Books to help those dealing with depression
By LAUREL HALL
The holiday season is often a joyous time to gather with friends and family, carry on traditions and enjoy the sights, sounds and tastes it brings.
For many people, however, the pain of having lost a loved one, the loss of a job or of independent living or even the waning of daylight can bring suffering and mental anguish that does not recede with time.
Depression is more than just the “holiday blues,” it’s a serious medical illness whose symptoms may differ for people over age 65. Memory problems, confusion and social withdrawal can all be indicators of clinical depression. Many people, including friends and family members, may dismiss these symptoms as the natural result of aging, when they can likely be treated or mitigated with medication, therapy or a combination of the two. The following books give insight into the experiences of people living with depression and give hope for the possibility of recovery.
The most comprehensive look at the scientific, cultural and personal causes and effects of depression is in Andrew Solomon’s “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.” It can seem like a daunting book at first, but it is easy to look for the issues in which you are most interested, and get answers for your questions.
His own story in particular gives hope to the reader, as he struggled for years with a depressive episode that left him unable to work or enjoy any of his former activities and was prescribed dozens of medications before finally finding relief. He eventually was able to return to his life, and in fact, just last month published a new, critically-acclaimed book on families that include children who are different in some way from their parents, titled “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity.”
One of my favorite nonfiction writers is Karen Armstrong, author of “A History of God” and “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life,” as well as “biographies” of Buddha, Muhammad and the Bible. She has a way of talking about religion that brings it down to the level of how people practice their beliefs in their daily lives, rather than relying on heady theological discussion and abstract concepts.
In her memoir, “The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness,” she relays the story of her early years growing up in England and her decision at age 17 to join a strict Catholic convent. After seven years of struggling to find her place within the order, she decided to leave and study English at Oxford instead. She found that readjusting to life outside the convent walls was even more difficult than she imagined. She dealt with intense loneliness, social anxiety and frightening episodes that would only much later be diagnosed as epilepsy. Armstrong slowly made her way out of depression, finding hope and meaning in the study of comparative religion. The title of her book refers to T. S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday,” in which he evokes climbing up a spiral stair, turning toward the difficult realities of life and confronting them and then continuing to climb upwards past them.
Darryl Cunningham worked in a psychiatric ward, then struggled to overcome his own crippling depression and anxiety. In his book, “Psychiatric Tales: Eleven Graphic Stories About Mental Illness,” he uses stark black and white drawings to show the variety of experiences of people with mental illness, including bipolar disorder, dementia, self-harm and clinical depression (“graphic” in this context means using pictures to help to tell a story, in a format similar to a comic book). His goal was to dispel some of the stigma of these diseases and bring understanding to a wider audience. The final chapter of the book is Cunningham’s own story, which he tells in a simple and gentle way, yet it manages to be incredibly profound and moving.
“Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness” by William Styron is considered by many in the mental health community to be among the greatest descriptions of a person’s own descent into depression at age 60, and recovery from it. Styron’s frank and descriptive prose provides a look into the deep darkness of severe depression that is often inscrutable and difficult to relate to someone who hasn’t experienced it.
If you find that you often have symptoms of depression during this time of year, when daylight is precious and short, and improve when days begin to lengthen again, you may want to investigate Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). An excellent resource is “Seasonal Affective Disorder for Dummies” by Laura L. Smith and Charles H. Elliott. The authors have brought together the scientific consensus on the causes, symptoms and remedies for SAD, including alternative therapies which have been proven not to work. This is a very small selection of the resources available for those experiencing depression and their friends and family members. The most important thing to remember is that you are never alone and there is always hope for recovery. For more information, including help finding a medical professional, contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) on the web at nami.org or call800-950-NAMI.
LAUREL M. HALL is the senior outreach coordinator for Kitchigami Regional Library System.