The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression
is a 2001 work of non-fiction and memoir by American author Andrew Solomon. Drawing on his own experiences, Solomon attempts to advance a comprehensive description of depression, from cultural and medical perspectives. The Noonday Demon
won the 2001 National Book Award and was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize.
Solomon opens the book with his own highly personal thesis about the nature of depression:
“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. When it comes, it degrades one's self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection. It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself. Love, though it is no prophylactic against depression, is what cushions the mind and protects it from itself. Medications and psychotherapy can renew that protection, making it easier to love and be loved, and that is why they work. In good spirits, some love themselves and some love others and some love work and some love God: any of these passions can furnish that vital sense of purpose that is the opposite of depression. Love forsakes us from time to time, and we forsake love. In depression, the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaninglessness of life itself, becomes self-evident. The only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance.”
From here, the author outlines his own personal experience of depression, skewering some of the common misconceptions about it: for example that it’s “just chemical.” He makes gentle fun of the DSM V definition of depression while drawing on the insights of psychiatrists and neurologists to deepen his account (Solomon’s own background is in psychology).
Solomon describes his three episodes of “major depression” in detail, from early symptoms through to treatments, in order to provide a first-hand account of depression.
He considers the full range of treatment options available to the depressed, offering a clinical breakdown of their effectiveness and side-effects. Alongside the conventional treatments, such as medication and talk therapy, Solomon considers alternative treatments, some unrecognized by medical practitioners. He meets depressives who have chosen to endure electroshock therapy and other radical treatments. He describes his own trip to Africa to partake in a healing ritual involving blood sacrifice.
Solomon takes into account the many and various forms depression can take. He stresses that depression interacts with personality so that no two people have exactly the same experience. Nevertheless, he outlines in broad strokes the kinds of people especially susceptible to depression and the situations that can trigger an episode.
In a chapter on addiction, Solomon examines the interaction between depression and substance abuse. Drawing on his own experience with alcohol, he points out that a great deal of self-medicating substance use is not classified as “abuse” simply due to the cultural norms of a person’s context.
Another chapter concerns suicide. Solomon sets out the statistical link between depression and suicide; he discusses the trauma of his own mother’s suicide, considering the link between that event and his own depression.
Solomon turns to the history of depression, beginning with ancient authors and proceeding through early modern “melancholy” to Freud and the beginning of depression-as-illness. He debunks the myth that depression is a “modern” disease.
Solomon argues that the link between depression and poverty has been overlooked. He suggests that depression can cause a person to decline into poverty and even homelessness, and that the circumstances of poverty can cause depression or trap a sufferer in their depression. He points out that treating depression may be the first essential step in relieving homelessness, since many homeless people may be unable to take their place in society due to their depression. He argues that the failure to take depression into account severely skews academic and political attempts to understand and address poverty.
Considering the politics of depression more broadly, Solomon offers an overview of the way depression is discussed in public life and by lawmakers. He points out that the coverage offered by insurance companies varies enormously and unjustly, and that insurance companies and lawmakers alike have consistently ignored this unevenness.
Solomon asks “Why?” Why does depression exist? He summarizes the existing theories on the subject and the limited evidence that has been brought forward. He considers the possibility that depression has played an evolutionary role.
Finally, Solomon stresses hope: there is hope for sufferers now and in the future. He returns to his own story to explain that he has been able to recover from depression, find workable treatments, and lead a happy and productive life.