Darkness at Noon

Article excerpt


Few people know depression with such cruel intimacy as Andrew Solomon.

Three times in the past seven years he has endured severe breakdowns. Then, as he struggled to keep his illness at bay, he began to explore it from a different, more scientific perspective. A graduate of Yale and Cambridge, he researched depression with academic rigour: his own and other people's, across time and cultures. The result is a book, The Noonday Demon, which combines philosophical, medical and historical insights with the most intimate personal revelation. It is a painfully honest, sometimes shocking account of how a charismatic, intellectually brilliant young man dealt with an illness so devastating that it almost killed him.

Published next month, the book examines the social and medical realities of depression, and the drugs intended to control it. It tells the stories of others, in different cultures and societies, whose lives have been shattered by the disease. Against this comprehensive background, Solomon's own experiences, described with unforgiving honesty, take on a deeper resonance.

Few books are as powerful or as controversial, as distressing or, at times, as wryly humorous.

It is for these qualities that The Noonday Demon is poised to become a classic of our time: a key text for a generation that, more than any other, has depression at its core. Waiting to meet its author, you cannot help but feel something approaching trepidation. Reading his book, I already feel I have explored some of the deepest, most anguished regions of his mind: from the sleepless nights in which he hugged his pillow for comfort, through the moment he assisted in his mother's death, to his deliberate, bizarre quest to become HIV positive.

Rarely have I known so much of the inner turmoil of someone I have never met.

So, when Solomon arrives, bouncing into my hotel room in suit and tie, it is almost a relief. At 37, dark-haired and dapper, he exudes quick-witted energy. For one so afflicted by depression, he seems - on the surface, anyway - utterly functional.

To those who have never experienced it, Solomon acknowledges, that overpowering bleakness is hard to comprehend. 'The closest you'll feel is if you wake up from a frightening dream in the small hours of the morning. It's that panic and confusion that dissipates when you turn the light on. Imagine that, but that it is extended over time.'

The title of his book is a quotation from the Bible's 90th or 91st psalm (depending on the translation) which describes how other demons come to you at midnight, but depression is the demon that visits you even at noon.

Born into a middle-class family in New York, he was a highly intelligent child and went on to study at Yale. He then took an English degree at Jesus College, Cambridge - 'a blissful time of my life' - where he gained the top first in his year. He loved Britain, and stayed on in London, becoming art sales correspondent for Harpers & Queen. His first book, a study of Soviet artists during Glasnost, was published.

Then, at the start of his thirties, depression set in. In the book, he describes how, emerging from his illness, he was reminded of a vine that entwines and saps the strength of a great oak. 'It had been a sucking thing that had wrapped itself around me, ugly and grotesque and more alive than I,' he writes.

'It had had a life of its own that bit by bit asphyxiated all of my life out of me. Its tendrils threatened to pulverise my mind and my courage and my stomach, and crack my bones and desiccate my body. It went on glutting itself on me when there seemed nothing left to feed it.'

For Solomon, drug therapy was the salvation that hacked through the vines.

Even now, two years on from his third breakdown, he relies on drugs to prevent a relapse. His 'little cocktail of anti- depressants' are mostly SSRIs (selective serotin-reuptake inhibitors), in the same family as Prozac. …