Book Review: Pharmakon


“How to convince all of humanity that it’s not just two bad days. Not even days: they are infinities. And they aren’t bad: they are Dantesque”

Pharmakon, by Almudena Sánchez (translated by Katie Whittemore) is an essay describing a life lived under the shadow of depression. Although often unhappy – bullied as a child, and growing up with parents she struggled to relay her true feelings to at the time – Sánchez was unprepared for the intensity of debilitation when the onset of depression changed how she was capable of living. She found a support network of family and friends as well as a doctor willing to prescribe her helpful medications. Nevertheless, as can be gleaned from these pages, depression saps ability to function even when surrounded by best intentions.

“Living with depression is living with a dead person on your back. Conversing with him.”

The essay details day to day thoughts and feelings. There is guilt, especially when those wishing to help can make little difference. There is despair when simple tasks, such as rinsing shampoo from hair while in the shower, become too overwhelmingly difficult. There is a desire to end it all through suicide yet even this requires more effort than the author can find the ability to expend.

Sections also look back at Sánchez’s childhood – the schooldays that proved such a trial and then surgery when it was found she had a cancerous growth on an ovary.

“A teenage girl isn’t prepared for parts of her body to be removed. She barely even knows what they’re for (the parts). The doctors were terrified of a possible peritonitis. I was terrified of being embarrassed. Always embarrassed.”

However dark the experiences related, this is not a depressing book to read. Sánchez is sharing her thoughts and what comes across is the authenticity along with her anguish at how her abilities have shifted. She relies on drugs, remaining unapologetic in the face of those who believe she should ‘snap out of it’.

“I was raised polite in livid silence”

On a personal level I have some minor quibbles over certain choices of words used, although these only go to show how at the mercy of their readers’ foibles an author is. The repeated mentions of ‘boogers’, and of spit rather than saliva, made me feel squeamish. I have no way of knowing if these words were selected by author or translator.

The text was created while Sánchez was still medicating.

“a chemical poetry – I’ve written these pages in an altered state”

What this leaves us with is a first hand account from a writer finding their way back from basic functional inability to creative ambitions. I hope it proved as useful to them as it does to the reader who may now better empathise with those who are suffering within a depressive state.

That the essay is so eloquent and engaging shows the skill of the author despite the constraints of their illness. A moving and important read for our times.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa


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