This short 84 page book, published in 1990 and easily read in one night, is a poignant, powerful memoir in which Styron attempts to describe the indescribable - "the pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne."
Styron won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968 for his novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner. Other well-known works include his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness (1951) and Sophie's Choice (1979). He became clinically depressed and suicidal later in life (60's) although he admits that alcohol use probably masked the symptoms.
Styron has a beef with the word "depression" arguing that
"melancholia" would still appear to be a far more apt and evocative word for the blacker forms of the disorder, but it was usurped by a noun with a bland tonality and lacking any magisterial presence, used indifferently to describe an economic decline or a rut in the ground, a true wimp of a word for such a major illness.Why do the blackest thoughts reside in some and not others? He tries to answer this for himself and for the long list of other artists who succumbed to suicide, acknowledging that
bloody and bowed by the outrages of life, most human beings still stagger on down the road, unscathed by real depression. To discover why some people plunge into the downward spiral of depression, one must search beyond the manifest crisis - and then still fail to come up with anything beyond wise conjecture.Bottom line, who knows?
He describes the rapid descent of "anxiety, agitation, unfocused dread" and openly admits relating to Baudelair, the 19th century poet's words, I have felt the wind of the wing of madness. He then very definitively says:
But never let it be doubted that depression, in its extreme form, is madness. That madness results from an aberrant biochemical process.....such madness is chemically induced amid the neurotransmitters of the brain, probably as the result of systemic stress, which for unknown reasons causes a depletion of the chemicals norepinephrine and serotonin, and the increase of a hormone, cortisol.This reminds me of Josh's psychologist's words when we spoke on the phone after his death. Somehow, that night, Josh suffered a psychotic break with reality. I did not get it then, but Styron's words help give some framework to the comment.
As Styron's struggles intensified, he gives a vivid description of the mental pain and anguish that leads to suicidal thoughts.
It may be more accurate to say that despair owing to some evil trick played upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs in this cauldron, because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.He goes on to speak of the concept of loss:
It is the touchstone of depression - in the progress of the disease and, more likely, in its origin....the loss of self-esteem is a celebrated symptom...one dreads the loss of all things, all people close and dear. There is an acute fear of abandonment....There is no doubt that as one nears the penultimate depths of depression - which is to say just before the stage when one begins to act out one's suicide instead of being a mere contemplator of it - the acute sense of loss is connected with a knowledge of life slipping away at accelerated speed.He chronicles his own suicidal ideation and the reason why.
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....the situation of the walking wounded.On the night he determined his own extinction, he "experienced a curious inner convulsion that I can describe only as despair beyond despair. It came out of the cold night; I did not think such anguish possible."
He was so close to suicide but luckily for him, one song snapped him out of it. He was voluntarily hospitalized the next day. My thoughts upon reading this are, Why wasn't Josh saved? Why wasn't he spared? Why couldn't he have failed? Why couldn't something have snapped him out of it?