Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

In 1985, at the age of sixty, William Styron fell victim to a serious bout with depression. It wasn’t until five years later that he’d publish his memoir Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. Styron was an American novelist and essayist, most famous for his bestseller Sophie’s Choice and Pulitzer Prize winning The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Styron opens the book with the retelling of a trip to France where he received The Prix mondial Cino Del Duca literary award. It was late October of 1985; during this trip he most noticed his slipping away from lucidity. Styron was falling deeply under the spell of depression and desperately wanted to escape the social obligations that came with the recognition. While he started experiencing the symptoms of depression in June of that year, he believed with the help of medication he could manage the trip to France. However, the anxiety proved overwhelming.

Of the many dreadful manifestations of the disease, both physical and psychological, a sense of self-hatred—or, put less categorically, a failure of self-esteem—is one of the most universally experienced symptoms, and I had suffered more and more from a general feeling of worthlessness as the malady had progressed.

Styron gives a detailed account of the issues he, and sufferers of depression, deal with. He experienced insomnia, afternoon gloom, stifling anxiety, confusion, loss of mental focus, and lapses of memory, not to mention the persistent state of self-loathing that so many of us struggle through. The book is well informed from a clinical standpoint as Styron delved into considerable research on the disease once he accepted he was in fact suffering from it. He not only shares his afflictions but relays much of this research on symptoms and misperceptions, psychotherapy, and pharmacotherapy. Styron, as well, honestly and regrettably recounts his indifference and failure to recognize the severity of depression in his close friends, whom later committed suicide.

It was not really alarming at first, since the change was subtle, but I did notice that my surroundings took on a different tone at certain times: the shadows of nightfall seemed more somber, my mornings were less buoyant, walks in the woods became less zestful, and there was a moment during my working hours in the late afternoon when a kind of panic and anxiety overtook me, just for a few minutes, accompanied by a visceral queasiness—such a seizure was at least slightly alarming, after all.

In 1988, several years after his own bout with depression Italian writer, Primo Levi, committed suicide. Much of the commentary in social circles and the media was disbelief; how could such a seemingly strong person such as Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor, commit suicide? This lack of understanding to the often crippling effects of depression prompted Styron to write an op-ed piece for the New York Times. In it he states:

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.

The feedback from the Times piece encouraged Styron to share more of his personal life, and his journey through depression. What began with a lecture became a Vanity Fair article, then expanded to become Darkness Visible.

In the book, Styron comes clean to abusing alcohol for 40 years, admitting that it was perhaps a crutch to calm a looming anxiety. He recollects it being June when first signs of his depression occurred. This coincided with his body’s decision it could no longer tolerate the drinking. He was forced to quit cold-turkey as the drinking began to make him physically ill. It was this unchosen abstinance from alcohol that triggered the depression. What had kept the demons at bay was no longer available as his protector, slowly he descended into the darkness of depression. His accounts of what he went through ring hauntingly true.

I felt a kind of numbness, an enervation, but more particularly an odd fragility—as if my body had actually become frail, hypersensitive and somehow disjointed and clumsy, lacking normal coordination. And soon I was in the throes of a pervasive hypochondria. Nothing felt quite right with my corporeal self; there were twitches and pains, sometimes intermittent, often seemingly constant, that seemed to presage all sorts of dire infirmities.It is a storm indeed, but a storm of murk. Soon evident are the slowed-down responses, near paralysis, psychic energy throttled back close to zero. Ultimately, the body is affected and feels sapped, drained.I particularly remember the lamentable near disappearance of my voice. It underwent a strange transformation, becoming at times quite faint, wheezy and spasmodic—a friend observed later that it was the voice of a ninety-year-old.

What William had that often many sufferers don’t is a deep curiosity to understand what was happening and why, and the willingness to reach out for help. He sought out psychotherapy, meeting with someone twice weekly. He took medication, though warns to some of the side effects he experienced. However, he felt neither psychotherapy or medication worked for him. He drifted further into the abyss and became suicidal to the point of tending to the details of someone whom knows they are going to die (such as updating his will). One December evening he was on the precipice of suicide, believing he’d not make it through the following day. A moment of nastalgia and sanity moved him to wake his wife and they proceeded to make the necessary calls to have him admitted to the hospital. He was admitted the next day and stayed for nearly seven weeks.

For me the real healers were seclusion and time.

Styron is very grateful for the help he received, especially from friends who encouraged him to keep working through it. The last chapter of the book is a bit of his own encouragement to readers. Many have suffered and many have come through the other side healthy and happy. We have to recognize that depression is a mood disorder we may not see with objective eyes when we’re in the throws of it. We need reminders from those on the outside that it will pass.Styron makes a brief case for changing the label “depression” to something like “Brainstorm” to distance us from the stigma and negative connotation that the word depression holds. As a term, Depression may be accurate in it’s weight compared with the lesser sadness, but Brainstorm speaks more accurately to the lack of control experienced.

Made actionable (takeaways that can be applied to living — better):

  1. Understand and accept depression isn’t a sign of weakness. It strikes anyone, at anytime.

  2. Be curious.

  3. Seek help.

For an accurate view of depression from the inner circle, give William Styron’s book a quick read.

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