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Friday 15 November 2019
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Escaping the darkness

DEBBIE JACOB

“I wasn’t cheered by the festive occasion that had brought me to France,” William Styron wrote.“Of the many dreadful manifestations of the disease both physical and psychological, a sense of self-hatred … a failure of self-esteem … had progressed. My dank joylessness was … ironic because I had flown on a rushed four-day trip to Paris in order to accept an award …”

IT STRUCK me like a bolt of lightning. Just a few pages into Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron, I realised this was the book that explained depression like no other book I had ever read.

Styron, who wrote the novel Sophie’s Choice, is best known for constructing one of the most depressing and haunting scenes ever written in literature: the scene where the Nazis force Sophie to choose between her two children. His fiction, dark and often oppressive, served as a mirror for the depression that he felt.

“Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to self – to the mediating intellect – as to verge close to being beyond description,” he wrote in Darkness Visible. “It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.”

His description of fleeing from the world into an unexplainable, inner world that exists only in the mind perfectly explains depression. That aching feeling; that need of being as far removed from everyone and everything as possible proved relatable.

Mostly, Styron dealt with that feeling of being a fraud during bouts of extreme depression, when there seems to be no way to measure up to people’s expectations or positive descriptions of you. They all ring false. In hindsight, Styron says he recognised how his depression manifested itself in different ways from that of most people. It hit him in the afternoons. Most people feel more depressed in the morning. Most people lose their appetite when they are depressed. Many people overeat. It is a way of constructing a protective armour against the world.

It is important to note, as Styron says, that “depression is much too complex in its cause, its symptoms and its treatment for unqualified conclusions to be drawn from the experience of a single individual.” As an illness, he says, “depression manifests certain unvarying characteristics, (but) it also allows for many idiosyncrasies.”

Like most people, Styron fought the clinical diagnosis of “depression.” There’s nothing comforting or welcoming in the term. Styron says it’s a pity that someone didn’t come up with the idea to apply the term “brainstorm” to the emotional state. That, he says, is the word that best captures depression. I quite agree.

Styron spends much time examining suicide. He speaks extensively of author Primo Levi, who survived the Holocaust and then committed suicide late in life. He wonders about the circumstances of Albert Camus’ death and looks for answers in literature like Camus’ The Stranger and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

He notes that “the madness of depression is, generally speaking, the antithesis of violence.” This I found interesting. “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.”

Depression saps one’s energy because it takes so much effort to function. He notes that “in depression this faith in deliverance, in ultimate restoration, is absent.” You genuinely feel like things will never get better.

“The pain is unrelenting,” says Styron.

Styron is one of those who made it back from the brink, but he points out he might not have done so had he not found a way to confide in his wife. His description of being in hospital documents his journey back to the “normal” world. From there, he starts to make connections to the characters he created in his novels and how they reflected his own, personal, dark side.

I found great comfort in reading Styron’s descriptions that related to those feelings I could not explain. Books are an important way of connecting to feelings. They can help us to identify emotions and have internal dialogues that often prove impossible to have with people.

Darkness Visible is a short book that was actually based on a speech.

It serves as a potential lifeline for anyone suffering from depression.

It is an equally interesting read for anyone who wants to understand depression.

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