Some years ago, I read William Styron’s memoir, Darkness Visible, recounting his experience with an episode of depression so severe and prolonged it landed him in the hospital. I’ve had some struggles with this illness myself, and I know many of you have, too. I wanted to share a few of my thoughts with you.
Those of you who have been there will understand in a way that people who have not battled this particular demon can’t understand. For those of you who have not experienced it first-hand, thank God, but are dealing with people who have, I hope this is illuminating in some small way.
Before I get into Styron, I want to give a shout out to the most comprehensive book on the topic I have ever read, The Noonday Demon, by Andrew Solomon. Interestingly, when I typed ‘noonday’ into Google, it was the first option. We are not alone.
Noonday is the most complete non-clinical book I’ve ever read about depression. It’s long, whereas Styron’s is quite short — I read it in under an hour — and explores every aspect of depression: history, treatments in many cultures, attitudes (of several cultures, including an African village), etc., as well as his personal experience. It’s more of an exploration than a memoir. Both Solomon and Styron deplore the term “depression” as bland and, as Styron puts it, “a true wimp of a word for such a major illness,” preferring the older term, melancholia.
I tend to agree with them. Depression sounds so… dry, transitory, abstract, impassive. Whereas the actual state is an overwhelming, all-encompassing, highly individualized, sometimes fatal state of anguish and anxiety unimaginable to a healthy mind. Even now, as I write, relatively healthy, I find it impossible to really remember what it was like. I know it was a devouring agony, but when you’re healthy, it’s hard to truly imagine being sick. When you’re functioning, it’s hard to remember when you were so immobilized by depression that you could not get out of bed to brush your teeth, but agonized over it all day. It’s like remembering terrible physical pain when you’re not in pain. You know it’s awful, but the true agony of it is remote, at bay. Which is a great mercy.
If you have already read either of these books, I would be very interested in your thoughts on them.
Darkness is an excellent account, by an author of widely recognized standing. But even he says again and again that depression is essentially indescribable to anyone who has not experienced it, and this is saying something for a writer of his skill and power.
What really got me is that after telling us many times that he cannot describe it, he says it was Dante who summed it up better than anyone. This really hit home for me, because years ago, when I was pretty severely depressed myself, I kept thinking of the exact same quote, the introduction to The Divine Comedy:
In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood
For I had lost the right path.
[Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
Che la diritta via era smarrita]
Even now, these words make me catch my breath, they are so perfect in what they say and how they say it. It was the most accurate reflection of my state of mind, stated so simply and eloquently that it comforted me a bit.
In that intro, Dante also speaks of being aware that he is ruining himself and falling into a “deep place” (basso loco) where the sun is silent (‘l sol tace). Again, perfect. Almost everyone I know who has been depressed has spoken of it like a black hole, an abyss, a dark place without hope, and part of the hell is you can see your life disintegrating and there’s nothing you can do about it except feel like a loser.
When he emerges again, with Virgil’s guidance (I have always found it interesting that it’s not a Christian figure who guides him through this Catholic cosmos), he says:
And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.
I find both of these quotes so clear, so completely apt, and I find it interesting that William Styron did, too. It’s such a deep, dark, awful place — but we do come out of it and see the stars again. We just need our own Virgil. I think that can be anyone we love and trust, human or divine. We just need to submit to the guidance and keep going. It sounds easy; it’s not, but it is doable.
I mean this without irony: Have a happy day.