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Dealing with depression effectively is a mark not of weakness, but of strength.”

Andrew Solomon

In this excerpt from a National Public Radio (NPR) interview, author and psychologist Andrew Solomon discusses depression and the danger of non treatment.  He also describes depression to people who don’t understand the illness, likening it to a tenacious vine.  Living in the South, I could not help but think of kudzu.

I’ve never found the vine in my yard but I have an invasive weed called torpedo grass that I have to fight year round, every year. I don’t want to fight.  I can’t even reach the roots which can grow 18 inches underground. The alternative, though, is loss of beauty, health, and order in the gardens I have.

My hope is that you will not ignore your symptoms no matter how deep or resistant they are. Finding medical relief or complimentary therapy might take longer than you think you can bear, but remember what you’re aiming for.  As Solomon explains, life is too short to lose years of its vitality to depression. It’s time to take another whack at the vine.

How do you describe depression to those not afflicted?

I begin by explaining that the opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and then I try to describe it much as I have in my TED talk—to explain the loss of interest in the world, the loss of the ability to function, the loss of interest in one’s own life, the loss of ability to eat, take a shower, answer the phone. I talk about the feeling of deadness that takes over. And I describe the anxiety, that sense at every moment that doom lies just ahead; I speak of that constant fear with no particular object, that sense that it is too frightening to stay alive, and that death is the only release.

Sometimes I use metaphor. In my book, I wrote, “I returned, not long ago, to a wood in which I had played as a child, and saw an oak, a hundred years dignified, in whose shade I used to play with my brother. In twenty years, a huge vine had attached itself to this magnificent and confident tree and had nearly smothered it. It was hard to say where the tree left off and the vine began. The vine had twisted itself so entirely around the scaffolding of tree branches that its leaves seemed from a distance to be the leaves of the tree; only up close could you see how few living oak branches were left, and how a few desperate little budding sticks of oak stuck like a row of thumbs up the massive trunk, their leaves continuing to photosynthesize in the ignorant way of mechanical biology.

“Fresh from a major depression in which I had hardly been able to take on board the idea of other people’s problems, I empathized with that tree. My depression had grown on me as that vine had conquered the oak; it had been a sucking thing that wrapped itself around me, ugly and grotesque and more alive than I. It had had a life of its own that bit by bit asphyxiated all of my life out of me. At the worst stage of major depression, I had moods that I knew were not my moods: they belonged to the depression, as surely as the leaves on that tree’s high branches belonged to the vine. When I tried to think clearly about this, I felt that my mind was immured, that it couldn’t expand in any direction. I knew that the sun was rising and setting, but very little of its light reached me. I felt myself sagging under what was much stronger than I; first I could not use my ankles, and then I could not control my knees, and then my waist began to break under the strain, and then my shoulders turned in, and in the end I was compacted and fetal, depleted by this thing that was crushing me without holding me. Its tendrils threatened to pulverize my mind and my courage and my stomach, and crack my bones and desiccate my body. It went on glutting itself.

I have suspected a dear friend of mine is suffering from fairly severe depression, but she is stubborn and believes it not so much a disease as it is a weakness of character. Whenever the topic is brought up she will dismiss it out of hand, practically as if it were an insult. Do you have any advice on how to approach the subject with a person like this?

“It’s important to say that depression has biological underpinnings, and that while medications do not seem to create irreversible changes in the brain, repeated depressive episodes do. So if she can control her mood states without medication, that’s great; and if she needs medication, that’s just fine; and if she neglects her psychic decay completely, that’s a bad way to go. Untreated depression tends to get worse and worse. When it’s at its apex, it can lead to suicide. So your friend is gambling with her life, and you should emphasize that to her. But even putting the potential for suicide aside, she is giving over time to depression when she could be well—and life is short, and she won’t get the time back. Dealing with depression effectively is a mark not of weakness, but of strength.”

¹ On Identity, Depression And Listening: Andrew Solomon Answers Your Questions, by NPR/TED, posted March 11,2014.  http://www.npr.org/2014/03/11/285713553/on-identity-depression-and-listening-andrew-solomon-answers-your-questions