The book that changed the way we talk about depression

The enduring power and comfort of William Styron's Darkness Visible, 30 years later

William Styron.
(Image credit: Illustrated | AP Photo)

Nowadays, it's not hard to find first-person narratives about depression. Podcasts about mental health are numerous. So, too, are stand-up comedy specials that deal frankly with mental illness, like recent stellar examples from Gary Gulman, Maria Bamford, Chris Gethard, and Neal Brennan. If you're a reader like me, you could spend years making your way through the canon of depression memoirs.

This was decidedly not the case in December of 1989, when one of the country's most celebrated novelists described his experiences with the illness in the pages of Vanity Fair. In a nearly 15,000-word essay, William Styron, the then-64-year-old author of The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice, took readers inside his mind during the throes of a recent depressive spell. It was a place, he said, of "dreadful, pouncing seizures of anxiety" and a "gray drizzle of horror," where "faith in deliverance, in ultimate restoration, [was] absent." A longtime drinker, Styron had tumbled into the abyss after developing a sudden intolerance for alcohol during the summer of 1985. Once the illness was upon him, he suffered intensely, to the point of contemplating suicide. He was admitted to a psychiatric ward of a Connecticut hospital, where he stayed for several weeks, and his anguish eventually lifted. He ended the account with a message of hope. "One need not sound the false or inspirational note to stress the truth that depression is not the soul's annihilation," he wrote. "Men and women who have recovered from the disease — and they are countless — bear witness to what is probably its only saving grace: it is conquerable."

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