Sunday, May 13, 2012

Visible Darkness by William Styron

[I wasn’t going to review this book as it’s more of an essay, but with the recent suicides of retired football player Junior Seau and The Killers saxophone player Thomas Marth, it’s feels timely.] 

“[I]n the absence of hope we must still struggle to survive, and so we do – by the skin of our teeth.”

Depression is a very lonely, isolating affliction. It’s a difficult thing to share even with someone else that is going through it. Visible Darkness is like a dispatch from someone who is stranded in that desert, a message in a bottle from a ship adrift in that dark and stormy sea. And it’s wonderful.

This book is an expanded essay that appeared in Vanity Fair. It describes in detail what the landscape and journey of depression looks like from the point of view of someone who has been severely depressed and a little bit of how those who have never been afflicted react to those that have.

There are great anecdotes that show the level of confusion that depression creates, which is something I’ve never encountered in any other treatise on depression. Non-sufferers have no idea that there is so much forgetting. One’s short term memory is absolutely shot. Sometimes you have to physically strain to remember something important you did or said just hours before. There’s also confusion in miscalculating socially appropriate responses – how you should conduct yourself and the expectation of others, which can lead to appalling, though not maliciously intended, behavior. 

Styron also describes the pain that is depression. He quotes William James: “It is a positive and active anguish, a sort of psychical neuralgia wholly unknown to normal life.” (The Varieties of Religious Experience) He also describes how his depression would put him into a “trance . .  a condition of helpless stupor in which cognition was replaced by that ‘positive and active anguish.’” There is not only mental anguish, but actual physical pain as well. Beyond the chemical imbalance in the brain, the body undergoes an assault.

He also discusses the indifference expressed by those who have never been depressed towards those who have. He almost begs for some understanding or at least a lack of judgment of those that commit suicide, because “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. . . but to the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer.”

Depression can be like being weightless in a fog where one’s sound doesn’t even carry. Or like being trapped under a boulder without any hope of rescue. Or in a rioting prison, being jostled around with a knife to your throat. Whatever form it takes, it’s real. If you know someone who’s going through it, try to understand that there exists a horror YOU can’t see or hear or feel, even though it’s in the room with you and inhabiting someone you love.

This is a must read for anyone who has suffered through depression and for anyone who knows someone who has done so. Though it’s a book about depression, it’s not a downer. There are even some cheeky bits that made me giggle, but it’s not flippant.  Just read it. It’ll take you only an hour or so.
[Here’s a quote from the book for my friends EZGZ, The Gos, and Tiny: “One develops fierce attachments. Ludicrous things – my reading glasses, a handkerchief, a certain writing instrument – became the objects of my demented possessiveness.”]