Looking on the Dark & Bright Side

A short reflection on a daily struggle with depression and thoughts of suicide.

In Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, William Styron perhaps best captured the perennial plague of depression with greater vividness and acuity of anyone I have read:

In depression this faith in deliverance, in ultimate restoration, is absent. The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come—not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. If there is mild relief, one knows that it is only temporary; more pain will follow. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul. So the decision-making of daily life involves not, as in normal affairs, shifting from one annoying situation to another less annoying—but moving from pain to pain. One does not abandon, even briefly, one’s bed of nails, but is attached to it wherever one goes. And this results in a striking experience—one which I have called, borrowing military terminology, the situation of the walking wounded. For in virtually any other serious sickness, a patient who felt similar devastation would be lying flat in bed, possibly sedated and hooked up to the tubes and wires of life-support systems, but at the very least in a posture of repose and in an isolated setting. His invalidism would be necessary, unquestioned and honorably attained. However, the sufferer of depression has no such option and therefore finds himself, like a walking casualty of war, thrust into the most intolerable social and family situations. 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, and knowingly nod and frown, and God help him, even smile. But it is a fierce trial attempting to speak a few simple worlds (p. 40).

Depression resists articulation. Words are inadequate to describe the effects of the horrible intensity of this disease when it is out of control. I firmly believe that the experience of what the steady fall into depression feels like is indescribable and untranslatable to someone who has never been in its grips. Somehow, Styron manages to say the un-sayable. He captures the descent, the paralysis, and the utter loss of belief which results from an altered and irrational consciousness which admits suicide as a real possibility. It’s an impressive feat. Depression is about as close to catatonic as you can get without being in a coma. Put simply, it’s really fucking hard to get this illness onto the page.

I am attracted to this text because the heavy darkness of depression is nothing new to me. I have dealt with it in some way or other since childhood. As I got older and became an adult, I would incessantly wonder what it would be like to be someone with a brighter take on things. Someone who possessed the necessary illusions without which life is unbearable. Someone who could simply get out of bed in the morning and not be tormented with an inner monologue: There’s no hope. Give up, go back to bed. It’s too late. There’s no hope. With depression comes a massive shutdown in the ability to think and care much about anything. The one thing I did accomplish in my despair was sleep. I found it too painful to be conscious so I would sleep all day. Mornings were the worst so I got up later and later, first 11, then noon, and then it was more like 2 in the afternoon. The few hours of the day that I was awake, I felt a kind of lethal fatigue. Phone messages went unanswered, emails unchecked. Reading was out of the question since my concentration was completely shot. The permanent white noise of my life continued: You’re a failure. A burden. Useless. Worse than useless: worthless. The beauty of the world disappeared and during those moments, I would only know the darkest corners of myself. What always struck me as the worst part of depression is the fact that there is no way out of the reality of being you, a person that is forever noticing the flaws in the world.

For someone who has ever asked, How could somebody commit suicide?, Styron’s concise and elegant memoir makes for essential reading. To the unaffected, self-murder is incomprehensible, but as Styron explains it relies upon a logic foreign to our frame-of-reference. Suicide has its own logic that includes a way of seeing the world that taints everything we are taught to revere: a beautiful day, family, close relationships. Like Styron, suicide has always held out a stark allure for me. I shamefully admired the people who had the audacity to bring to a screeching halt their own suffering. In my most depressed state, I would comfort myself with visions of my death. The thought of it temporarily made me feel fresh with life, unsullied by me. Soon I realized that I had been fantasizing about suicide every day for months. Then I took action. First attempt. Ambien. Second attempt. Lithium. On the third, I tried to hang myself. My desire to die was a direct result of a process and mindset that I had been steeping in for months. I have spent the better part of my adult life vigorously entertaining and just as vociferously disavowing thoughts of self-harm because I know that acknowledging them can be used as pretext for committing me to a locked psychiatric facility. Over time, something happens to those thoughts. They take on a familiar and comforting presence in your mind. They are always there, and you don’t dare tell anyone about them. I stayed silent. I have been in an obliterating depression for the majority of this year. I am doing better now. I am beginning to reconstruct myself. Some days I find meaning. I am in therapy and I take medications, although, like Styron, I don’t find them helpful in alleviating anything. I am functional. Still, I know that with this disease you live year by year, month by month. Depression lies in wait and strikes at the moment you are weakest. Managing it is a constant battle and requires ever vigilance if you want any shot at prevailing.

Fortunately, Darkness Visible is a survivor’s tale. The darkness was not interminable. Life got better. Styron’s recovery prompted him to offer crucial advice to anyone wondering about how to best comfort a depressed loved one which was to keep reminding them that the pain will end. Depression can be endured. With time, it’s conquerable.