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Andrew Solomon: Depression, the secret we share

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"The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and it was vitality that seemed to seep away from me in that moment." In a talk equal parts eloquent and devastating, writer Andrew Solomon takes you to the darkest corners of his mind during the years he battled depression. That led him to an eye-opening journey across the world to interview others with depression -- only to discover that, to his surprise, the more he talked, the more people wanted to tell their own stories.

- Writer
Andrew Solomon writes about politics, culture and psychology. Full bio

"I felt a funeral in my brain,
00:15
and mourners to and fro
00:19
kept treading, treading till I felt
00:22
that sense was breaking through.
00:24
And when they all were seated,
00:27
a service, like a drum,
00:29
kept beating, beating, till I felt
00:31
my mind was going numb.
00:34
And then I heard them lift a box
00:37
and creak across my soul
00:39
with those same boots of lead again,
00:41
then space began to toll,
00:45
as if the heavens were a bell
00:48
and being were an ear,
00:50
and I, and silence, some strange race
00:52
wrecked, solitary, here.
00:55
Just then, a plank in reason broke,
00:58
and I fell down and down
01:01
and hit a world at every plunge,
01:05
and finished knowing then."
01:07
We know depression through metaphors.
01:12
Emily Dickinson was able to convey it in language,
01:15
Goya in an image.
01:19
Half the purpose of art
01:22
is to describe such iconic states.
01:24
As for me, I had always thought myself tough,
01:27
one of the people who could survive
01:31
if I'd been sent to a concentration camp.
01:33
In 1991, I had a series of losses.
01:36
My mother died,
01:39
a relationship I'd been in ended,
01:41
I moved back to the United States
01:43
from some years abroad,
01:45
and I got through all of those experiences intact.
01:47
But in 1994, three years later,
01:50
I found myself losing interest in almost everything.
01:53
I didn't want to do any of the things
01:57
I had previously wanted to do,
01:59
and I didn't know why.
02:01
The opposite of depression
02:03
is not happiness, but vitality,
02:05
and it was vitality
02:08
that seemed to seep away from me in that moment.
02:10
Everything there was to do
02:14
seemed like too much work.
02:16
I would come home
02:18
and I would see the red light
flashing on my answering machine,
02:20
and instead of being thrilled to hear from my friends,
02:23
I would think,
02:25
"What a lot of people that is to have to call back."
02:27
Or I would decide I should have lunch,
02:30
and then I would think, but
I'd have to get the food out
02:32
and put it on a plate
02:35
and cut it up and chew it and swallow it,
02:37
and it felt to me like the Stations of the Cross.
02:41
And one of the things that often gets lost
02:45
in discussions of depression
02:47
is that you know it's ridiculous.
02:49
You know it's ridiculous while you're experiencing it.
02:51
You know that most people manage
02:54
to listen to their messages and eat lunch
02:56
and organize themselves to take a shower
02:58
and go out the front door
03:00
and that it's not a big deal,
03:02
and yet you are nonetheless in its grip
03:03
and you are unable to figure out any way around it.
03:06
And so I began to feel myself doing less
03:10
and thinking less
03:15
and feeling less.
03:17
It was a kind of nullity.
03:19
And then the anxiety set in.
03:22
If you told me that I'd have to be
03:24
depressed for the next month,
03:26
I would say, "As long I know it'll be
over in November, I can do it."
03:28
But if you said to me,
03:31
"You have to have acute anxiety for the next month,"
03:32
I would rather slit my wrist than go through it.
03:35
It was the feeling all the time
03:38
like that feeling you have if you're walking
03:40
and you slip or trip
03:42
and the ground is rushing up at you,
03:43
but instead of lasting half a
second, the way that does,
03:45
it lasted for six months.
03:48
It's a sensation of being afraid all the time
03:50
but not even knowing what it is that you're afraid of.
03:53
And it was at that point that I began to think
03:57
that it was just too painful to be alive,
03:59
and that the only reason not to kill oneself
04:03
was so as not to hurt other people.
04:06
And finally one day, I woke up
04:09
and I thought perhaps I'd had a stroke,
04:12
because I lay in bed completely frozen,
04:14
looking at the telephone, thinking,
04:16
"Something is wrong and I should call for help,"
04:18
and I couldn't reach out my arm
04:22
and pick up the phone and dial.
04:24
And finally, after four full hours
of my lying and staring at it,
04:26
the phone rang,
04:30
and somehow I managed to pick it up,
04:32
and it was my father,
04:34
and I said, "I'm in serious trouble.
04:36
We need to do something."
04:39
The next day I started with the medications
04:41
and the therapy.
04:44
And I also started reckoning
04:47
with this terrible question:
04:49
If I'm not the tough person
04:51
who could have made it
through a concentration camp,
04:53
then who am I?
04:56
And if I have to take medication,
04:57
is that medication making me more fully myself,
04:59
or is it making me someone else?
05:03
And how do I feel about it
05:05
if it's making me someone else?
05:07
I had two advantages as I went in to the fight.
05:09
The first is that I knew that, objectively speaking,
05:13
I had a nice life,
05:16
and that if I could only get well,
05:17
there was something at the other end
05:19
that was worth living for.
05:21
And the other was that I had
access to good treatment.
05:23
But I nonetheless emerged and relapsed,
05:26
and emerged and relapsed,
05:29
and emerged and relapsed,
05:32
and finally understood
05:35
I would have to be on medication
05:37
and in therapy forever.
05:39
And I thought, "But is it a chemical problem
05:41
or a psychological problem?
05:44
And does it need a chemical cure
or a philosophical cure?"
05:45
And I couldn't figure out which it was.
05:49
And then I understood that actually,
05:51
we aren't advanced enough in either area
05:54
for it to explain things fully.
05:56
The chemical cure and the psychological cure
05:58
both have a role to play,
06:01
and I also figured out that depression was something
06:03
that was braided so deep into us
06:06
that there was no separating it
06:09
from our character and personality.
06:10
I want to say that the treatments we have
06:13
for depression are appalling.
06:15
They're not very effective.
06:17
They're extremely costly.
06:19
They come with innumerable side effects.
06:21
They're a disaster.
06:24
But I am so grateful that I live now
06:25
and not 50 years ago,
06:28
when there would have been almost nothing
06:30
to be done.
06:32
I hope that 50 years hence,
06:33
people will hear about my treatments
06:36
and be appalled that anyone endured
06:37
such primitive science.
06:40
Depression is the flaw in love.
06:42
If you were married to someone and thought,
06:47
"Well, if my wife dies, I'll find another one,"
06:50
it wouldn't be love as we know it.
06:54
There's no such thing as love
06:57
without the anticipation of loss,
06:59
and that specter of despair
07:01
can be the engine of intimacy.
07:04
There are three things people tend to confuse:
07:08
depression, grief and sadness.
07:11
Grief is explicitly reactive.
07:14
If you have a loss and you feel incredibly unhappy,
07:18
and then, six months later,
07:21
you are still deeply sad, but
you're functioning a little better,
07:22
it's probably grief,
07:25
and it will probably ultimately resolve itself
07:27
in some measure.
07:29
If you experience a catastrophic loss,
07:31
and you feel terrible,
07:34
and six months later you can barely function at all,
07:35
then it's probably a depression that was triggered
07:38
by the catastrophic circumstances.
07:40
The trajectory tells us a great deal.
07:43
People think of depression as being just sadness.
07:47
It's much, much too much sadness,
07:50
much too much grief
07:52
at far too slight a cause.
07:54
As I set out to understand depression,
07:57
and to interview people who had experienced it,
08:00
I found that there were people who seemed
08:02
on the surface to have what sounded like
08:05
relatively mild depression
08:07
who were nonetheless utterly disabled by it.
08:09
And there were other people who had what sounded
08:13
as they described it
08:15
like terribly severe depression
08:16
who nonetheless had good lives in the interstices
08:18
between their depressive episodes.
08:21
And I set out to find out what it is
08:23
that causes some people
08:26
to be more resilient than other people.
08:27
What are the mechanisms
08:30
that allow people to survive?
08:31
And I went out and I interviewed person after person
08:33
who was suffering with depression.
08:36
One of the first people I interviewed
08:38
described depression
08:40
as a slower way of being dead,
08:42
and that was a good thing for me to hear early on
08:45
because it reminded me
08:48
that that slow way of being dead
08:49
can lead to actual deadness,
08:51
that this is a serious business.
08:53
It's the leading disability worldwide,
08:55
and people die of it every day.
08:58
One of the people I talked to
09:01
when I was trying to understand this
09:02
was a beloved friend
09:04
who I had known for many years,
09:06
and who had had a psychotic episode
09:08
in her freshman year of college,
09:11
and then plummeted into a horrific depression.
09:13
She had bipolar illness,
09:16
or manic depression, as it was then known.
09:17
And then she did very well
09:20
for many years on lithium,
09:22
and then eventually,
09:23
she was taken off her lithium
09:25
to see how she would do without it,
09:27
and she had another psychosis,
09:29
and then plunged into the worst depression
09:31
that I had ever seen
09:33
in which she sat in her parents' apartment,
09:35
more or less catatonic, essentially without moving,
09:38
day after day after day.
09:41
And when I interviewed her about
that experience some years later --
09:43
she's a poet and psychotherapist
named Maggie Robbins —
09:47
when I interviewed her, she said,
09:50
"I was singing 'Where Have All The Flowers Gone'
09:53
over and over to occupy my mind.
09:57
I was singing to blot out the
things my mind was saying,
10:00
which were, 'You are nothing. You are nobody.
10:03
You don't even deserve to live.'
10:07
And that was when I really started thinking
10:10
about killing myself."
10:12
You don't think in depression
10:15
that you've put on a gray veil
10:16
and are seeing the world through the haze
10:19
of a bad mood.
10:21
You think that the veil has been taken away,
10:23
the veil of happiness,
10:25
and that now you're seeing truly.
10:27
It's easier to help schizophrenics who perceive
10:30
that there's something foreign inside of them
10:33
that needs to be exorcised,
10:34
but it's difficult with depressives,
10:37
because we believe we are seeing the truth.
10:39
But the truth lies.
10:43
I became obsessed with that sentence:
10:45
"But the truth lies."
10:47
And I discovered, as I talked to depressive people,
10:50
that they have many delusional perceptions.
10:52
People will say, "No one loves me."
10:55
And you say, "I love you,
10:57
your wife loves you, your mother loves you."
10:58
You can answer that one pretty readily,
11:01
at least for most people.
11:03
But people who are depressed will also say,
11:04
"No matter what we do,
11:07
we're all just going to die in the end."
11:08
Or they'll say, "There can be no true communion
11:11
between two human beings.
11:13
Each of us is trapped in his own body."
11:15
To which you have to say,
11:17
"That's true,
11:19
but I think we should focus right now
11:20
on what to have for breakfast."
11:22
(Laughter)
11:24
A lot of the time,
11:26
what they are expressing is not illness, but insight,
11:28
and one comes to think what's really extraordinary
11:31
is that most of us know about
those existential questions
11:33
and they don't distract us very much.
11:36
There was a study I particularly liked
11:39
in which a group of depressed
11:41
and a group of non-depressed people
11:42
were asked to play a video game for an hour,
11:44
and at the end of the hour,
11:47
they were asked how many little monsters
11:49
they thought they had killed.
11:50
The depressive group was usually accurate
11:52
to within about 10 percent,
11:55
and the non-depressed people
11:57
guessed between 15 and 20 times as many
11:58
little monsters — (Laughter) —
12:02
as they had actually killed.
12:03
A lot of people said, when I chose
to write about my depression,
12:07
that it must be very difficult
12:11
to be out of that closet, to have people know.
12:12
They said, "Do people talk to you differently?"
12:15
And I said, "Yes, people talk to me differently.
12:18
They talk to me differently insofar
12:20
as they start telling me about their experience,
12:22
or their sister's experience,
12:24
or their friend's experience.
12:26
Things are different because now I know
12:28
that depression is the family secret
12:30
that everyone has.
12:33
I went a few years ago to a conference,
12:35
and on Friday of the three-day conference,
12:39
one of the participants took me aside, and she said,
12:41
"I suffer from depression and
12:44
I'm a little embarrassed about it,
12:48
but I've been taking this medication,
12:50
and I just wanted to ask you what you think?"
12:52
And so I did my best to give
her such advice as I could.
12:55
And then she said, "You know,
12:58
my husband would never understand this.
13:00
He's really the kind of guy to whom
this wouldn't make any sense,
13:03
so I just, you know, it's just between us."
13:05
And I said, "Yes, that's fine."
13:08
On Sunday of the same conference,
13:10
her husband took me aside,
13:12
and he said, "My wife wouldn't think
13:15
that I was really much of a guy if she knew this,
13:17
but I've been dealing with this depression
13:19
and I'm taking some medication,
13:22
and I wondered what you think?"
13:23
They were hiding
13:26
the same medication in two different places
13:27
in the same bedroom.
13:29
And I said that I thought
13:32
communication within the marriage
13:34
might be triggering some of their problems.
13:36
(Laughter)
13:38
But I was also struck
13:42
by the burdensome nature
13:43
of such mutual secrecy.
13:45
Depression is so exhausting.
13:48
It takes up so much of your time and energy,
13:50
and silence about it,
13:52
it really does make the depression worse.
13:54
And then I began thinking about all the ways
13:57
people make themselves better.
13:58
I'd started off as a medical conservative.
14:00
I thought there were a few
kinds of therapy that worked,
14:03
it was clear what they were --
14:05
there was medication,
14:07
there were certain psychotherapies,
14:08
there was possibly electroconvulsive treatment,
14:10
and that everything else was nonsense.
14:12
But then I discovered something.
14:15
If you have brain cancer,
14:17
and you say that standing on your head
14:19
for 20 minutes every morning makes you feel better,
14:20
it may make you feel better,
14:23
but you still have brain cancer,
14:25
and you'll still probably die from it.
14:26
But if you say that you have depression,
14:29
and standing on your head for 20 minutes every day
14:31
makes you feel better, then it's worked,
14:33
because depression is an illness of how you feel,
14:36
and if you feel better,
14:38
then you are effectively not depressed anymore.
14:40
So I became much more tolerant
14:42
of the vast world of alternative treatments.
14:44
And I get letters, I get hundreds of letters
14:47
from people writing to tell me
about what's worked for them.
14:50
Someone was asking me backstage today
14:52
about meditation.
14:54
My favorite of the letters that I got
14:56
was the one that came from a woman
14:58
who wrote and said that she had tried therapy,
15:00
she had tried medication,
she had tried pretty much everything,
15:02
and she had found a solution
and hoped I would tell the world,
15:04
and that was making little things from yarn.
15:07
(Laughter)
15:11
She sent me some of them. (Laughter)
15:14
And I'm not wearing them right now.
15:18
I suggested to her that she also should look up
15:21
obsessive compulsive disorder in the DSM.
15:24
And yet, when I went to look
at alternative treatments,
15:28
I also gained perspective on other treatments.
15:31
I went through a tribal exorcism in Senegal
15:34
that involved a great deal of ram's blood
15:37
and that I'm not going to detail right now,
15:39
but a few years afterwards I was in Rwanda
15:41
working on a different project,
15:43
and I happened to describe
my experience to someone,
15:45
and he said, "Well, you know,
15:47
that's West Africa, and we're in East Africa,
15:49
and our rituals are in some ways very different,
15:51
but we do have some rituals that have something
15:53
in common with what you're describing."
15:55
And I said, "Oh." And he said, "Yes," he said,
15:57
"but we've had a lot of trouble with
Western mental health workers,
15:59
especially the ones who came
right after the genocide."
16:01
And I said, "What kind of trouble did you have?"
16:04
And he said, "Well,
16:06
they would do this bizarre thing.
16:08
They didn't take people out in the sunshine
16:10
where you begin to feel better.
16:12
They didn't include drumming or music
to get people's blood going.
16:14
They didn't involve the whole community.
16:17
They didn't externalize the depression
16:19
as an invasive spirit.
16:21
Instead what they did was they took people
16:22
one at a time into dingy little rooms
16:25
and had them talk for an hour
16:27
about bad things that had happened to them."
16:29
(Laughter) (Applause)
16:31
He said, "We had to ask them to leave the country."
16:37
(Laughter)
16:39
Now at the other end of alternative treatments,
16:42
let me tell you about Frank Russakoff.
16:44
Frank Russakoff had the worst depression
16:46
perhaps that I've ever seen in a man.
16:49
He was constantly depressed.
16:52
He was, when I met him, at a point at which
16:54
every month he would have electroshock treatment.
16:57
Then he would feel sort of disoriented for a week.
17:00
Then he would feel okay for a week.
17:02
Then he would have a week of going downhill.
17:04
And then he would have another
electroshock treatment.
17:06
And he said to me when I met him,
17:08
"It's unbearable to go through my weeks this way.
17:10
I can't go on this way,
17:12
and I've figured out how I'm going to end it
17:14
if I don't get better.
17:16
But," he said to me, "I heard about a protocol
17:18
at Mass General for a procedure called
17:20
a cingulotomy, which is a brain surgery,
17:23
and I think I'm going to give that a try."
17:25
And I remember being amazed at that point
17:27
to think that someone
17:29
who clearly had so many bad experiences
17:31
with so many different treatments
17:34
still had buried in him somewhere enough optimism
17:36
to reach out for one more.
17:39
And he had the cingulotomy,
17:41
and it was incredibly successful.
17:43
He's now a friend of mine.
17:45
He has a lovely wife and two beautiful children.
17:47
He wrote me a letter the Christmas after the surgery,
17:50
and he said,
17:53
"My father sent me two presents this year,
17:55
First, a motorized C.D. rack from The Sharper Image
17:57
that I didn't really need,
18:00
but I knew he was giving it to me to celebrate
18:01
the fact that I'm living on my own
18:03
and have a job I seem to love.
18:05
And the other present
18:07
was a photo of my grandmother,
18:08
who committed suicide.
18:10
As I unwrapped it, I began to cry,
18:12
and my mother came over and said,
18:15
'Are you crying because of the
relatives you never knew?'
18:17
And I said, 'She had the same disease I have.'
18:20
I'm crying now as I write to you.
18:25
It's not that I'm so sad, but I get overwhelmed,
18:27
I think, because I could have killed myself,
18:31
but my parents kept me going,
18:33
and so did the doctors,
18:35
and I had the surgery.
18:36
I'm alive and grateful.
18:38
We live in the right time,
18:41
even if it doesn't always feel like it."
18:43
I was struck by the fact that depression
18:47
is broadly perceived to be
18:49
a modern, Western, middle-class thing,
18:51
and I went to look at how it operated
18:54
in a variety of other contexts,
18:56
and one of the things I was most interested in
18:58
was depression among the indigent.
19:01
And so I went out to try to look at
19:02
what was being done for
poor people with depression.
19:04
And what I discovered is that poor people
19:07
are mostly not being treated for depression.
19:09
Depression is the result of a genetic vulnerability,
19:11
which is presumably evenly
distributed in the population,
19:14
and triggering circumstances,
19:18
which are likely to be more severe
19:19
for people who are impoverished.
19:21
And yet it turns out that if you have
19:23
a really lovely life but feel miserable all the time,
19:26
you think, "Why do I feel like this?
19:28
I must have depression."
19:30
And you set out to find treatment for it.
19:32
But if you have a perfectly awful life,
19:33
and you feel miserable all the time,
19:36
the way you feel is commensurate with your life,
19:37
and it doesn't occur to you to think,
19:40
"Maybe this is treatable."
19:42
And so we have an epidemic in this country
19:44
of depression among impoverished people
19:47
that's not being picked up
and that's not being treated
19:50
and that's not being addressed,
19:52
and it's a tragedy of a grand order.
19:54
And so I found an academic
19:57
who was doing a research project
19:58
in slums outside of D.C.,
20:00
where she picked up women who had
come in for other health problems
20:02
and diagnosed them with depression,
20:05
and then provided six months
of the experimental protocol.
20:06
One of them, Lolly, came in,
20:10
and this is what she said the day she came in.
20:12
She said, and she was a woman, by the way,
20:14
who had seven children. She said,
20:18
"I used to have a job but I had to give it up because
20:20
I couldn't go out of the house.
20:22
I have nothing to say to my children.
20:24
In the morning, I can't wait for them to leave,
20:27
and then I climb in bed and
pull the covers over my head,
20:29
and three o'clock when they come home,
20:32
it just comes so fast."
20:34
She said, "I've been taking a lot of Tylenol,
20:36
anything I can take so that I can sleep more.
20:38
My husband has been telling me I'm stupid, I'm ugly.
20:41
I wish I could stop the pain."
20:45
Well, she was brought into
this experimental protocol,
20:48
and when I interviewed her six months later,
20:51
she had taken a job working in childcare
20:53
for the U.S. Navy, she had left the abusive husband,
20:58
and she said to me,
21:01
"My kids are so much happier now."
21:03
She said, "There's one room in my new place
21:06
for the boys and one room for the girls,
21:08
but at night, they're just all up on my bed,
21:10
and we're doing homework
all together and everything.
21:13
One of them wants to be a preacher,
21:16
one of them wants to be a firefighter,
21:17
and one of the girls says she's going to be a lawyer.
21:19
They don't cry like they used to,
21:22
and they don't fight like they did.
21:24
That's all I need now is my kids.
21:26
Things keep on changing,
21:30
the way I dress, the way I feel, the way I act.
21:32
I can go outside not being afraid anymore,
21:37
and I don't think those bad feelings are coming back,
21:41
and if it weren't for Dr. Miranda and that,
21:44
I would still be at home with
the covers pulled over my head,
21:47
if I were still alive at all.
21:51
I asked the Lord to send me an angel,
21:53
and he heard my prayers."
21:57
I was really moved by these experiences,
22:01
and I decided that I wanted to write about them
22:05
not only in a book I was working on,
22:07
but also in an article,
22:09
and so I got a commission from
The New York Times Magazine
22:10
to write about depression among the indigent.
22:12
And I turned in my story,
22:14
and my editor called me and said,
22:16
"We really can't publish this."
22:18
And I said, "Why not?"
22:19
And she said, "It just is too far-fetched.
22:21
These people who are sort of at
the very bottom rung of society
22:23
and then they get a few months of treatment
22:27
and they're virtually ready to run Morgan Stanley?
22:29
It's just too implausible."
22:31
She said, I've never even heard of anything like it."
22:33
And I said, "The fact that you've never heard of it
22:36
is an indication that it is news."
22:38
(Laughter) (Applause)
22:41
"And you are a news magazine."
22:49
So after a certain amount of negotiation,
22:51
they agreed to it.
22:53
But I think a lot of what they said
22:55
was connected in some strange way
22:56
to this distaste that people still have
22:58
for the idea of treatment,
23:01
the notion that somehow if we went out
23:02
and treated a lot of people in indigent communities,
23:04
that would be an exploitative thing to do,
23:07
because we would be changing them.
23:09
There is this false moral imperative
23:10
that seems to be all around us
23:12
that treatment of depression,
23:14
the medications and so on, are an artifice,
23:16
and that it's not natural.
23:19
And I think that's very misguided.
23:21
It would be natural for people's teeth to fall out,
23:24
but there is nobody militating against toothpaste,
23:27
at least not in my circles.
23:31
And people then say, "Well, but isn't depression
23:33
part of what people are supposed to experience?
23:35
Didn't we evolve to have depression?
23:37
Isn't it part of your personality?"
23:39
To which I would say, mood is adaptive.
23:41
Being able to have sadness and fear
23:44
and joy and pleasure
23:47
and all of the other moods that we have,
23:49
that's incredibly valuable.
23:51
And major depression is something that happens
23:53
when that system gets broken.
23:56
It's maladaptive.
23:58
People will come to me and say,
24:00
"I think, though, if I just stick it out for another year,
24:01
I think I can just get through this."
24:04
And I always say to them, "You may get through it,
24:06
but you'll never be 37 again.
24:08
Life is short, and that's a whole year
24:11
you're talking about giving up.
24:14
Think it through."
24:15
It's a strange poverty of the English language,
24:17
and indeed of many other languages,
24:20
that we use this same word, depression,
24:22
to describe how a kid feels
24:24
when it rains on his birthday,
24:26
and to describe how somebody feels
24:28
the minute before they commit suicide.
24:30
People say to me, "Well, is it
continuous with normal sadness?"
24:33
And I say, in a way it's continuous
with normal sadness.
24:36
There is a certain amount of continuity,
24:39
but it's the same way there's continuity
24:41
between having an iron fence outside your house
24:43
that gets a little rust spot
24:45
that you have to sand off and do a little repainting,
24:47
and what happens if you leave
the house for 100 years
24:50
and it rusts through until it's only a pile
24:52
of orange dust.
24:55
And it's that orange dust spot,
24:56
that orange dust problem,
24:58
that's the one we're setting out to address.
25:00
So now people say,
25:03
"You take these happy pills, and do you feel happy?"
25:05
And I don't.
25:08
But I don't feel sad about having to eat lunch,
25:10
and I don't feel sad about my answering machine,
25:13
and I don't feel sad about taking a shower.
25:16
I feel more, in fact, I think,
25:19
because I can feel sadness without nullity.
25:21
I feel sad about professional disappointments,
25:24
about damaged relationships,
25:28
about global warming.
25:31
Those are the things that I feel sad about now.
25:33
And I said to myself, well, what is the conclusion?
25:35
How did those people who have better lives
25:38
even with bigger depression manage to get through?
25:41
What is the mechanism of resilience?
25:43
And what I came up with over time
25:46
was that the people who deny their experience,
25:48
the ones who say, "I was depressed a long time ago
25:51
and I never want to think about it again
25:53
and I'm not going to look at it
25:55
and I'm just going to get on with my life,"
25:56
ironically, those are the people
25:58
who are most enslaved by what they have.
26:00
Shutting out the depression strengthens it.
26:03
While you hide from it, it grows.
26:05
And the people who do better
26:08
are the ones who are able to tolerate the fact
26:11
that they have this condition.
26:14
Those who can tolerate their depression
26:15
are the ones who achieve resilience.
26:18
So Frank Russakoff said to me,
26:20
"If I had it again to do over,
26:22
I suppose I wouldn't do it this way,
26:23
but in a strange way, I'm grateful
26:25
for what I've experienced.
26:27
I'm glad to have been in the hospital 40 times.
26:29
It taught me so much about love,
26:32
and my relationship with my parents and my doctors
26:35
has been so precious to me, and will be always."
26:38
And Maggie Robbins said,
26:42
"I used to volunteer in an AIDS clinic,
26:44
and I would just talk and talk and talk,
26:47
and the people I was dealing with
26:50
weren't very responsive, and I thought,
26:52
'That's not very friendly or helpful of them.'
26:54
And then I realized,
26:58
I realized that they weren't going to do more
27:00
than make those first few minutes of small talk.
27:02
It was simply going to be an occasion
27:04
where I didn't have AIDS and I wasn't dying,
27:06
but could tolerate the fact that they did
27:09
and they were.
27:12
Our needs are our greatest assets.
27:14
It turns out I've learned to give
27:17
all the things I need."
27:20
Valuing one's depression
27:24
does not prevent a relapse,
27:25
but it may make the prospect of relapse
27:28
and even relapse itself easier to tolerate.
27:30
The question is not so much
27:34
of finding great meaning and deciding
27:36
your depression has been very meaningful.
27:39
It's of seeking that meaning
27:41
and thinking, when it comes again,
27:43
"This will be hellish,
27:45
but I will learn something from it."
27:46
I have learned in my own depression
27:49
how big an emotion can be,
27:51
how it can be more real than facts,
27:53
and I have found that that experience
27:56
has allowed me to experience positive emotion
27:59
in a more intense and more focused way.
28:02
The opposite of depression is not happiness,
28:06
but vitality,
28:09
and these days, my life is vital,
28:11
even on the days when I'm sad.
28:13
I felt that funeral in my brain,
28:16
and I sat next to the colossus
28:19
at the edge of the world,
28:21
and I have discovered
28:24
something inside of myself
28:26
that I would have to call a soul
28:28
that I had never formulated
until that day 20 years ago
28:30
when hell came to pay me a surprise visit.
28:34
I think that while I hated being depressed
28:38
and would hate to be depressed again,
28:42
I've found a way to love my depression.
28:45
I love it because it has forced me
28:47
to find and cling to joy.
28:49
I love it because each day I decide,
28:52
sometimes gamely,
28:56
and sometimes against the moment's reason,
28:57
to cleave to the reasons for living.
29:00
And that, I think, is a highly privileged rapture.
29:02
Thank you.
29:06
(Applause)
29:10

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About the speaker:

Andrew Solomon - Writer
Andrew Solomon writes about politics, culture and psychology.

Why you should listen

Andrew Solomon is a writer, lecturer and Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University. He is president of PEN American Center. He writes regularly for The New Yorker and the New York Times.

Solomon's newest book, Far and Away: Reporting from the Brink of Change, Seven Continents, Twenty-Five Years was published in April, 2016. His previous book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity won the National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction, the Wellcome Prize and 22 other national awards. It tells the stories of parents who not only learn to deal with their exceptional children but also find profound meaning in doing so. It was a New York Times bestseller in both hardcover and paperback editions. Solomon's previous book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, won the 2001 National Book Award for Nonfiction, was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize and was included in The Times of London's list of one hundred best books of the decade. It has been published in twenty-four languages. Solomon is also the author of the novel A Stone Boat and of The Irony Tower: Soviet Artists in a Time of Glasnost.

Solomon is an activist in LGBT rights, mental health, education and the arts. He is a member of the boards of directors of the National LGBTQ Force and Trans Youth Family Allies. He is a member of the Board of Visitors of Columbia University Medical Center, serves on the National Advisory Board of the Depression Center at the University of Michigan, is a director of Columbia Psychiatry and is a member of the Advisory Board of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Solomon also serves on the boards of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yaddo and The Alex Fund, which supports the education of Romani children. He is also a fellow of Berkeley College at Yale University and a member of the New York Institute for the Humanities and the Council on Foreign Relations.

Solomon lives with his husband and son in New York and London and is a dual national. He also has a daughter with a college friend; mother and daughter live in Texas but visit often.


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