The Great God of Depression
How mental illness stopped being “A terrible dark secret.”The New York Times By Pagan Kennedy Aug 3, 2018
Nearly 30 years ago, the author William Styron outed himself in these pages as mentally ill. “My days were pervaded by a gray drizzle of unrelenting horror,” he wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed article, describing the deep depression that had landed him in the psych ward. He compared the agony of mental illness to that of a heart attack. Pain is pain, whether it’s in the mind or the body. So why, he asked, were depressed people treated as pariahs?
A confession of mental illness might not seem like a big deal now, but it was back then. In the 1980s, “if you were depressed, it was a terrible dark secret that you hid from the world,” according to Andrew Solomon, a historian of mental illness and author of “The Noonday Demon.” “People with depression were seen as pathetic and even dangerous. You didn’t let them near your kids.”
William Styron's Op-Ed on Depression
“In the popular mind, suicide is usually the work of a coward or sometimes, paradoxically, a deed of great courage, but it is neither; the torment that precipitates the act makes it often one of blind necessity.”
The response to Mr. Styron’s op-ed was immediate. Letters flooded into The New York Times. The readers thanked him, blurted out their stories and begged him for more. “Inadvertently I had helped unlock a closet from which many souls were eager to come out,” Mr. Styron wrote later.
“It was like the #MeToo movement,” Alexandra Styron, the author’s daughter, told me. “Somebody comes out and says: ‘This happened. This is real. This is what it feels like.’ And it just unleashed the floodgates.”
Readers were electrified by Mr. Styron’s confession in part because he inhabited a storybook world of glamour. After his novel “Sophie’s Choice” was adapted into a blockbuster movie in 1982, Mr. Styron rocketed from mere literary success to Hollywood fame. Meryl Streep, who won an Oscar for playing Sophie, became a lifelong friend, adding to Mr. Styron’s roster of illustrious buddies, from “Jimmy” Baldwin to Arthur Miller. He appeared at gala events with his silver hair upswept in a genius-y pompadour and his face ruddy from summers on Martha’s Vineyard. And yet he had been so depressed that he had eyed the knives in his kitchen with suicide-lust.
James L.W. West, Mr. Styron’s friend and biographer, told me that Mr. Styron had never wanted to become “the guru of depression.” But after his article, he felt he had a duty to take on that role.
His famous memoir of depression, “Darkness Visible,” came out in October 1990. It was Mr. Styron’s curiosity about his own mind, and his determination to use himself as a case study to understand a mysterious disease, that gave the book its political power. “Darkness Visible” demonstrated that patients could be the owners and describers of their mental disorders, upending centuries of medical tradition in which the mentally ill were discredited and shamed. The brain scientist Alice Flaherty, who was Mr. Styron’s close friend and doctor, has called him “the great god of depression” because his influence on her field was so profound. His book became required reading in some medical schools, where physicians were finally being trained to listen to their patients.
Mr. Styron also helped to popularize a new way of looking at the brain. In his telling, suicidal depression is a physical ailment, as unconnected to the patient’s moral character as cancer. The book includes a cursory discussion of the chemistry of the brain — neurotransmitters, serotonin and so forth. For many readers, it was a first introduction to scientific ideas that are now widely accepted.
For people with severe mood disorders, “Darkness Visible” became a guidebook. “I got depressed and everyone said to me: ‘You have to read the Bill Styron book. You have to read the Bill Styron book. Have you read the Bill Styron book? Let me give you a copy of the Bill Styron book,’” Mr. Solomon told me. “On the one hand an absolutely harrowing read, and on the other hand one very much rooted in hope.”
The book benefited from perfect timing. It appeared contemporaneously with the introduction of Prozac and other mood-disorder medications with fewer side effects than older psychiatric drugs. Relentlessly advertised on TV and in magazines, they seemed to promise protection. And though Mr. Styron himself probably did not take Prozac and was rather skeptical about drugs, his book became the bible of that era.
You read; you wrote; you survived.
He also inspired dozens of writers — including Mr. Solomon and Dr. Flaherty — to chronicle their own struggles. In the 1990s, bookstores were crowded with mental-illness memoirs — Kay Redfield Jamison’s “An Unquiet Mind,” Susanna Kaysen’s “Girl, Interrupted” and Elizabeth Wurtzel’s “Prozac Nation,” to name a few. You read; you wrote; you survived.
It was an optimistic time. In 1999, with “Darkness Visible” in its 25th printing, Mr. Styron told Diane Rehm in an NPR interview: “I’m in very good shape, if I may be so bold as to say that.” He continued, “It’s as if I had purged myself of this pack of demons.”
It wouldn’t last. In the summer of 2000, he crashed again. In the last six years of his life, he would check into mental hospitals and endure two rounds of electroshock therapy.
Mr. Styron’s story mirrors the larger trends in American mental health over the past few decades. During the exuberance of the 1990s, it seemed possible that drugs would one day wipe out depression, making suicide a rare occurrence. But that turned out to be an illusion. In fact, the American suicide rate has continued to climb since the beginning of the 21st century.
We don’t know why this is happening, though we do have a few clues. Easy access to guns is probably contributing to the epidemic: Studies show that when people are able to reach for a firearm, a momentary urge to self-destruct is more likely to turn fatal. Oddly enough, climate change may also be to blame: A new study shows that rising temperatures can make people more prone to suicide.
With suicidal depression so widespread, we find ourselves needing new ways to talk about it, name its depredations and help families cope with it. Mr. Styron’s mission was to invent this new language of survival, but he did so at high cost to his own mental health.
When he revealed his history of depression, he inadvertently set a trap for himself. He became an icon of recovery. His widow, Rose Styron, told me that readers would call the house at all hours when they felt suicidal, and Mr. Styron would counsel them. He always took those calls, even when they woke him at 3 in the morning. When he plunged into depression again in 2000, Mr. Styron worried about disappointing his fans. “When he crashed, he felt so guilty because he thought he’d let down all the people he had encouraged in ‘Darkness Visible,’” Ms. Styron told me. And he became painfully aware that if he ever did commit suicide, that private act would ripple out all over the world. The consequences would be devastating for his readers, some of whom might even decide to imitate him.
And so, one dark day in the summer of 2000, he wrote up a statement to be released in the event of his suicide. “I hope that readers of ‘Darkness Visible’ — past, present and future — will not be discouraged by the manner of my dying,” his message began. It was an attempt to inoculate his fans from the downstream effects of his own self-destruction.
Facing Depression, Again
This excerpt from Pagan Kennedy’s podcast, “The Great God of Depression,” follows the onset of William Styron’s second episode of severe depression.
While my collaborators and I were working on the podcast, the designer Kate Spade took her own life in her Park Avenue apartment. And then, a few days later, the celebrity chef and television host Anthony Bourdain killed himself in a five-star French hotel.
Millions of people reacted to these two deaths with shock and sorrow. Mr. Bourdain’s suicide seemed particularly unthinkable, because his TV shows and books celebrated his great talent for joy — his delight in everything from Thai street food to jiu-jitsu. Many of us who were Mr. Bourdain’s fans struggled to understand the apparent paradox of his life-affirming mission and his terrible urge for extinction.
But it can work both ways. Mr. Styron discovered that he could use his fame and storytelling genius to bring people back from the brink of death. And he could give family members the language they needed to forgive, love and empathize.
One man wrote to Mr. Styron about his son, who had “ended his life in a jump from a high-rise building in Palm Beach where he had recently begun his career as an aeronautical engineer.” The father confessed that he and his wife had spent years “asking ourselves what we did wrong.” But Mr. Styron’s op-ed “enabled me to look at the matter in a new light.” The man had finally been able to forgive himself — at least a little bit — for his son’s death.
As for Mr. Styron himself, he did not end his life during that terrible summer of 2000. Instead, he managed to muddle on for six more years and to die of physical ailments — weakened by cancer, he succumbed to pneumonia.
And so, happily — if such a story can be called happy — he did not have to use his suicide note in the way it was originally intended. Years later, the note became public, appearing in a posthumous collection of his letters. That note is now a treasure, in that it gives us a glimpse of Mr. Styron’s mind as he was considering his final exit. Even lost in that deep darkness, he wanted to leave behind a message of hope and fellowship:
“Everyone must keep up the struggle, for it is always likely that you will win the battle and nearly a certainty you will win the war. To all of you, sufferers and nonsufferers alike, I send my abiding love.”
Pagan Kennedy (@Pagankennedy) is the co-producer of “The Great God of Depression,” a serial podcast from PRX's Radiotopia; the author of “Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World”; and a contributing opinion writer.