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Memoir of Madness : William Styron Details the ‘Horror of Depression’ in His New Book

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To those who have been there, lived through it and dared to talk about it, the very word seems quite inadequate. Depression suggests an indentation, a rut in the road or a hole in the earth. It recalls foul moods, bad days, fights with the family, economic decline.

“It’s such a catch-all phrase,” said William Styron, the novelist and survivor of what he would prefer to call madness--depression that nearly cost his life. For such a major illness, Styron said, depression is “a true wimp of a word.”

For as Styron discovered, true depression swallows its victims entirely, devours them in one huge gulp, then spirits them to an otherwise unknowable nadir.

“To most of those who have experienced it,” Styron writes in “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness,” a slim volume Random House is publishing this month, “the horror of depression is so overwhelming as to be quite beyond expression.”

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But if there were a single designation for this disorder, a word or a phrase, Styron believes it would be something like brainstorm , meaning not some burst of intellectual inspiration, but “a veritable howling tempest in the brain.”

That is how it felt to William Styron, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Lie Down in Darkness,” “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” “Sophie’s Choice” and other books and plays. At his year-round home in Roxbury, Conn., five years ago, Styron’s family watched helplessly while he moaned and shouted from his bed.

“My head is exploding!” Styron cried. “My head is exploding!”

The next day, he entered the psychiatric unit of Yale-New Haven Hospital for the treatment he believes saved his life.

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White-haired, tall and endowed with the firm physique of a former Marine, Styron, 65, can sit on the wide back porch of his white-shingled summer house here on the island of Martha’s Vineyard and discuss his voyage to a Dantean hell with remarkable detachment.

“I feel I am a witness,” Styron said. There was no way not to address what he had been through, he said. His experience with depression “demanded to be dealt with in my mind.”

Shaded from the summer heat, Styron’s torpid golden retriever Tashmoo lies placidly at his feet, while Dinah, a wired-for-sound black Labrador, comes bouncing in from a swim at Black Point Beach to shake saltwater all over her adoring master.

Styron and his wife Rose, a poet, have owned this waterfront house for 25 years. There is a carefully tended flower garden, a large and equally well-manicured lawn and a view of the harbor, where, hour after hour, ferries chug in with new cargoes of summer visitors.

Styron has his own dock and his own sandy beach. On an island that inch for inch boasts as many well-known literary names as the average neighborhood bookstore, he is surrounded by good friends and kindred creative souls. Five years ago, as he battled the demons of depression, such comforts were of scant consolation.

This is what happened. Five years ago, at 60, Styron’s body and mind staged a revolt. A legendary drinker, a man who had been able to consume alcohol “abundantly, almost mercilessly,” Styron became unable to imbibe even the slightest quantity of alcoholic spirits.

“My system became unable to absorb even the slightest amount of alcohol,” he recalled. “I would drink a little wine at dinner, and then all night I would be up going to the bathroom.” Soon, Styron said, “even a single drink would make me feel rotten.”

In retrospect, Styron thinks the symptoms had actually begun sooner. “I felt maybe that previous spring,” the spring of 1984, “that I was having a little trouble,” he said. “I wasn’t feeling too hot.”

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With his wife, and with their friend Kurt Vonnegut, Styron took a trip to Poland. “We were supposed to be doing things with the dissidents,” Styron said. “But my heart wasn’t in it.” While Vonnegut and Rose Styron pursued political activities, Styron holed up in his hotel room. He felt listless, unenthusiastic, unwilling to participate.

“I felt there was something happening, a slight aberration in my mind-body relationship. I felt it would go away.”

But it didn’t. With the link to alcohol, the “aberration” was no longer slight.

“I was not, and I am not, an alcoholic,” Styron said. “But I had a huge capacity to abuse alcohol--and I now realize it was abuse.

“Drinking was built into my behavior pattern,” he went on. In “Darkness Visible” he elaborates, explaining, “I used alcohol as the magical conduit to fantasy and euphoria, and to the enhancement of the imagination.”

But “suddenly,” Styron said, “it went away.” Just as suddenly, Styron found himself faced with trying to “alter the habits of a lifetime.”

Over a beer, a physician whom Styron knew socially offered to write him a prescription for medication to help with Styron’s sleeplessness. The physician had never examined Styron as a patient, and did not ask his weight or age. He handed Styron a prescription for a drug called Ativan.

“The great thing about Ativan,” this doctor told Styron, “is that you can take as much as you want without ever worrying.”

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Styron’s mood darkened. His body became stooped, like a very old man. On Martha’s Vineyard, he responded indifferently to the friends and fellowship he had previously treasured. “I felt a kind of numbness,” Styron writes, “but more particularly, an odd fragility, as if my body had actually become frail.”

With this sense of physical debilitation came “an immense and aching solitude.” Styron could no longer concentrate. “The act of writing became more and more difficult and exhausting, stalled, and then finally ceased,” he writes.

Over and over in his mind he heard a line from Baudelaire, “I have felt the wind of the wing of madness.”

More than once, Styron had written scenes of depression into his novels. In “Sophie’s Choice,” the heroine is assaulted in New York, then takes to her room for days. She is unable even to lift her window blinds. This was fiction, Styron told himself as he wrote it. But now he shudders at how accurately he portrayed the depressive state of mind.

“All that was written out of intuition,” Styron said. “I had no idea what a depressive mood actually was.” While he knew on one terrifying level that his own center had lost its bearing, “what astonishes me now is that I had only the most rudimentary knowledge of this thing called depression. I had no awareness, none at all, of the really pathological meaning of this thing.”

One thing Styron has since learned is that the roots of this disease, depression, can run very, very deep. Some cases of clinical depression appear to be hereditary. In other cases, they may be linked to childhood traumas. The death of a parent in early adolescence seems often to bear on cases of depression in adulthood.

Styron was barely 14 when his mother died of cancer. A year later, his father was hospitalized. Styron was not told why, but it now appears his father was treated for what was sometimes called “melancholia"--depression.

“If I were to accept this theory, and I tend to do so--although I do not accept every psychoanalytic theory that comes along, I would have to say that this is a profound idea, the idea of incomplete mourning,” Styron said.

Just 10 years after his mother died, Styron wrote “Lie Down in Darkness.” It begins with the dead heroine, Peyton Loftis, returning in her coffin by train to Virginia. In writing that book, Styron said, “I may have been working out some of the aggrieved feelings, the pure grief that I had somehow wanted to bury.”

Halfway down his own personal slide, “I began to see that this was plainly depression,” Styron said.

For the first time in his life, he sought psychiatric help. But the psychiatrist he calls “Dr. Gold” in his book only warned him that hospitalization might ruin his reputation, Styron said.

In his book, “I tried to emphasize over and over that what happened to me should not be a touchstone for what might happen to anyone else,” Styron said. Still, “I do not believe that psychotherapy is of any use for serious depression,” he said. “I think that by that time, the illness has so overwhelmed the brain that sitting there for 50 minutes and talking about anything at all is a futile exercise.”

Styron was switched to another kind of mood-equalizing drug, Halcion. With the new medication, Styron’s suicidal thoughts grew.

Ultimately it was not drugs, not doctors, but good friends and family who helped Styron through the murk of his depression. Every day, Styron’s friend Art Buchwald, a neighbor on Martha’s Vineyard, would call Styron to offer encouragement. Buchwald also promised Styron that hospitalization would not ruin his career--that on the contrary, it might save it.

As he writes in “Darkness Visible,” kitchen knives attained a new allure as Styron’s suicidal feelings increased. He contemplated inadvertent suicide, walking in front of a truck, for instance. His conversation reflected his mood. “I kept saying, ‘I’m finished,’ ” Styron said. “I kept using the phrase, ‘I’m a goner.’ ”

Seven weeks of hospitalization offered him asylum, Styron said. He was taken off Halcion, and his suicidal feelings vanished.

“The hospital was a place to get out of the horror of this monstrous daily routine, which was getting more and more horrible,” Styron said. Removed from the pressures of daily life, Styron said that in the hospital, he was able to partake of “what may be depression’s only grudging favor--its ultimate capitulation.”

Styron might never have talked about his experience with depression. But in 1987, the Italian writer Primo Levi killed himself, joining a long list of writers and literary figures who have ended their own lives. One year later, Styron became incensed when he read a newspaper account of a symposium about Levi, in which the participants seemed almost to blame the Auschwitz survivor for taking his own life.

Two and a half years had passed since his own hospitalization. “Hardly a day went by when I hadn’t thought about writing something about it,” Styron said, “I had tried a little fiction,” but nothing really worked.

After the article about Levi, “I sat down, and in one afternoon, about 1 1/2 hours, I wrote 1,000 words. The words just came tumbling out,” Styron said, “as if they had a sort of precipitating power behind them.”

Straight from Styron’s soul, those 1,000 words ran as an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times. Later, Styron expanded his feelings into a 13,000-word essay that ran last winter in Vanity Fair. That piece became the basis for “Darkness Visible.”

While stressing that he has “no intention of becoming a professional depressive,” Styron hopes that his book will help broaden understanding about the disease.

“I do not intend this as an exhortation,” he said. “I intended it as a personal account of a survivor, from which other people will draw, one hopes, sustenance.”

Even recalling his own former ignorance about the dimensions of this disorder, Styron bridles at the lack of understanding he believes exists about depression.

Not long ago, he was taking some physical therapy for a problem with his arm. He and his physical therapist were talking “with some loudness” about depression.

“From another table, we heard a woman say, ‘Depression is caused by self-pity,’ ” Styron said. “I came close to murder. It was one of those idiotic statements that I just cannot tolerate.

“I bring up this incident because it is not uncharacteristic of this ailment. People who are not educated about depression, to one degree or another, are ignorant of what the situation is. No one is really able to respond to it.

“You need support, and you need treatment. I don’t know what can be said, except that there has to be a consciousness-raising effort that allows people to know what depression is really about.”

Styron is back at work on fiction now, writing longhand and on yellow pads as he always does. “Just a short novel” about the Marine Corps and World War II is his present project, he said, “nothing omnibus or grand in design or length.”

“Darkness Visible” was a catharsis, Styron said, and it was also a service.

“In the back of my mind, a voice, my own voice, was saying, ‘You are doing a disservice to yourself and to other people if you do not get this down.

“It was a compulsion to write this, and so it was done.” Styron looked evenly out toward the sea. “And I’m very glad it was done.”


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