William Styron goes further in Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (Random House, 1990) in conveying the nature of depression than most writers I have encountered. His own experience with depression made him an authoritative informer. His abilities as a highly descriptive writer should have enabled him to give an effective account. And although I‘m not going to say that he isn’t effective, nonetheless there is a distinctive separation between the depression he describes and our ability as reader to know what he is talking about. What does it mean for the mind to dissolve? What kind of emotional pain would leave one completely debilitated? What does it mean to find in one’s life that circumstances have become so hopeless that the only solution is to end life? (He notes that in his four novels, three main characters commit suicide). Styron is convincing in his affirmation of his suffering. He is not self-pitying. He does not feel sorry for himself. He seems to have some awareness of the effects of his suffering on the people around him. But mostly he describes depression as a lonely, isolating, solipsistic darkness.
A depressed individual might well recognize himself in Styron’s account, though he insists that every episode of depression is different. He offers no consolation for the depressed person, other than to report the fact that most episodes of depression run their course, the sufferer eventually recovering to go on with life, except for the 20% of the most severely depressed, who choose suicide. It is unhappy to know that, at least in Styron’s experience, medication did not relieve his pain. It is disheartening to read that psychoanalysis does not often move one towards recovery. (One psychiatrist told Styron not to talk about his illness because of the social stigma). Styron sees depression as the result of chemical imbalances in the brain, but he also connects it to childhood trauma of some type, in his case the early death of his mother.
Haruki Murakami’s recent novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2014) gives a wrenching account of depression in its opening pages—similar to Styron’s account but more powerfully convincing.