“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” –Helen Keller
Depression is an illness that frequently defies language. The nature of depression is so individualized and cryptic that efforts to depict it can feel like trying to catch an echo. In William Styron’s “Visible Darkness: A Memoir of Madness”, this Pulitzer Prize winning author details his major depressive episode, eventual hospitalization and successful treatment at age 60. At the outset, Styron goes to great lengths to explain that severe clinical depression is near impossible to convey. “Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self…as to verge close to being beyond description.” (p. 7) This pain can be so confounding and otherworldly that patients are at an unfair disadvantage in securing medical treatment and familial understanding.
Styron’s account is filled with dark, vivid details of his pain and daily struggles with depression. He pens, “I fell into bed and lay gazing at the ceiling, nearly immobilized and in a trance of supreme discomfort. Rational thought was usually absent from my mind at such times, hence trance…a condition of helpless stupor in which cognition was replaced by positive and active anguish…and the inability to sleep.” (p. 17-18). And, while his descent into madness leaves no room for levity, he ultimately provides great insight into the minds and souls of those in the depths of despair.
The causes of depression are multifaceted; involving biochemistry, genetics, relational and environmental stressors as well as existential confusion and despair. Frequently, there is no clear trigger point. This public health issue is manifestly real and most often left untreated. As such it can become more severe and can even, in extreme circumstances, be fatal. It is estimated that 1 in 10 adults will suffer a depressive episode in their lifetime, and currently, suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the U.S. (1). However, timely intervention, which may include psychotherapy, medication, physical activity and exercise, can redirect the mind towards health and renewal. Hospitalization ultimately saved Styron and is reframed as having a positive ‘pacifying effect’ on his mind. As Stryon writes, “depression is not the soul’s annihilation; men and women who have recovered from the disease-and they are countless-bear witness to what is probably its only saving grace: it is conquerable.” (p. 84) This book can be a useful tool for those affected by depression as a means of understanding the many dimensions of this grave but frequently treatable illness.
Styron, William. Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. 1st ed. New York: Random House Inc. 1990.