William Styron ‘Darkness Visible. A Memoir of Madness’ – my reflections on this book and my own depression

download (30)Another 50p charity shop book which attracted me because it was about depression and quite slim so an easy read (not least compared to other volumes on the subject). Tis short and written in 1990 so things have progressed since then (like the author having no appreciation of the value of physical exercise) but it did ring so many bells that I could link into my own experience of deep depression and suicidal feelings. This happened for me about a decade ago and still feels difficult to prod but ultimately it must be a good thing to recognise it, work out why it happened, and ensure it does not happen again.

Key features of Styron’s study and my experiences:

  • Both mine and Styron’s depression seemed to come from nowhere but may well have been linked to loss that could go back as far as childhood but be ignited by something more recent (the theory of incomplete mourning). My childhood was difficult including parents divorcing and being homeless. And the immediate catalyst may then have been the inevitable break up with my long-term partner strongly linked to a sense of betrayal because he (as he put it) couldn’t help falling in love with someone else. Still very traumatic even though it meant getting away from the crazy addicted world I was living in. However Styron also suggests physical causes and there could be truth in this as well. For him, the link was alcohol whilst for me it could have been connected to my later diagnosis of blood clots on my lungs and sero-converting after becoming HIV infected.
  • Both Styron and I through becoming depressed became more aware of depression in others and particularly sought to make sense from our family histories. I found out about a forgotten uncle who had been in the mental health system all his life and I recalled one of my grandparents who suffered terrible depression whilst dying. All this history surrounded by a sense of shame so that it was not discussed. For me and Styron this search for answers took us both to many intellectual places including religion which can give comfort but to be honest doesn’t provide answers; these are far more complex and various.
  • A clear symptom of depression is deeply confused thinking. Styron wrote about appointments he couldn’t remember making and I  can remember starting to fuck up at work and being very distracted. Depression is genuinely incomprehensible to the person suffering it (we create our own internal false logic to explain it) and those around us which frequently leads to the over analysing and reading on certain subjects as way to try and make sense of what is happening.  As Styron says, it is not pain in a classic sense but more a feeling of suffocation. It is fair to say, as he suggests, that you become like a zombie (and he wrote this before zombies were trendy) and cannot find pleasure in anything.
  • At the same time the person with depression also becomes very indifferent to the wider world like not seeing the impact on those closest to them and wanting to avoid people. I can remember seeing a lovely old friend on Victoria St one day at the peak of my bad period but going out of my way to avoid her and I don’t know why (perhaps shame?) as I am sure she would have been supportive. This avoidance may also be linked to not being able to explain your feelings without repeating yourself because you are trapped in your weird logic cycle.
  • And both Styron and I shared in our depression being completely past focused instead of looking to the future simply because the future just looked and felt so bleak.
  • Styron highlighted the fear of certain physical spaces including those that once felt so comforting such as your own home and I can empathise with that – for me, it was better just to be out in the open than inside where I felt trapped. And certain parts of the day were particularly problematic. For him evenings but for me the classic start of the day which often got better once I got going. But for both of us, being in bed was a nightmare in itself with insomnia and being stuck in our warped thinking cycles. And then inevitably ongoing tiredness for the rest of the day.
  • Depression can also lead to behavioural change. I stopped eating and was called skinny but then went completely crazy with food as recovery set in eventually leading to being overweight and so unhappy again though in a different way.
  • Styron mentions about seeing himself externally. This happened to me once and was really freaky. Once while feeling extremely depressed I felt like I was up in air looking down on myself – hallucinatory depression?
  • And, as in all depression literature, there is the constant battle of counselling vs meds as the ‘cure’. It feels like a sterile debate – Styron compares it to the old arguments for and against blood-letting. For me meds did work (and I say thank God for valium) whilst counselling felt useless either going over old ground again and again in a cruel never-ending cycle or knowing how my thinking was trying to be restructured – this was all very similar to the experience of counselling by Styron. Although we would both agree that inter-action with other humans is a vital part of recovery though he is sceptical of group and art therapy.
  • We both recognised the need for physical change. I was obsessed with idea that I couldn’t leave Brighton so ended up feeling trapped but going to London was the key to my recovery as with Styron going to hospital. This linked in with obsessing which for me that was trying to make Brighton ‘work’ when really the time of its personal fulfilment for me had gone. ‘Don’t you just love the sea?’ people asked – no! There is a difference here between me and Styron in that when I presented myself in a very distressed state to my GP or at A+E, hospitalisation was never an option; my condition not deemed serious enough. The author spent seven valuable weeks in hospital and this makes me think of value of similar stays people in the UK used to be able to access before we shut down the mental hospitals and put everything into the community.
  • There is a strong denial by many that suicidal thoughts happen and follow on from depression but Styron and I recognise it as reality. I really considered it several times as a way out but obviously I am so happy I didn’t and my message to all people in this situation is don’t! Depression and suicide are based on false feelings and recoverable from. Do we not all miss Gary Speed, Alexander McQueen, Robin Williams and others? Don’t we all wish we could go back in time and tell them whatever their brain was telling them was wrong and that the future is worth being around for. And it can often be stupid silly small things create the tipping point that ultimately makes suicide happen so we do need to take so much care around the issue. But ‘suicide’ may also be subtle such as indulging in dangerous addictions and ‘excitement’ around taking extreme physical risks like speeding in a car or having unsafe sex. As the author says, one of very best things that can happen is for someone to take a firm unequivocal stand in saying ‘you must not do this’.
  • The final important message both Styron and I agree on is simple – recovery is possible

That’s it, comments welcome. And do have a read of this book, it is short but very simply insightful.

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