Coming through the Darkness

Andrew Solomon

“When you have that feeling of despair and feel that there’s no hope at all, that’s a symptom of a treatable illness. You should be relentless in pursuing treatments until you find those that can make you better.”

Andrew Solomon, PhD, was a remarkably successful novelist and journalist before becoming a Doctor of Psychology. He produced powerful and incisive books and articles, writing for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and countless other publications. Throughout his distinguished career he has always been astoundingly candid when lecturing, writing, or talking about his lifelong, agonizing battle with severe depression, and the treatment he found for it at NewYork-Presbyterian.

In “Breakdowns,” the second chapter of his New York Times best-selling book and National Book Award-winning study, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Dr. Solomon describes a shattering and bewildering loss of self-control and ongoing intense apprehension that culminated in his becoming nearly catatonic. “I lay very still and thought about speaking,” he writes, “trying to figure out how to do it. I moved my tongue but there were no sounds. I had forgotten how to talk. Then I began to cry, but there were no tears, only heaving incoherence.”

Dr. Solomon’s personal experiences are woven into a multifaceted exploration of the disease, which he insists is treatable. “I was incredibly lucky in being able to get such optimal care.  I know most people don’t,” says Dr. Solomon, who 20 years ago obtained a recommendation from Clarice Kestenbaum, MD, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia, who was treating his closest friend.

Enter the two Drs. Richard Friedman. “I was treated by two doctors at NewYork-Presbyterian – Dr. Richard C. Friedman, a psychoanalyst, and Dr. Richard A. Friedman, a psychopharmacologist,” says Dr. Solomon, who credits them with saving his life. “They helped me build a successful and happy life. I married my husband in 2007, had children, and wrote books that I hope have been helpful to others.”

Dr. Solomon was won over by Dr. Richard C. Friedman, because, “first of all, he has a sense of humor. Humor is a crucial tool in fighting depression. He has profound insights into the complexities of human interaction, and he is not afraid of thinking deeply about complex issues. He’s not only intellectually brilliant, but also, often, wise.”

Dr. Solomon also appreciated his flexibility to work in both psychoanalytic and nonpsychoanalytic methods, “and he is a deeply kind person,” he says. “It’s more than compassion; it’s an essential, underlying generosity.”

Dr. Richard A. Friedman helped Dr. Solomon understand that psychopharmacology is as much an art as it is a science. “I take a cocktail of five medications, which have served me well; they’ve not eliminated the battle, but they’ve given me armor to wear when I go forth to fight my depression. It took us years to get it right, but he was with me every step of the way.”

Dr. Solomon says, “There are so many people who are not getting treatment that could save them.” Access to care is key. “Depression is really the ‘family secret’ that everybody has,” he explains. “Less than half of people who have depression seek treatment. Less than half of those who seek treatment get treatment. So few get really optimal treatment. I feel so lucky that I was referred to these remarkable doctors.

“I’m the evidence that you can recover from a depression so severe that you want to kill yourself,” continues Dr. Solomon. “Not that it goes away, but it becomes a familiar matter, not a terrifying abyss. When you have that feeling of despair and that there’s no hope at all, that’s a symptom of a treatable illness. You should be relentless in pursuing treatments until you find those that can make you better.”