BOOKS

Anatomy of despair

An author chronicles his bout with depression

John Bemrose September 3 1990
BOOKS

Anatomy of despair

An author chronicles his bout with depression

John Bemrose September 3 1990

Anatomy of despair

An author chronicles his bout with depression

DARKNESS VISIBLE

By William Styron

(Random House, 85 pages, $20.95)

In the summer of 1985, American author William Styron began a descent into a personal hell. His affliction was depression—not the garden-variety blues that afflict everyone from time to time, but a deep, soul-paralysing melancholy that eventually

drove him to the brink of suicide. His disease lad no obvious cause: the 65-year-old author of Sophie’s Choice, The Confessions of Nat Turner and three other novels was wealthy, famous and still the possessor of formidable writing powers. But as Styron makes clear in his stirring description of his ordeal, Darkness Visible, depression is no respecter of reputation or worldly success. Every year, it attacks millions of people of every age and social background, engulfing them in a cloud of despair that saps the body’s energy while filling the mind with whirling, hyperactive images and thoughts of madness.

For Styron, the experience of depression began with an event that, at the time, seemed to promise a healthier life. For 40 years, he had depended heavily on alcohol to stir his creative

imagination. Then, in the summer of 1985, all alcoholic drinks became repugnant to him. “Even a mouthful of wine caused me nausea,” he writes, concluding that his body was finally rebelling against decades of abuse. But, as he later came to understand, alcohol had also served as a barrier between himself and the despair that lurked in his unconscious. When the barrier fell, the despair surfaced. Soon, he was in the throes of a major depression.

The main value and beauty of Darkness Visible is Styron’s faithful and eloquent reporting of his symptoms. They began with “a kind of numbness, an enervation,” he writes, “but more particularly an odd fragility—as if my body had actually become frail, hypersensitive and somehow disjointed and clumsy.” For a while, he became a hypochondriac, sure that he was the victim of a purely physical ailment. But a series of exhaustive medical tests turned up nothing, and he was left to confront a deepening “feeling of worthlessness” and “dank joylessness.” His voice shrivelled until he sounded like an old man, his libido disappeared, and food lost all its flavor. Most disturbing, he writes, was the insomnia that woke § him at 3 or 4 every morning " and left him staring up “into yawning darkness, wondering and writhing at the devastation taking place in my mind.”

After a few months of that torture, Styron began to visit a respected psychiatrist to whom he gives the pseudonym Dr. Gold. Gold, Styron writes with barely concealed sarcasm, offered him platitudes gleaned from a psychiatric textbook Styron had read himself. The doctor also gave the author an antidepressant drug called Ludiomil. Styron acknowledges that drugs, particularly lithium, have helped many depressed patients.

But drugs did not help the author, who says that he belonged to “a distinct minority of patients, severely stricken, whose affliction is beyond control.” Styron’s condition worsened, and in December, 1985, he destroyed his journal—an act that made him realize, finally, that he was close to killing himself. At that point, drawing on his last reserves of will and

sanity, he checked himself into hospital.

Styron credits his seven-week stay in a psychiatric ward with setting him on the road to recovery. His doctors put him on a more effective drug, Dalmane. (Gold, he discovered, had been giving him three times the dosage of sleeping pills recommended for his age.) But, most important, he got the complete rest he had found impossible at home, even with the help of his devoted wife, Rose.

Later, he began to think about the causes of depression. He now believes—along with other experts—that both a genetic predisposition and childhood trauma contribute to its development. In his own case, he had a chronically depressed father, and his mother died when he was 13. The danger of such personal catastrophes, he writes, is greatest if the aggrieved young person “has been unable to achieve the catharsis of grief, and so carries within himself through later years an insufferable burden of which rage and guilt, and not only dammed-up sorrow, are a part, and become the potential seeds of self-destruction.”

Styron says that just such an unexpressed emotional burden, which formerly he had deflected with alcohol and the writing of fiction, helped cause his own depression. In his telling, the despair receded with the mysteriousness of a storm, leaving him with a renewed wonder and thankfulness for life. That note of hope is Darkness Visible’s final, moving gift. By giving voice to a particular darkness, Styron has made its burden of pain and loneliness a little lighter for its sufferers and their families.

JOHN BEMROSE