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Darkness Visible: How we can see what they see

Sophie F's picture
In Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness William Styron writes lyrically and hauntingly about his descent into depression. He writes the book having emerged from depression, recounting his experiences, piecing together the fragments of his puzzle that may have served as warnings that something in his mind was amiss. In stepping into the void that is depression, Stryon then writes of his relation to the world, the muddled, muddied lens through which he now perceived, only to realize in an instant, that something had to change.

The book strikes deeply because of Styron's capacity to scrutinize particular moments in his life and convey the experience of depression as though those experiences were current. This makes for a rich sense of what his life was like before depression struck, during his depression and then on the other side, having emerged from depression. This is a unique perspective in that one is able to glean through Styron the ebb and flow of his journey from a deeply personal perspective, his own thoughts and feelings, while also charting his progression through the darkness into the light. The instructiveness of a personal narrative on depression is profound. Styron, more than anyone else, is witness to his experience of depression, therefore most equipped to analyze and understand its character and his experience of it. In our class discussions about mental health, it has emerged that mental health is fluid, along a continuum, and that too often, the voices of those with various mental health issues are not heard. Styron's story begs the question "why?" As he grapples, so clearly, and illustratively with his depression in ways, which are elucidative of the experience of depression. Listen to him.

Styron describes his experience as a "tempest in the brain" (38). It is from this perspective that one begins to understand the intense disconnection from the rest of the world that Stryon experiences during his depression. After all, if one is so singularly focused on internal experience, one is disabled in one's ability to experience oneself vis-à-vis the world. Stryon further describes his mind as being "turned agonizingly inward" (47). It is this point that may well be overlooked in the evaluation of depression from the perspective of an outsider looking in. This sense of inward directedness is difficult to "see" as an outsider, when the manifestations of it are nebulous "symptoms" that cannot be easily determined or measured. In missing this subtle, yet salient point, one misses entirely the experience of depression. And not only is it difficult for an outsider to observe, it is also an arduous task for the person experiencing depression to articulate. Styron writes, "At this point, the ferocious inwardness of the pain produced an immense distraction that prevented my articulating words beyond a hoarse murmur"  (p. 20). This is a central feature in the experience of depression and one that makes understanding and treating depression difficult and nuanced. The focus of treatments of depression are often behavioral, goal-oriented and aimed at ameliorating symptoms of depression, such as anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, etc. This approach misses the fundamental disconnectedness that is omnipotent. And this oversight relegates the individual experiencing depression to a witness in her own treatment.

Styron could not readily access the parts of himself that he identified as "self." Styron writes, "I was used to my mind being my best friend; of carrying on endless conversations within my head; of having a built-in source of laughter or analytic thought to rescue me from boring or painful surroundings. I counted on my mind's acuity, interest and loyalty as a matter of course. Now, all of a sudden, my mind had turned on me: it mocked me for my vapid enthusiasms; it laughed at all of my foolish plans; it no longer found anything interesting or enjoyable or worthwhile. It was incapable of concentrated thought and turned time and again to the subject of death: I was going to die, what difference did anything make?" (38).

The idea that a person can recognize in her world the forms of experiences she used to enjoy, but that no longer contain the same resonance is an idea that we discussed in class. If tacit knowledge communicates to the storyteller, the storyteller attempts to reconcile the information it receives and sometimes create stories that do not coincide with engagement in the world in ways that are most useful to the individual. As the story is crafted, any incoming information, either from tacit knowledge as a well of past experiences or tacit knowledge as it incorporates sensory information in the present, the story teller sustains its story, maintains constancy, by weaving new information into its existing story, further entangling one in depression if that is the particular story that has come to the fore (2). Styron writes that every "sensation was without flavor" (49). And in this expectation of sensation, Styron's depression is manifest, as the expectation not met by the same internal response as he anticipates. And this serves only to heighten despite, since one's former experiences of the world cannot seemingly be attained. As Styron writes, "There he must, despite the anguish devouring his brain, present a face approximating the one that is associated with ordinary events and companionship...he must try to utter small talk and be responsive to questions...But it is a fierce trial attempting to speak a few simple words" (63).  The realm of the ordinary becomes extraordinary and trying. This is a common experience in depression, though, perhaps, underappreciated in its power over one's mind, one's agency.

And, indeed, agency in the face of depression is exemplified by Styron's experience. For, despite Styron's retreat into his own mind, despite his intense feelings of disconnection from the world and himself in it, as he had formerly known, Styron managed to seek help, knowing that the only way through his depression would be in doing so. One day, in the depths of his despair, Styron heard music, familiar to him, yet that did not evoke the same feeling that he remembered. However, hearing the song enabled Styron to recall memories of better times. He writes, "All this I realized was more than I could ever abandon, even as what I had set out so deliberately to do was more than I could inflict on those memories, and upon those, so close to me, with whom the memories were bound. And just as powerfully, I realized I could not commit this desecration on myself. I drew upon some last gleam of sanity to perceive the terrifying dimensions of the moral predicament I had fallen into...I woke up my wife and soon telephone calls were made. The next day I was admitted to the hospital" (67). This turning point is an important one; both in its illustrative power as to the real struggle of depression and in that Styron came to this on his own. Despite, having sought help from mental health experts, it was of Stryon's own volition that he was able to turn the corner and meet his depression head-on in order to overcome. Here, Styron is able to envision the possibility of another story, not depression, an alternative. And this is a powerful insight facilitated by new meaning created by the storyteller, working with information from tacit knowledge in novel ways (3). This is not necessarily the experience of most people with depression. And this makes Styron's experience one from which to learn.

Styron is able, once he has reshaped his thinking, to recognize the singularity of his experience, in that depression is by no means the same for all who experience it. It has as many faces as the number of people who experience, yet there are shared characteristics of the internal experiences of those with depression that come to bear on how depression might ideally be evaluated and treated by mental health professionals. Styron writes, "This memory of my relative indifference is importance because such indifference demonstrates powerfully the outsider's inability to grasp the essence of the illness (25-26). And from this premise, that of the difficulty of understanding the experiences of someone with depression, any good treatment of depression might begin. In class, our discussions of various treatment modalities used for mental health issues, were as much an evaluation of the treatments as an acknowledgement that any treatment is limited when seen as the be all and end all in and of itself; rather "treatment" might ideally be a combination of therapies that serve to move the individual along a path of continued self-discovery and creation of meaning that is constructive for that individual. As Styron writes, "I stayed in the hospital for nearly seven weeks. Not everyone might respond the way I did; depression, one must constantly insist, presents so many variations and has so many subtle facets-depends, in short, so much on the individual's totality of causation and response..." (72).

Styron's experience may, in fact, not be representative of many who experience depression, as he was able to make a decision to engage in constructive change. It is not always, or even often, the case that such directedness is conceivable to someone experiencing depression. "The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain" (33). Styron highlights this point, presumably because he is aware both of the uniqueness of his experience and the pervasive lack of understanding about depression. Perhaps, a way to approach depression, if it can, in fact, be deemed a storyteller misappropriation of signals, is to help the individual weave a story that is conducive to a less tormented existence. This may be best done with medication or therapy, and sometimes both. As Styron points out, the despair that leads people with depression to commit suicide might be curbed with treatment options that are more sensitive to the stories, the internal experiences, of the individuals with depression. Styron writes, "It is of great importance that those who are suffering a siege, perhaps for the first time, be told-be convinced, rather that the illness will run its course and that they will pull through" (76). Given Styron's descriptions of the all-consuming nature of his depression, this seems an obvious, though clearly underutilized, way to engage the storyteller in making new meaning, in releasing the individual from the chains of depression. Stories like Styron's give tremendous insight into the experience of mental illness, into depression. Let's make room for these stories in our understanding of mental illness. There is nobody more equipped to tell a story about depression than the person experiencing it. Listen.


1.  Styron, William. Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. New York: Modern  Library, 2007.

2. /exchange/courses/bio245/f08/brain2

3. /bb/reflections/upa/UPApaper.html


Paul Grobstein's picture

Depression as story

"the story teller sustains its story, maintains constancy, by weaving new information into its existing story, further entangling one in depression if that is the particular story that has come to the fore"
You're suggesting that depression is as much a story as it is a feeling? And, like all stories, tends to be self-sustaining? That's a seriously interesting thought, with all sorts of implications for both therapy and further inquiry into the etiology of depression. Well worth listening to/developing further.