Ingrid Blaufarb Hughes

Not the Whole Person

Losing His Mind and Regaining It

Novelist William Styron was about to take his own life. How did he turn around?

Posted Sep 13, 2017

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by the novelist William Styron is his account of a bout of major depression which drove him to the edge of suicide, and the remarkable way in which his will to live asserted itself at the last minute.

Styron’s melancholy, as he prefers to call it, began with “a kind of numbness, an enervation…an odd fragility…” He found himself losing the ability to enjoy life, more aware of darkness and shadows, and believed these changes were triggered by his withdrawal from alcohol, which had been involuntary. For many years he had enjoyed drinking and felt it helped him write. But as he entered his sixties, he suddenly found that it made him sick. Even in small amounts alcohol caused “nausea…wooziness…and revulsion.”            

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

As his uneasiness grew, he found himself beset by “a pervasive hypochondria.” “Twitches and pain” made him fear “dire infirmities.” His “beloved home for thirty years took on…an almost palpable quality of ominousness.” He sank into a “suffocating gloom,” which made his beloved farmhouse seem “hostile and forbidding.” He felt “an immense and aching solitude,” despite the fact that his devoted wife was always nearby. One day he was “riveted with fear” at the sight of geese flying overhead, something that would ordinarily have delighted him. At that point, he realized he was going mad and that suicide was a possibility. 

As his body and mind failed, his voice became that of an old man, his gait turned to a shuffle. He lost libido and self-esteem, felt instead self-loathing; his “sense of self all but disappeared,” along with his independence. Though mornings were not so bad, each afternoon he would “feel the horror, like some poisonous fog bank, roll in…forcing [him] into bed…stuporous and virtually paralyzed.” He came to fear abandonment and was frantic if he was alone in the house even briefly. At the same time, he felt his suicide was getting nearer, that his life was slipping away.

In Paris to accept an award, at a time when his melancholy had reached “the point where I was monitoring each phase of my deteriorating condition,” he felt a growing conviction that suicide was inevitable. So confused was he by the “crippling fog” of his illness, that he made an appointment to have lunch with his publisher after the award ceremony, forgetting that a formal luncheon was to follow it, and causing himself deep embarrassment

On his return home, he began to see a psychiatrist, whose prescriptions had no effect on the fog, the fears, the profound anxiety, the mental and physical weakness, or the feeling that he must end his life. And so he began to prepare. He saw his lawyer and rewrote his will. He tried and failed to write a suicide note. When he was sure he could not endure another day, he took the notebook he felt must be destroyed before he died, he buried it deep in the trash can outside. “Heart pounding wildly…. [I] knew I had made an irreversible decision.”

But fortunately, something happened that turned him around. He heard, later that night, on the soundtrack of a film he was watching out of a sense of obligation, a “sudden soaring passage from the Brahms Alto Rhapsody.” Although he had been unable to take pleasure in music, or anything else, for many months, this music “pierced my heart like a dagger.”

inkflo Creative Commons
Source: inkflo Creative Commons

It produced memories of the richness of his family’s life together and made him realize that he couldn’t give up life, couldn’t inflict the pain of his suicide on his family. He woke his wife, who arranged for him to be admitted to the hospital the next day.

Styron’s seven weeks in “purgatory,” as he called it, set him on the road to health. In the hospital, he felt protected from his suicidal impulses, and they began to subside. He believed this was also due to a change in medication. Despite the commotion of the hospital, he found there the seclusion that provided peace and healing, and his misery gradually began to lift. He regretted only that the psychiatrist he had seen had discouraged him from entering the hospital earlier, for fear of the stigma that might attach to him.

The last chapter of his book is devoted to the question of what causes severe depression. Styron talks about the chemical imbalance of the brain, which we would now describe as a brain disorder. For him genes may have been a factor—his father suffered profound melancholy during Styron’s boyhood. Perhaps, he considers, it wasn’t the loss of alcohol, but the beginning of his seventh decade, or problems with his writing, that set off his illness. Perhaps he had always had a tendency to depression. His mother’s early death when he was a boy seemed to be another factor. He had heard her sing the Brahms Rhapsody that brought him back from suicide.