Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

William Styron

ISBN – 978-0-679-73639-4

Darkness Visible | Aesthetic Blasphemy

Williams Styron was already a celebrity in the literary clique for the depth and the gravity in his writing when it dawned upon him that he was suffering from a disease which if left unchecked would cost him his life. Depression has been, by far one of the most mysterious and baffling ailments of the mind from which a vast majority of the population now suffers from. This short book, as the New York Times aptly says is “compelling… Harrowing… A vivid portrayal of a debilitating disorder… It offers the Solis of shared experience.

It is not just one man’s story of immense suffering. It is one among the many, devious ways in which the tempest decides to rage in the heads. So much so that it is described as “the grey drizzle of horror” which “takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable thing, like that of a broken limb… [It] comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this caldron, because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.

And yet, we cannot identify them like we can segregate maimed people, like injured people. The shell is intact. William draws the analogy with the situation of the “walking wounded”. He explains, “for in virtually any other serious sickness, a patient felt similar devastation could be lying flat in bed, possibly sedated and hooked up to the tubes and wires of life support systems, but at the very least in a poster of repose and in an isolated setting. His invalidism would be necessary, unquestioned and honourably attained. However, the sufferer from depression has no option and therefore finds himself, like a walking casualty of war, thrust into the most intolerable social and family situations. There he must, despite the anguished devouring his brain, present a face approximating the one that is associated with ordinary events and companionship.”

The feeling is indescribable, at best, to the people who don’t suffer from it. “It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode, although the gloom, ‘the blues’ which people go through occasionally and dissociate with the general hassle of everyday existence of such prevalence that they do give many individuals a hint of the illness in its catastrophic form.

When I started to read about depression, it was with the belief that I possess this quality of being able to feel what others feel if they can only express it in words, that I can relate to them. When the author says the above lines, he makes a certain level of connection with me as I’m captivated by the details, no matter how appalling or frightening, I have felt the inkling, the tip of what the author might be hinting at. But it is beyond imagination when he says “I had descended far past those familiar, manageable doldrums.” He had been haunted by insomnia owing to this condition and is only heartening to read him state himself to be in “fair spirits” after a very short sleep of few hours under the influence of a minor tranquilizer which otherwise are filled with an excruciating trance, for which he tells “one of the most unendurable facts of such an interlude was the inability to sleep”.

He expresses concerns about half informed ‘breezy’ doctors, one of whom had told him that he “could, without harm, take as many of the pills” as he wished of Ativan, which at a later stage he discovered to be quite an overdose to inflict much damage of its own. “One cringes when thinking about the damage such from risk is prescribing of these potentially dangerous tranquillisers in creating in patients everywhere”. His rage is even more evident, and his hopelessness evident when presumably the best psychiatrist whom he had consulted explains him that taking the medicine he’d prescribed could cause a loss in libido and even cause impotency, as if anything of such carnal nature mattered to him when his chances of survival were bleak. It was not only irresponsible, but deeply unnerving and humiliating – which again proves how little does science know of this disorder and how barely humans understand other’s emotions.

The pain with medications is that there is no certain medicine, it is hit and try – and each takes at least a few weeks to have any effect if at all. If it doesn’t, a gap of two weeks has to pass without any medication before switching to the new medicine to let out the previous one from the system completely so that the two may not react. This is mercilessly painless and makes the person more hopeless.

He eventually survived, after being driven to the point of suicide, a point where every object in the house was his opportunity, a possible instrument to depart. He explains that nobody wants to self-destruct, but no one but the sufferers can understand what drove their fellows to such height. “Despite depression’s eclectic reach, it has been demonstrated with their convincingness that artistic types (especially poets) are particularly vulnerable to the disorder – which, in its grave, clinical manifestation takes up word of 20% of its victims by way of suicide. Just a few of these foreign artists, all modern, make-up a sad but scintillant roll call - Hart Crane, Vincent van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Arshile Gorky, Cesare Pavese, Romain Gary, Vachel Lindsay, Sylvia Plath, Henry de Montherlant, Mark Rothko, John Berryman, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, William Inge, Diane Arbus, Tadeusz Borowski, Paul Celan, Annie Sexton, Sergei Esenin, Vladimir Mayakovsky - the list goes on. (The Russian poet Mayakovsky was harshly critical of his great contemporary Esenin’s suicide a few years before, which should stand as a caveat for all those who are judgemental about self-destruction).

He urges all the sufferers that “if they survive the storm itself, its fury almost always fades and then disappears. Mysterious in its coming, mysterious in it’s going, the affliction runs its course, and one finds peace.” He reflects upon his upward journey, in the hospital and what were the factors that helped him recover – seclusion and time being the key ones. His seeing a dream after so many haunted years of insomnia, was not only welcome to him, but to me, as his reader.

This is a book that delineates in painful detail the agony of a suffering mind. I think he acquired this quality of unflinching and brutal honesty from Albert Camus, whose writing has had great impact on William Styron and was also the cause behind the piece of literature “The confessions of Nat Turner” which later won him the Pulitzer Prize. I feel, it is the closest anyone could get to explain this disorder when words have repeatedly failed to represent the anguish of most sufferers. It is deeply stirring, and highly revealing of our ignorance, and where we might be falling in a downward spiral, a book worthy of its praise.

For reading my notes, and other excerpts from the book, visit this discussions page, here.