Peter Fulham writes: Twenty-five years ago, in December, 1989, Darkness Visible, William Styron’s account of his descent into the depths of clinical depression and back, appeared in Vanity Fair. The piece revealed in unsparing detail how Styron’s lifelong melancholy at once gave way to a seductive urge to end his own life. A few months later, he released the essay as a book, augmenting the article with a recollection of when the illness first took hold of him: in Paris, as he was about to accept the 1985 Prix mondial Cino Del Duca, the French literary award. By the author’s own acknowledgement, the response from readers was unprecedented. “This was just overwhelming. It was just by the thousands that the letters came in,” he told Charlie Rose. “I had not really realized that it was going to touch that kind of a nerve.”
Styron may have been startled by the outpouring of mail, but in many ways, it’s easy to understand. The academic research on mental illness at the time was relatively comprehensive, but no one to date had offered the kind of report that Styron gave to the public: a firsthand account of what it’s like to have the monstrous condition overtake you. He also exposed the inadequacy of the word itself, which is still used interchangeably to describe a case of the blues, rather than the tempestuous agony sufferers know too well.
Depression is notoriously hard to describe, but Styron managed to split the atom. “I’d feel the horror, like some poisonous fogbank, roll in upon my mind,” he wrote in one chapter. In another: “It is not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb. It may be more accurate to say that despair… comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this cauldron… it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.”
As someone who has fought intermittently with the same illness since college, those sentences were cathartic, just as I suspect they were for the many readers who wrote to Styron disclosing unequivocally that he had saved their lives. As brutal as depression can be, one of the main ways a person can restrain it is through solidarity. You are not alone, Styron reminded his readers, and the fog will lift. Patience is paramount. [Continue reading…]