“I believe in the reality of the accidents we subconsciously perpetrate on ourselves, and how easy it was for this loss to b not loss but a form of repudiation, offshoot of that self-loathing (depression’s premier badge) by which I was persuaded that I could not be worthy of the prize, that I was in fact not worthy of any of the recognition that had come my way in the past few years.” In 1985, at the age of sixty and near the peak of a heralded writing career, William Styron was struck down for the first time in his life by depression while in Paris. It lasted six months, a relatively short period of time, even for severe depressions like Styron experienced. But what Styron's depression lacked in longevity it made up for in intensity. Depression, he reminds us, is a dreadful illness ''which can be as serious a medical affair as diabetes or cancer.'' It can be treated, but as with diabetes and cancer, a cure is not always there. For many depressives — Styron lists ''a sad but scintillant roll call'' of artists that includes Hart Crane, Primo Levi, Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, John Berryman, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and Diane Arbus — the only solution is self-destruction. He tells us how close he came to that alternative, and how, with the sometimes dubious aid of drugs and psychotherapy, he managed to step back from the brink of it all. ''Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self — to the mediating intellect — as to verge close to being beyond description,'' Styron writes near the beginning of the book, and he goes on to make this point again and again. The very nature of the illness — a massive shutdown of the ability to think and care about much of anything — makes it difficult for the sufferer to understand his ailment, and the great chasm between the sick and the well prevents even the occasionally depressed reader, from gaining a more than metaphorical grip on the kind of overwhelming breakdown Styron is describing. He also talks about how while in Paris to receive an award from Académie Française and didn’t feel like he deserved it at all. He had to have dinner with the board members and his publisher but didn’t want to have to put on a happy face with how depressed he felt. Luck for him it was a gloomy rainy night in Paris so his lack luster was not noticed as much.
Psychotherapeutic alliances can be illuminating for others, but in Styron's case therapy seems to have been a dead end. Never having consulted a shrink before-despite foretastes of his depression, and a longtime dependency on alcohol that ended only when his body rebelled — he began seeing a psychiatrist when he reached bottom. The strange Dr. Gold escorted Styron from pill to incapacitating pill, all the while, counseling him against the ''stigma'' of hospitalization. But once Styron had stopped just short of killing himself, to be brought back by the lucky accident of hearing a reminiscent passage of Brahms — the hospital was just where he went, and where he says, is what saved him. Or, rather, was where he found himself saved: ''Even those for whom any kind of therapy is a futile exercise can look forward to the eventual passing of the storm. If they survive the storm itself, its fury almost always fades and then disappears. Mysterious in its coming, mysterious in its going, the affliction runs its course, and one ends peace.''
Styron's skill and integrity as a writer are more persuasive than this mysteriousness, but there are signs that even now he has difficulty admitting how long depression may have been with him. He does not get around to telling us of his father's hospitalization for depression, and of his mother's death when he was 13, until five pages before the end of this short book. Yet he writes that ''after I had returned to health and was able to reflect on the past in the light of my ordeal, I began to see clearly how depression had clung