Four thousand miles, an ocean, and a sea between us, Mallorcan writer Almudena Sánchez and I live with the same invisible illness: depression. Or, as she describes the condition, “Nightmares, if they happen at night and in bed, are bearable. What’s unbearable is for them to occur in the world of our five senses.”
Although Sánchez endured this real-life nightmare while writing Pharmakon, translated from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore, the memoir is about much more than depression. Combining personal stories, memories, dreams and nightmares, retweets, analysis of other books, along with countless tangents, it pushes the boundaries of memoir, falling somewhere between narrative and personal essays. The story is intimate and raw, detailing her painful experiences: her despair and suicidal thoughts, her failure to write creatively, and her childhood development and its effect on her mental health. At the same time, it’s an inquiry into sadness that explores how depression is a deeply human experience.
Despite these themes, there are moments of humor. The reader must have an appreciation of dark comedy, but every few pages I found myself smiling and jotting “LOL” in the margins. A memorable section includes one of her nightmares that simply consists of a conversation between two worms. In another amusing scene, Sánchez explains that the only reason she continues shaving her legs and applying aloe vera is to look good in death. One of my favorite chapters describes how her anxiety and apathy drive her to a new hobby—flowerpot decorating—and her dream of doing this until retirement. “Almudena Sánchez, flowerpot decorator, follow me on Instagram,” she says. And then there are metaphorical or philosophical lines like this: “I don’t know if God looks more like a nebulous entity or a pine tree.”
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