I can’t recall when exactly I came across Darkness Visible. It kept cropping up in what Amazon recommended to me, so on a whim I got a cheap, used copy for £2.80. I can safely say that it was the best two pounds I’ve ever spent. Despite this, however, the book laid unread for a long time.
I was knee deep in my own depression and was self-medicating with alcohol, so reading a book was simply out of the question. I vaguely remember locking myself in the bathroom and reading it though, but it was only later that I came back to the book seriously. When I read it then, I felt as though I’d been handed a holy grail of infinite proportions. It was a Pandora’s box for me, despite being a mere eighty four pages.
Darkness Visible in amongst the few books where if I see them in bookstores I simply buy it there and then to have extra copies on hand to give to friends. It’s a book I endlessly talk about and recommend to anyone that will listen. At the time of writing I have three copies stowed away.
William Styron wasn’t a name I’d ever heard before. I just knew that his book had stellar Amazon reviews and kept cropping up, over and over, in lists of books about mental illness. Much later I learnt all I could about the man, digging out old articles of his on depression and reading his daughters memoir, with an almost religious fervour.
I think I may have initially rejected the book as it was so short, and, I thought, couldn’t possibly have anything to say on substance in such a short amount of time. I was very, very wrong. In fact, I think this is one of the books key strengths, it is precise, succinct and doesn’t outstay its welcome.
“Depression afflicts millions directly, and millions more who are relatives or friends of victims” Styron states. However, you could be forgiven for thinking that very few people suffer from depression, as so few suffer from it. If you peruse your local bookstore and find a few books on depression, but often their authors feel far away, treating depression as though it was an abstract concept rather than an experience. Styron, however, it is clear, has no interest in this kind of pandering. He is interested in depicting depression as it appears, as something that could well be the subject of a horror movie.
One of my favourite parts of the book when I first read it was the section where Styron lampoons depression as a word, citing its inadequacy to convey the full horror of the disorder. He says that the more authorial term ‘melancholia’ was “usurped by a noun [depression] with a bland tonality and lacking any magisterial presence, used indifferently to describe an economic decline or a rut in the ground, a true wimp of a word for such major an illness”. In its stead he proposes describing depression as a “brainstorm – a veritable howling tempest in the brain.”
Styron goes on to write that “The gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain” And it is this, the sheer physicality of depression, which Styron excels in depicting, as he reports on the “black tempest” that riddles his mind, causing him to suffer from a “suffocating gloom” supplanted by “dreadful, pouncing seizures of anxiety”. Styron’s voice becomes “faint, wheezy and spasmodic” with a friend observing that it resembled “the voice of a ninety year old.”
Styron writes “I felt a kind of numbness, an enervation, but more particularly an odd frailty – as if my body had actually become frail, hypersensitive and somehow disjointed and clumsy, lacking normal coordination.” His speech continues to dwindle, “My speech, emulating my way of walking, had slowed to the vocal equivalent of a shuffle.” All the while he is beset by “confusion, failure of mental focus and lapses of memory.” Styron senses himself “turning wall-eyed, monosyllabic.”
It is within this landscape that any task becomes “a demanding struggle, a major ordeal” for Styron. His world continues to slow down, suffering “near paralysis, psychic energy [being] throttled back to almost zero. Ultimately the body is affected and feels sapped, drained.”
Styron describes coming home only to have the horror to which he had become accustomed reassert itself anew – “Once again began the rhythmic daily erosion of my mood – anxiety, agitation, unfocused dread.”
After weeks Styron’s mood continues to descend, “My thought processes were being engulfed by a toxic and unnameable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world”. Beset by a “leaden and poisonous mood” Styron seeks aid.
His brain however, takes on the role of agonised time keeper, as Styron writes, “My brain…had become less an organ of thought than an instrument registering, minute by minute, varying degrees of its own suffering.”
Styron’s depressive mental landscape eventually “Comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this cauldron, because there is no escape from this smouldering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion”. Suicidal thoughts blow through Styron’s mind like “icy gusts of wind.”
It’s a brilliant book which I simply cannot praise enough. It gave me metaphors and images to convey depression as I saw it, to friends and family. For allowing words where there previously may have been none, Styron earns my unfaltering gratitude and love.
Styron, early on the book muses on how depression often escapes language, as “Depression is…so mysteriously painful and elusive…to verge close to being beyond description” Luckily, Styron surmounts this verge, giving voice to the unknowable and doing so with great clarity and immeasurable grace. I simply cannot thank him enough.