William Styron’s Darkness Visible

There’s a lot of bullshit out there surrounding depression, so let’s get a few things straight. First of all, it doesn’t necessarily stem from a concrete cause. Second, depression and occasional sadness are two separate things. Third, you can’t just think you’re way out of it—thinking’s part of the problem. Fourth, someone can look totally fine but still be suicidal. Fifth, self-help books don’t do no good. But—books like Darkness Visible by William Styron do do good. Did me good.

I’d lost all enjoyment of the things that usually gave me gratification, like reading and music and Nature. A sure sign of depression: the loss of the ability to feel any kind of pleasure.

Styron wrote a few acclaimed novels, including Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner, neither of which I have read. Maybe someday. But for now his Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness is good enough for me. It’s a short, stark, sober account of his bout with depression in the mid-’80s—and it’s the perfect book for anyone who knows someone experiencing depression or of course anyone undergoing the dread disease themselves.

Stumbled across it at the library while I myself was undergoing a particularly nasty case a few years back. Don’t want to go into too many details because I don’t know you so well, but my mind had become derailed. Everything that had helped me cope before suddenly was quite useless. The gears in my head had all ground down and there was just frantic spinning.

And I’d lost all enjoyment of the things that usually gave me gratification, like reading and music and Nature. A sure sign of depression: the loss of the ability to feel any kind of pleasure.

Styron’s book was a real godsend. Far from being a self-help book, it is nonetheless inspirational. It contains no bromides or annoying pep talks—it’s just the recounting of a personal encounter with mental illness by a thoughtful, gifted writer.

One common motif in the book is just how deadly depression can be. Part of the problem, Styron argues, is the “insipidity” of its name:

When I was first aware that I had been laid low by the disease, I felt a need, among other things, to register a strong protest against the word “depression”… a noun with a bland tonality and lacking any magisterial presence, used indifferently to describe an economic decline or a rut in the ground, a true wimp of a word for such a major illness.  

Styron uses other more fitting words and phrases to describe his depression, such as “dank joylessness,” “gloom crowding in on me, a sense of dread and alienation and, above all, stifling anxiety,” “a poisonous fogbank,” and “a toxic and unnameable tide.”

Winston Churchill, borrowing from Samuel Johnson, once called depression a “black dog,” which reminds me of the song by the immortal Robert Johnson:

I got to keep movin’, I got to keep movin’
Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
And the day keeps on worryin’ me
There’s a hellhound on my trail
Hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail

If nothing else, reading Darkness Visible will dispel some misconceptions you may have about depression. One common misconception is that only weaklings feel its force. William Styron was a Marine—and I figure if you can hack it as a Marine, you can hack it as just about anything. But Styron came extremely close to killing himself, going so far as to destroy his book of writer’s notes—knowing full well that such a step signaled the loss of his will to live.

The sense of shame connected to depression and its ugly handmaiden, suicide, is something Styron addresses in the book. He talks about how frustrated he was by the reaction to Primo Levi’s suicide. Levi, a renowned author and Auschwitz survivor, threw himself down a deep stairwell in 1987, and many of Levi’s fans and admirers felt ashamed, mystified, betrayed. Styron wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times stating that:

The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne… to the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer.

This is not permissiveness—it’s simply an acceptance of reality. I, too, used to think that those who killed themselves were somehow weak or had adopted the wrong life philosophy. After undergoing a fairly short but extremely trying period of depression myself, I now understand the truth of Styron’s words. The only fault of those who commit suicide is that they maybe didn’t at some stage swallow their pride and subject themselves to treatment.

I myself found it hardest to abandon my somewhat romantic view that my thoughts were somehow sacred—that they were the direct product of my soul. I figured that since I couldn’t control my thoughts or think my way out of my gloominess, I was a failure as a sentient being.

Now I hold the more dispassionate view that thoughts are products of one’s brain—and the brain, after all, is an organ, subject to all the slings and arrows that any other bodily organ is heir to.

Which may sound overly materialistic or deterministic to you. I understand where you’re coming from—but I for one found it necessary to lay aside all pride when it came to my mental processes and accept the fact that I was sick, and that my brain, like some engine running on the wrong kind of fuel, had broken down.

For Styron, therapy and medication didn’t quite do the trick (but he’s careful to add that they do do the trick for many). What really helped him was the love and support of his wife and a brief stay in a mental hospital, which offered “the mild, oddly gratifying trauma of sudden stabilization—a transfer out of the too familiar surroundings of home, where all is anxiety and discord, into an orderly and benign detention where one’s only duty is to try to get well.

Darkness Visible is written from the perspective of a man who has recovered from his disease and now relishes retelling the gory details. Toward the end of the book, he says, “Mysterious in its coming, mysterious in its going, the affliction runs its course, and one finds peace.

Unfortunately, that peace may be short-lived—but then again, it could last for a long time. You just never know. Word has it that Styron himself had another bout of depression about ten years after the publication of Darkness Visible, just a few years before he died, adding extra poignancy to–yet reducing none of the truth of–his words.

  • July 22, 2016
  • Jon Eckblad
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