A Reflective Review of William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

The Friday before Mother’s Day, after the luncheon at my son’s preschool, I found myself with an entire afternoon open to do as I wanted.  The blog had launched, and I had no particular plans for my free time.  Since it was nearby, I found myself renewing my library card at the neighborhood library.  I started browsing in the hopes of renewing the habit of using the library.  As I was browsing, aisle by aisle, I spotted a thin volume among the larger volumes defining and hoping to provide relief from various mental and neurological disorders.  Just steps from copies of the DSM, and visibly different from most of its shelf-mates, was a small book called Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness.  I hadn’t expected a memoir in the medicine and diseases section, but, as a suffer of depression, I was interested in seeing if there were any resources that might help me as I journey through therapy, and the title captured my eye.  I glanced at the summary in the front flap of the dust jacket, and added it to my small pile of books to take home and explore.  

library shelves
Photo by Jamie Taylor on Unsplash.com

Since it was a smaller volume, I decided to start reading it that afternoon, during my pedicure (hooray for self-care).  From the first page, an Author’s Note about the origins of this memoir, I was struck by his eloquence.  His writing style took me back to my college days, when my reading list was more literary, far meatier and cerebral than my more recent reading list, which is dominated by young adult fiction, where the most complex writing that frequents my reading is either scripture, occasional apologetics articles, or Stephen King.  Continuing into the meat of the memoir, the familiarity of the struggles and symptoms he described made his already engaging words all the more compelling.  Though my darkest episodes of depression did not directly resemble those that Styron describes from his battle, there are familiar notes, echoes of a similar journey, shadows of a relatable experience.  Styron’s descriptions of depression are captivating.  He recalls the “dank joylessness” of his depressive days, the “rare torture” of insomnia, and the weather and storms of depression’s effect on the mind and soul.

In a mere 84 pages, Styron expresses frustration at society’s general lack of empathy around the pains and struggles of depression, delves into his own darkest days, recalls the battles lost by others, and laments the lack of reliable clinical data around the disease (due to the fact that each case can present uniquely, and treatment that works for one person may only aggravate the symptoms for someone else).  Despite the vast ground covered in such a narrow volume, the transitions felt smooth, and the style, while more eloquent than my recent standard fare, didn’t feel pompous or grandiose.

The weather of depression
Background photo by Anh Nguyen on Unsplash.com, layout for final image created by Canva.com

Sitting in the pedicure chair, and only 11 pages into the book, I read something that made me stop, eyes wide.  Styron was describing some observations he made in comparing his own struggles to his research of typical depression symptoms, and states:

Most people who begin to suffer from the illness are laid low in the morning, with such malefic effect that they are unable to get out of bed.  They feel better only as the day wears on.  But my situation was just the reverse.  While I was able to rise and function almost normally during the earlier part of the day, I began to sense the onset of the symptoms at midafternoon or a little later  …

It was like the shock of an unexpectedly strong wave as you wade in the ocean.  I could still feel the roll of the massage chair behind my back, and still hear the coffee-shop covers of pop music over the speakers through the general din of a busy nail salon on a Friday evening, but only vaguely.  In that moment, reading and re-reading his words, I felt seen.  I felt understood.  I could relate to this.  

This wasn’t the only time that his descriptions of the ebb and flow of symptoms through the day rang true.  Later, he reveals that, though he was afflicted more in the afternoon, he would have a period of time in the evening when things felt normal, followed by insomnia.  As he described his battle for sleep, his words again stopped me as I read: “Exhaustion combined with sleeplessness is a rare torture.”  It truly is, and, at least for me, it creates the perfect conditions to take the storms of a mild depressive episode and escalate it rapidly to a veritable hurricane.

Exhaustion combined with sleeplessness is a rare torture.
Background photo by Nate Rayfield on Unsplash.com, layout for final image created by Canva.com

In my latest round with depression, it has been hard for most people to realize my struggle.  I would be able to get up, get dressed, go to work, and masquerade as a person living a relatively normal life.  The challenge would come in the afternoon and evening hours.  My energy would wane.  A sense of dread would overcome me at the merest thought of engaging with others, especially those outside of my immediate family.  The thought of exerting energy to do more, like vacuuming, laundry, cooking, or other “adulting” tasks would overwhelm me, and I would, for lack of a better word, shut down.  I would distract myself with mindless games on my phone, or scroll endlessly through Facebook or Pinterest.  I would want to go to bed at 5, 6 or even 7 in the evening, but I would keep myself up, with the goal of going to bed at a reasonable hour.  Unfortunately, by the time this “reasonable hour” came around, I would feel wide awake again, mindlessly finding new and not so exciting ways to distract myself: more games, binge watching Netflix, picking, snacking.  Sometimes I would do all of the above, simultaneously.  When I would try to sleep, regardless of the desire to do so, my eyes would pop open, my mind and body restless.

I truly enjoy reading, and, at any given time, I have a list nearly a mile long (or so it seems) of books I want to read, or re-read.  This brief memoir was never on my radar.  I had never heard of it before, and, honestly, as a sufferer of depression I never felt a deep desire to read about other people’s struggles.  My curiosity has always been about experiences I haven’t had.  I’ve battled, and am battling depression, so it is an experience that is intimately familiar to me.  However, after swiftly reading Styron’s memoir, I am wanting to continue finding books about others’ struggles.  Not only that, I’m thinking of trying to find my own copy, to add to my humble library of books I feel passionate enough to own a physical copy of (rather than reading only on Kindle, or borrowing from others or the library).

If you are in a place where you can read about a man’s battle with a severe depressive episode, including references to others who lost the battle, I would definitely recommend this book.  I know, for me, when I was in the darkest valleys of my walk with recurring depression, though, that this would not have been a good recommendation, so please, tread carefully and be aware of your own limits.  In my opinion, and based on my own journey, it is definitely a book for someone who has at least gained some perspective and some balance in their journey with depression.
What is a book that has helped you in your journey towards mental health?  Are there any that you would recommend others to read (or avoid), and why?

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