Telling on the Disease: Writers & Depression

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by Ed Davis on July 24, 2017

 In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood,
For I had lost the right path.
–Dante’s The Divine Comedy

Depression is a malady to which artists and writers, particularly poets, are quite prone. I’ve developed greater familiarity with it lately, having suffered several bad episodes this year. Today I feel qualified by experience to broach an issue I’ve mostly considered taboo. I now believe that it’s crucial to—as recovering folks say—tell on the disease in order to live beyond the “despair beyond despair.”

A Memoir of Madness

That last quote is William Styron’s, from his brave book Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. A huge fan of Styron’s fiction, especially Sophie’s Choice, I bought his memoir when it came out in 1990, devoured it and then gave it to a friend and long-time depression sufferer whom I felt would benefit from it more than I, a confirmed anxiety man. I found out recently, though, that it was really I who needed it. Like my literary hero, I’m telling on the disease in the hope that we sufferers find more successful “treatment” than depressed writers who committed suicide, such as Woolf, Plath, Sexton, London, Berryman, Hemingway, to name but a few.

Field Trip for the Soul

I’ve had two crushing bouts of Black Dreads this year, first, while hiking in Hocking Hills, Ohio, from Cedar Falls to Old Man’s Cave last March; the second in June, on a “normal” day at home.  For whatever reason—Styron maintains the causes of depression are too complex and various to easily diagnose—I found myself sinking into a headachy malaise of dark thoughts and relentless dread. While I mutely weathered my mental tsunami that day in Hocking Hills as it unfolded, on the more recent June day I told my wife what was going on. Our solution: get out of the house.

As soon as I entered Joseph Beth, my favorite Cincinnati bookstore, I was overwhelmed by the sight of all those covers, spines and shelf talkers I’d have to try to read. Yet I persisted, for I had a hunch I’d find the exact right book to help me through this latest crisis. Sure enough, after an hour, I found Styron’s slim volume of less than 100 pages in the Psychology section.

Plopping into an overstuffed chair, I read how the author came within inches of taking his life on a December night in 1985, and what he did instead, setting him on the path to recovery. And while he did not gift us with another Sophie’s Choice before his death in 2006, at 81, he did make it the mission of his last fifteen years to help others deal with the disease that almost killed him. Darkness, while harrowing, is extremely rewarding reading; I’m going to barely suggest its riches (which I’m currently integrating into a longer essay) below.

Seclusion and Time

A lot of Styron’s information about antidepressants (which didn’t work for him and, in fact, exacerbated his problem) is clearly dated. Also, he admits that his story—and eventual healing—is only one man’s story. But the memoir is full of hope based on experience, knowledge and wisdom. It was neither drugs nor talk therapy but a seven-week stay in the hospital that healed him. All that he learned while there—what worked and what didn’t—is described clearly and movingly. I had admired William Styron as a distant literary god, but that day at Jo Beth, I loved him as a friend and fellow writer whose gentle, intimate voice assured me that this serious and sometimes fatal illness is treatable, even “conquerable.”

The “Shining World”

Referring to the poet Dante, with whom I began this essay, Styron concludes: “For those who have dwelt in depression’s dark wood, and known its inexplicable agony, their return from the abyss is not unlike the ascent of the poet, trudging upward and upward out of hell’s black depths and at last emerging into what he saw as ‘the shining world.’ There, whoever has been restored to health has almost always been restored to the capacity for serenity and joy, and this may be indemnity enough for having endured the despair beyond despair.”

I benefited greatly from rediscovering this valuable resource just at the moment when I needed it most. And while I haven’t received a visit from the Dark One lately, I’m not fooling myself that I’ve seen the last of him. I know there’s much more for me to learn—and, alas, probably experience—but, inspired by a courageous writer, I’ve told on my own disease and that feels right.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Cathy Essinger July 25, 2017 at 1:41 am

Thanks for writing this, Ed. I have often wondered if writers and artists are more depressive in general, or if they just have the means to tell us about it! I truly feel for people who do not have that escape.

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