Tea and empathy with ‘Noonday Demon’ author Andrew Solomon
They say you should never meet your heroes. Especially, perhaps, the ones who helped define the person you’ve become. Yet here I am, having sweet tea and a thick wedge of cinnamon cake with mine.
Andrew Solomon is a writer, clinical psychology professor, human rights activist and TED talk celebrity. He is, to my mind, one of the great public intellectuals of our time. He’s beside me now, eating a cheese sandwich from a wicker basket.
Andrew has been important to me for years. His writing about depression made me understand my own – more clearly than any doctor, more powerfully than Sylvia Plath. He’s always been there to articulate my condition when I cannot. And that’s literally happened – once, when I was heart-deep and mute in a depressive episode, I emailed the link to Andrew’s TED talk (“Depression, the secret we share”) to my parents, friends and boss. The subject line was “This” and the text of the email just read “If you’ve got 29 minutes and 21 seconds, this is the clearest explanation of depression I’ve ever heard.”
I’ve bought his book, The Noonday Demon: An Anatomy of Depression, for several people who’ve needed it. My copy sits in my bedroom, well worn and re-read. I’m not a religious woman, but if I’m a zealot for knowledge, that book is my bible.
So perhaps you understand why I’m nervous meeting him, why I’m jiggling my feet in knee-high boots and holding my fingers to stop them from shaking.
I start our interview with a perfectly ordinary question: “How are you?”
Andrew reclines slightly as he regards me, raises an eyebrow above wide eyes, and speaks as though he’s broadcasting on a wireless. “You know, it’s funny, nobody ever asks me that,” he says, with New York in his voice.
“When they meet me, people say, ‘Oh, you seem so up, everything must be terrific.’ But I can’t walk down the street with a broad smile on my face every day. I’m so glad you asked because it’s not helpful for the story to be that I had this terrible depression once and recovered – and if you read my book, you’ll never hear from yours again either. To be honest, Kate, I’m a little fragile at the moment. I don’t feel absolutely depressed but I don’t feel as though everything’s perfect. It’s an acceptable grey space.”
“So,” I say, “you’re in an autumn.”
“Yes,” he says. “Yes.”
Over the years, I’ve collected metaphors for depression to understand it; one of the most beautiful belongs to Andrew. Depression comes in seasons, he writes. During the winter moods, you’re morose, vulnerable and broken. When that mood lifts, it’s like the coming of summer – it’s warm with relief and vitality – but if you know the illness well, you spend those days secretly preparing for the return of the cold. Spring and autumn, figuratively, come somewhere in between.
It’s autumn for me, too, I tell Andrew. I have bipolar disorder and even though I’m medicated and always emailing my psychiatrist, autumn still comes. I’m grateful for it really, having spent so much of my life hoping to survive the winters.
Something in the way Andrew answers my season question spurs me on. Now I feel like we’ve got a shared language on depression, I get bold. I ask him about love.
Recently, someone told me they couldn’t love me because of my condition, so I’ve been somewhat preoccupied with the notion. I ask Andrew whether his husband, John, has any mental illness.
“He’s suffered depression,” he says, clearly comfortable with my line of questioning. “Milder than mine, less dramatic than mine. He’s experienced it and been treated for it, so he’s no stranger to depression. We met on my book tour; he interviewed me. Talking about depression in a hotel in Saint Paul doesn’t exactly sound like the beginning of a great romance, but for us it was. Now, when people say to me, ‘You seem more stable and on top of things’, I sort of think, ‘Well, I’ve had good treatment and I have him.’ I don’t think you can prescribe love for depression but it’s a point of fact that it makes an enormous difference. When you have a sense of fairly solid love, it cushions you a bit. It’s a bit of padding.”
I know how alone depression can make you feel, even when you’re in the best of company. I know what a partner can mean. I venture this. “Someone,” I say, “to sit in the vicinity of your loneliness.”
“Oh, yes,” he says. “That’s very nice. I wish I’d said that.”
It’s a deeply lovely feeling, accidentally handing a sentence of your own to a writer who’s given you so many to cherish. “You can have it,” I say, beaming. Another of Andrew’s wisest sayings is that “depression is the flaw in love” and I want to know how that applies to fatherhood.
Andrew has four children and his children have five parents. There’s George, 7, who lives with Andrew and John in New York. There’s Blaine, 8, who lives in Texas with her mother. Then there’s Oliver, 16, and Lucy, 12, who live in Minneapolis with their mothers – friends of John’s, a lesbian couple who asked John to be the father of their children.
How much do the children know about his depression, I ask.
“Oliver and Lucy have the general idea. They haven’t read the book but I think they’ve watched the TED talk and they are aware of it. I’ve never discussed it with Blaine: I’m not with her all the time so there’s less pressure to do that. I’ve always been very careful how I describe it. I never want to say to them, ‘But when I’m with you I feel better’, because I think it places an enormous burden on children and I don’t want them to feel like they have to somehow save me from my depression.”
What about George, the youngest, the most present in Andrew’s life?
“Well, actually, it came up with George a little while ago,” he says. “We have some friends whose son very tragically committed suicide at 17. George gathered that he had died but didn’t know what he’d died from. We said, ‘Well, he was very depressed.’ George turns around and says, ‘But, Daddy, you get depressed; you’re not going to die from it, are you?’ I had never discussed this with him before; I don’t know how he knew. I say, ‘No, I’ve had lots of help from the doctors and I’m going to be fine.’ But I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be something to negotiate over time.’ ”
I don’t have children yet, but I’ve had a strong maternal instinct since the day I was born. Depression is largely hereditary and I fret that my future children will inherit my bipolar disorder. Andrew and I are almost an hour into our conversation now and it feels right to ask him a particularly tender question: Do you worry that your kids will get depression?
“Oh, I’m constantly looking to see whether there are any signs of depression in my children,” he says. “It’s my great fear. There’s a lot I’d like to pass on. But that? That is something I’d like not to pass on. I’m very vigilant in establishing a relationship where they feel like they could talk to me if they are experiencing a mental illness at any time in their lives. But of course, I’m scared.”
As usual, Andrew’s honesty is moving. It doesn’t take away my fear though. I still feel a great knot in my heart about the legacy of my illness. Thankfully, I think of something very silly to ask, to distract the both of us. In his books, Andrew says that when he was particularly bad, he listened to a “dopey musical” but never said which one.
When I ask, he answers with a grin, guessing that I would know the puppet-cast musical comedy Avenue Q.
And which song does he play on repeat, I ask, knowing the comfort of repetition when you’re down.
“It’s the final song,” he says, “and it’s called ‘For Now’. They sing: ‘This is for now, that is for now, everything is for now, George Bush is only for now, your hair is only for now.’ And somehow the message that it’s all just for now spoke to my depression because I’m not going to feel this way indefinitely. I mean, it’s a silly song sung by puppets in about four notes that are repeated over and over again, but somehow it was reassuring to me.”
And because we are writers and depressives both, I say, “Well, Andrew, I hope you know that your autumn is only for now.”
He smiles, takes my hand, asks me to call if I’m ever in New York, wraps his coat around his shoulders and leaves. I sit, for a moment, picking cake crumbs from my plate with a thumb. And that’s when I decide: I’m going to write with the kind of honesty Andrew always deploys. I’m going to write about mental illness until I feel like I’ve done him proud with the courage that takes.
And here I am, writing honestly. With the courage one of my great heroes gave me that afternoon.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2016 as "Autumn sonata". Subscribe here.