon,” they say.

Life with Recurrent Depression

“The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality and my life, as I write this, is vital even when sad. I may wake up sometime next year without my mind again; it is not likely to stick around all the time. Meanwhile, however, I have discovered what I would have to call a soul, a part of myself I could never have imagined until one day, seven years ago, when hell came to pay me a surprise visit. It’s a precious discovery. Almost every day I feel momentary flashes of hopelessness and wonder every time whether I am slipping. For a petrifying instant here and there, a lightning-quick flash, I want a car to run me over…I hate these feelings but, but I know that they have driven me to look deeper at life, to find and cling to reasons for living, I cannot find it in me to regret entirely the course my life has taken. Every day, I choose, sometimes gamely, and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to be alive. Is that not a rare joy?”

May 26

Andrew Solomon: TED Talk “Forge Meaning, Build Identity”

When I introduce TED talks on this blog I usually stick to the shorter ones, recognizing that many readers lack the time or inclination to go bigger. Today, however, is a holiday, and thus I’m hoping you can fit in Andrew Solomon‘s recent “How the Worst Moments in Our Lives Make Us Who We Are.” About 20 minutes long, it’s a moving, eloquent, and personal presentation from an accomplished gay male about resilience in the face of adversity.

If you don’t already know writer Andrew Solomon, his most recent book is Far From the Tree (2012), a highly praised volume that “tells the stories of parents who not only learn to deal with their exceptional children but also find profound meaning in doing so.” When it came out I did a series of posts on it, which you can see here.

Here’s the TED talk, filmed in March and received with much acclaim:

Some Highlights

Okay, so you skipped watching it, but you still want to know what it was about.

To begin with, it’s about finding meaning in one’s life experiences—or, rather, forging meaning, in his estimation. Emphasis on making it versus looking for it.

Solomon talks about being disliked and bullied in childhood, particularly for being, or seeming to be, gay. He was once the only kid who (purposely) wasn’t invited to a classmate’s party, for instance. He also, throughout his school years, was continually ridiculed for being different.

As a result of his marginalizing experiences, Solomon learned to keep his own company. “I survived that childhood through a mix of avoidance and endurance.”

He also put a lot of effort into trying not to be gay, eventually putting himself through a type of sexual surrogacy therapy that of course didn’t work.

In adulthood Andrew Solomon has worked not only to forge meaning but also to build identity. He gives several interesting examples of how oppressed individuals across the world have done this. “Forging meaning is about changing yourself, building identity is about changing the world.”

About himself: “I’m lucky to have forged meaning and built identity, but that’s still a rare privilege, and gay people deserve more collectively than the crumbs of justice. And yet, every step forward is so sweet.”

Toward the end of the talk Solomon speaks about marrying his partner as well as having kids. He now regularly feels joy in his life, a feeling he’s not sure he’d now have were it not for his history of victimization and his quest to create meaning and identity from it.

Then he talks about the party thrown last year for his 50th birthday. In the midst of the celebration, his 4-year-old son George insisted on giving a speech. After getting everyone’s attention, he said, “I’m glad it’s Daddy’s birthday; I’m glad we all get cake; and Daddy, if you were little I’d be your friend.”

In closing, Solomon encourages us to share our struggles and identities with others. Why? Because it makes an important difference.

“Forge meaning, build identity,” he says. “And then invite the world to share your joy.”

Nov 23

Genius As Possible Disability: “Far from the Tree”

Prodigies are able to function at an advanced adult level in some domain before age 12. ‘Prodigy’ derives from the Latin ‘prodigium,’ a monster that violates the natural order. Andrew Solomon, Far from the Tree, on the “disability” of genius

In an essay Andrew Solomon adapted from his book for the New York Times, he notes that prodigiousness is most often seen in the areas of athletics, mathematics, chess, and music. Considering that we marvel at such gifted kids, why is being gifted with genius sometimes seen as a disability?

These children have differences so evident as to resemble a birth defect, and it was in that context that I came to investigate them. Having spent 10 years researching a book about children whose experiences differ radically from those of their parents and the world around them, I found that stigmatized differences — having Down syndrome, autism or deafness; being a dwarf or being transgender — are often clouds with silver linings. Families grappling with these apparent problems may find profound meaning, even beauty, in them. Prodigiousness, conversely, looks from a distance like silver, but it comes with banks of clouds; genius can be as bewildering and hazardous as a disability. Despite the past century’s breakthroughs in psychology and neuroscience, prodigiousness and genius are as little understood as autism. ‘Genius is an abnormality, and can signal other abnormalities,’ says Veda Kaplinsky of Juilliard, perhaps the world’s pre-eminent teacher of young pianists.  ‘Many gifted kids have A.D.D. or O.C.D. or Asperger’s. When the parents are confronted with two sides of a kid, they’re so quick to acknowledge the positive, the talented, the exceptional; they are often in denial over everything else.’

In pointing out how prodigies are still indeed children after all and not the adult-like creatures they may sometimes seem, Solomon offers this striking example: “One prodigy I interviewed switched from the violin to the piano when she was 7. She offered to tell me why if I didn’t tell her mother. ‘I wanted to sit down,’ she said.”

About the parenting of those considered to have genius, Solomon draws this conclusion from his research:

Half the prodigies I studied seemed to be under pressure to be even more astonishing than they naturally were, and the other half, to be more ordinary than their talents. Studying their families, I gradually recognized that all parenting is guesswork, and that difference of any kind, positive or negative, makes the guessing harder. That insight has largely shaped me as a father. I don’t think I would love my children more if they could play Rachmaninoff’s Third, and I hope I wouldn’t love them less for having that consuming skill, any more than I would if they were affected with a chronic illness. But I am frankly relieved that so far, they show no such uncanny aptitude.

Nico Muhly, from Far from the Tree:

Nov 22

People with Schizophrenia: Susan Weinreich, Elyn Saks

Please hear this: There are not ‘schizophrenics,’ there are people with schizophrenia. And each of these people may be a parent, may be your sibling, may be your neighbor, may be your colleague. Elyn Saks, author of The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness

Among people with schizophrenia who are open about it and have been managing it is Susan Weinreich, an artist diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. From Andrew Solomon‘s Far from the Tree, meet Weinreich:

Another woman who has come out about her schizophrenia is Elyn Saks—attorney, professor, founder of the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics, author of The Center Cannot Hold (2007), and speaker of the above-cited quote.

Saks explains how she’s survived (from CNN):

Everything about my illness says that I shouldn’t be here. But I am. And I am, I think, for three reasons. First, I’ve had excellent treatment, both psychoanalytic psychotherapy and medication. Second, I have many family members and close friends who know me and who know my illness. Third, USC Law School is an enormously supportive workplace which has been able not just to accommodate my needs, but to embrace my needs. Even with all of that — excellent treatment, wonderful friends and family, enormously supportive work environment — I did not make my illness public until relatively late in my life. And that’s because the stigma against mental illness is so powerful that I didn’t feel safe with people knowing…

Her story is also available as a TED talk of longer length:

Nov 21

Trans Kids Transition: “Far From the Tree” and “Beautiful Music…”

Trans kids are featured in Andrew Solomon‘s Far from the Tree as well as a new YA novel, Kirstin Cronn-Mills‘s Beautiful Music for Ugly Children. (See my previous post about Far from the Tree.)

I. Transgender chapter, Far from the Tree

In a recent review in The Huffington Post, Lisa Belkin relates one of Andrew Solomon‘s “Transgender” stories from Far from the Tree. Because adult child Kim, who’d been raised as Paul, is coming home for her father’s funeral, her mom recognizes the need to explain things to some folks. “‘I’m not responsible for my child and who she’s become, but I am responsible to her,’ Kim’s mother says as she spreads the word, ‘and she is a wonderful person. I love her. I don’t know if you need to know anything else, but that’s all I need to know.'”

Below, Kim Reed talks about dealing with transgender issues:

I watched the above video clip and realized that Kim is the same person featured in the documentary Prodigal Sons (2008). It’s for a different purpose that she returns home to Montana in this film—her high school reunion.

II. Beautiful Music for Ugly Children

The 18-year-old protagonist in a recently published Young Adult novel, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills, is just waiting to finish high school so he can make his transition from Elizabeth to Gabe.

“Beautiful Music for Ugly Children” refers to the radio show Gabe deejays. Music is very important to him, and, as Kirkus Reviews states: “Being trans, Gabe opines, is like being a 45 record with an A side and a B side.”

The importance of a support network for trans kids, including of course one’s family, is emphasized in many of the reviews:

 LGBT@Your Library: “The path is not at all easy and the book tackles a lot of difficult facets–from being bullied to gaining the acceptance of friends and family. It’s clearly not an easy road for anyone involved and Ms. Cronn-Mills didn’t shy away from those aspects. Acceptance wasn’t sugar-coated or made to seem easy, and readers will appreciate that honesty.”

Infinite Reads: “All in all, an often-sweet, sympathetic look at a talented protagonist who only wants to live his life without getting persecuted for his identity. Practical issues of transitioning come up several times, and teens might come away with some great new (to them) tunes.”

Kirkus Reviews: “While Gabe’s coming-out process figures heavily into the story, it is, refreshingly, only one aspect of his experience. The show-stealer here is John, a unique, well-conceived, funny and loving figure whose enthusiasm for music and endless support for Gabe provides solidity and warmth amid the many changes Gabe experiences.”