Daily Book Excerpt: Memoirs:
Next book on the Memoir/Letters/Journals shelf is Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, by William Styron
When Italian chemist and writer Primo Levi killed himself in 1987, much of the response was one of almost baffled hurt and incomprehension. “How could he do this?” “How could he – who had survived Auschwitz – take his own life?” People were almost angry at him. Suicide brings up that response, of course, but with Levi it was different, due to his life circumstances and what he had represented to so many. William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice (and others), was infuriated by the response to Levi’s suicide, and its implied judgment. He wrote an op-ed column about his own battle with suicidal depression, which had an overwhelmingly popular response. It was that which convinced him that he should expand that op-ed column into a book. Darkness Visible is a small book – not even 100 pages long – but became a national bestseller. Something in his language, his ability to admit that language is inadequate (he has a whole section on what to call “depression” – he doesn’t like the word, doesn’t find it adequate at all as descriptive of what the experience is actually LIKE) – makes this book compulsively readable, although it is a very tough read. It is a book of psychic anguish, and he’s such a good writer that he makes it palpable, almost understandable. It is the incomprehension of healthy people, who may have “bad days” or “get the blues”, but who never ever experience that type of psychic anguish – that grated on Styron, and made him tailspin into a wordlessness which was even more disorienting for him since he is, after all, a writer.
He does make the observation that it is no accident that suicide has come up in his books as almost an indelible THEME – many of his characters end up taking their own lives – but clinical depression did not hit him until he was in his 60s. But there was something in him that was drawn to that theme. His father had suffered from depressions. His mother had died when he was young (a common theme in the history of depression). The emotional torment that had brought up in him as a young boy had never been resolved. Depression is a hot topic, obviously, and many people feel they have the answer. Books like Styron’s are, in their very nature, controversial, although he does make the point that his experience is his experience, not meant to be representative of everyone’s experience. For him, what saved his life was hospitalization and medication. Therapy did nothing. The depression was too ingrained, too deep. He needed to be removed from the daily bustle of life, he needed all social obligations removed, so that he could heal – as would be the case with anyone who was sick. Styron talks about the indignities of those suffering from depression, and how they are expected to do things that would be virtually impossible to someone dying from a terminal illness, for example. You are expected to put on a happy face, keep going to work, show up for your family dinners … all of which exacerbate the intense feeling of dislocation and disorientation. You need help.
In 2009, I moved apartments. It was supposedly a good choice (and it was) but at the time, I moved in the middle of an intensifying brainstorm. So when the move was over, and I found myself alone in my new apartment, instead of feeling hopeful and happy I felt overwhelmed and devastated. I was not normal, that should go without saying. My thoughts were full of doom and fatalism. Self-loathing had ratcheted up to an alarming degree. I felt I myself was toxic – so my first thought, in those disorienting first couple of days in my new apartment, was: “Well. Clearly I need to move again.” I called it “bad juju”. I had already filled up my brand new apartment with “bad juju” and nothing would ever eradicate it. I cried for 19 days in July of 2009. It is hard to say that without feeling that someone will interject, “Surely you exaggerate just a tiny bit? Surely you didn’t cry every single minute of every single day …” But no, I do not exaggerate. I woke up in tears, cried the whole day, and finally started forcing myself to fall asleep at around 5:30, 6:00 – so that I wouldn’t have to be awake anymore. I took days off of work, and then when I did go to work, my kindly coworkers were sweet, and left me alone, as I sat at my desk, tears streaming down my face. I thought it would never end. I had moments when I would get off the bus to go to my new apartment, and feel, in my bones: “I can’t go back there.” But nowhere was safe. There would be no respite. Nothing would change. Ever. I know from experience that tears are often a sign of health: true depression brings you to a realm far far beyond tears. You would welcome the ability to feel ANYthing. And this was the case for me in 2009. Once the 19 days of tears stopped, then the real horror began. Nothingness broken by moments of sheer anguish. Fun!
[An additional thought: I realize now I should have been hospitalized in July of 2009. This is part of Styron's point in his book. That type of anguish cannot be talked away. If you found your leg crushed underneath a metal structure, you wouldn't wait it out. You'd go to a hospital and get that shit handled. There is no way on earth that I should have still been expected to go to work at that time. But what are ya gonna do. I didn't go to the hospital. I will next time.]
I don’t share this story to compare mine to Styron’s or anyone else’s. It’s not a competition. By late August, the tears had stopped, but something worse was in its place. Complete stoppage of everything. I was, as Styron calls it, “the walking wounded”. I still hadn’t unpacked my apartment. I had been living there for a month, but I was so upset about the “bad juju” that I couldn’t unpack. I also was immobilized, as anyone who has struggled with depression will understand. Simple tasks become impossibly enormous – impossible, essentially. Boxes lined the hallways. My books were unpacked. My clothes were in boxes. I was still thinking that I was going to have to move again – that clearly I had made a disastrous choice in moving to this apartment. My friend David interceded on my behalf – and suddenly, all of my friends rushed to my aid. My friend Mike offered to build me bookshelves, and then David planned a housewarming party for me (I had nothing to do with any of it, I wasn’t even included on the emails) – where all of my friends would come over and basically unpack for me. It was an extraordinary day and once my apartment was unpacked, and my pictures hung, and my books put away – a small space of clarity surrounded me. I was able to walk from A to B in my apartment without having to dodge the boxes, and at least my obsession with “bad juju” had vanished. Not just because my apartment was put in order by my friends – but because they had all come over. I had had a bunch of people in that apartment for the first time, and for the first time, instead of my howls of anguish for 19 days straight – the air in that apartment was filled with conversation, laughter, kids running around, hilarity. It was amazing what “good juju” did for me. I still had two months of crisis to endure and wouldn’t come out of my trance until the end of October – but I had found some strength. I organized a reading of my script, which went great – I actually went out on Halloween with my friend Jen, and we had a great time. I had a crush on someone, which was a miracle in and of itself. He asked me out for coffee. By the time I got laid off from my job in November 2009, I was on the road to healthy thought again. Being laid off (and given a giant severance package) was one of the biggest gifts of that crazy sad year. The money gave me freedom, yes, but more importantly – it gave me TIME. My month on Block Island in early 2010 was definitely for writing purposes and I did do a lot of writing while I was out there. But more than that: I recovered. That was the real beginning of my real recovery from those harrowing five months in 2009.
Everyone’s experience is different. This is mine. It was not so bad that I went into psychosis, or had to be hospitalized, so I do not mean to compare, or contrast. These book reviews are about my experience of said books, and as I looked through the book this morning I thought of how immobilized I was in the summer of 2009, and so I thought I would share it. Looking back, I was still posting on my blog through those months (the crisis began in mid-June – my blog started getting very weird around then), but they are mostly video clips, photos, and cryptic comments. The blog was a lifeline. It was a way to keep myself attached to the public world, to life, to the earth, but I was unable to really write. It’s painful to look back on the blog posts from that time, because they say nothing, and yet I know that behind the scenes I was crying for 19 days straight, and was going to sleep while it was still light out just to get a break from being conscious.
Darkness Visible is excruciating to read. I highly recommend it.
The book opens with a harrowing description of a trip Styron and his wife took to Paris. Styron was already in the throes of the depression at that time, but was resisting actually admitting it. He was there for a quick four-day trip to accept a literary prize, and he began to tailspin down at an alarming rate, all of this exacerbated by the obligations of the prize: he had to do interviews, go to a luncheon, go to a prize ceremony … Styron had no business doing any of this, you can see that clearly in how he describes it.
Excerpt from Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness
By the time we arrived at the museum, having dealt with heavy traffic, it was past four o’clock and my brain had begun to endure its familiar siege: panic and dislocation, and a sense that my thought processes were being engulfed by a toxic and unnameable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world. This is to say more specifically that instead of pleasure – certainly instead of the pleasure I should be having in this sumptuous showcase of bright genius – I was feeling in my mind a sensation close to, but indescribably different from, actual pain. This leads me to touch again on the elusive nature of such distress. That the word “indescribable” should present itself is not fortuitous, since it has to be emphasized that if the pain were readily describable most of the countless sufferers from this ancient affliction would have been able to confidently depict for their friends and loved ones (even their physicians) some of the actual dimensions of their torment, and perhaps elicit a comprehension that has been generally lacking; such incomprehension has usually been due not to a failure of sympathy but to the basic inability of healthy people to imagine a form of torment so alien to everyday experience. For myself, the pain is most closely connected to drowning or suffocation – but even these images are off the mark. William James, who battled depression for many years, gave up the search for an adequate portrayal, implying its near-impossibility when he wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experience: “It is a positive and active anguish, a sort of psychical neuralgia wholly unknown to normal life.”
The pain persisted during my museum tour and reached a crescendo in the next few hours when, back at the hotel, I fell into the bed and lay gazing at the ceiling, nearly immobilized and in a trance of supreme discomfort. Rational thought was usually absent from my mind at such times, hence trance. I can think of no more apposite word for this state of being, a condition of helpless stupor in which cognition was replaced by that “positive and active anguish”. And one of the most unendurable aspects of such an interlude was the inability to sleep. It had been my custom of a near-lifetime, like that of vast numbers of people, to settle myself into a soothing nap in the late afternoon, but the disruption of normal sleep patterns is a notoriously devastating feature of depression; to the injurious sleeplessness with which I had been afflicted each night, was added the insult of this afternoon insomnia, diminutive by comparison but all the more horrendous because it struck during the hours of the most intense misery. It had become clear that I would never be granted even a few minutes’ relief from my full-time exhaustion. I clearly recall thinking, as I lay there while Rose sat nearby reading, that my afternoons and evenings were becoming almost measurably worse, and that this episode was the worst to date. But I somehow managed to reassemble myself for dinner with – who else – Francoise Gallimard, co-victim along with Simone del Duca of the frightful lunchtime contretemps. The night was blustery and raw, with a chill wet wind blowing down the avenues, and when Rose and I met Francoise and her son and a friend at La Lorraine, a glittering brasserie not far from L’Etoile, rain was descending from the heavens in torrents. Someone in the group, sensing my state of mind, apologized for the evil night, but I recall thinking that even if this were one of those warmly scented and passionate evenings for which Paris is celebrated I would respond like the zombie I had become. The weather of depression is unmodulated, its light a brownout.
And zombielike, halfway through the dinner, I lost the del Duca prize check for $25,000. Having tucked the check in the inside breast pocket of my jacket, I let my hand stray idly to that place and realized that it was gone. Did I “intend” to lose the money? Recently I had been deeply bothered that I was not deserving of the prize. I believe in the reality of the accidents we subconsciously perpetrate on ourselves, and so how easy it was for this loss to be not loss but a form of repudiation, offshoot to that self-loathing (depression’s premier badge) by which I was persuaded that I could not be worthy of the prize, that I was in fact not worthy of any of the recognition that had come my way in the past few years. Whatever the reason for its disappearance, the check was gone, and its loss dovetailed well with the other failures of the dinner: my failure to have an appetite for the grand plateau de fruits de mer placed before me, failure of even forced laughter and, at last, virtually total failure of speech. At this point the ferocious inwardness of the pain produced an immense distraction that prevented my articulating words beyond a hoarse murmur; I sensed myself turning wall-eyed, monosyllabic, and also I sensed my French friends becoming uneasily aware of my predicament. It was a scene from a bad operetta by now: all of us near the floor, searching for the vanished money. Just as I signaled that it was time to go, Francoise’s son discovered the check, which had somehow slipped out of my pocket and fluttered under an adjoining table, and we went forth into the rainy night.