BEFORE HE KILLED HIMSELF by shotgun, Ernest Hemingway tried running into an airplane propeller. I remember that from Papa Hemingway by A.E. Hotchner, but I did not remember that Hemingway had been depressed, and I do not remember knowing anything about depression when I first read the book. Now William Styron has written a book about depression, mostly his own -- how he went into it, how he came out it, but not, strangely enough, how he fears its return, which I insist he must.
Styron's book, Darkness Visible, mentions other writers and artists who killed themselves, presumably out of depression: Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Mark Rothko, Jack London, Diane Arbus, Primo Levi. And he notes the observation of others, that there may be a connection between creativity and depression. I think there is.
Like Styron, I am a student of depression -- or, more precisely, an observer of it. I have noticed friends struck by it. I have seen it hit colleagues, although in most cases this is my diagnosis, not theirs. I have come to believe in depression, actually in the fight against it, as an enormously important force, something akin to sex or hunger. I think people who tend toward depression sense this fact about themselves at a very early age and create strategies to avoid it. Journalism is such a strategy.
You should see my colleagues -- no different from myself, actually, but I prefer to talk about them. Tell them that they wrote a good story and they beam. Say nothing about the story and they feel low. They chose journalism for many reasons, but one reason, I think, is the high of an acclaimed story. In few fields can you begin and complete a piece of work in a single day -- and have it praised the next.
For someone needing that sort of lift, journalism's a good game. But lots of fields will do, actually. Acting, dancing -- any of the arts -- and even politics bring almost daily doses of applause: You're wonderful, just wonderful. Sex brings the same high (womanizers are depressed, I'm convinced), and so does shopping, and so, I think, does alcohol, which is categorized as a depressant but has never made me depressed. In fact, shortly before he became depressed -- clinically and painfully depressed -- Styron quit drinking.
Styron cites the experts: About one in 10 people has been depressed. I think the figure is higher, although I really have no proof. It's just that I see depression wherever I go. Years ago, I was a newspaper editor and noticed some of my reporters were not functioning. Lazy? Maybe. But I thought some of them were depressed. They would sit at their desks and do nothing, and back then the company did nothing either. Like lots of other places, we had a nurse on duty, should you cut your finger. But be depressed? Sit at your desk doing nothing? No one was called. The disease wasn't even recognized.
Edmund Morris, no promiscuous blurber, praises Styron from the inside flap of the book jacket: "The writing is so pure one is hardly aware of the ink on the page." I agree. But it's interesting that Morris needs to tell us that he himself is a "healthy, nondepressive personality." It's a wholly understandable disclaimer. After all, we're talking about mental health, and so while every manner of person has chronicled a fight with cancer or against addiction, very few people have welcomed us into their mind, led us on a tour through rooms both grand and shabby, and said, like some tour guide, "Here is the mind I show the world and here is the one that's a secret, the one that doesn't function all that well." Few people say that, because the mind is not like the body. Notice the language: I HAVE a cold. I AM depressed.
My grandfather was depressed. I know that now. He was given electroshock treatments. I search for other members of my family who may have been depressed. There is a supposed genetic link. I found out only recently that my aunt was depressed, she and other relatives as well -- enough of them so I feel encircled, all my depressed relatives and ancestors pointing fingers and saying, "Your time will come." But I think those times already have.
I am not sure what to call those times, and, certainly, they were not in the same league as Styron's "madness" (from the book's subtitle). But I have been in the grip of something -- a something that came out of nowhere and passed into nowhere and whose cause remains a mystery. I await its return not just with apprehension, but with the knowledge that I will know it has begun only when I am deeply in it, because depression is like drought, which begins the first day after the last rain -- but who knows it then?
So bravo for Styron, who has written, and written well, about depression, about inadequacy both real and self-concocted, about awful anguish and leaden lethargy and the inability to follow cracker-barrel instructions like "cheer up." The depressed person might as well be told to fly.
In Styron's case, the depression lifted, burned off by drugs or therapy or, as he maintains, by time spent in a hospital setting, mostly being left alone. His recovery was absolute, total (that he's writing again is proof of that), but he has to know his depression can return for the same reason it left -- which is to say for no reason at all. He is a crime victim, mugged by his own mind. Although he does not say so, he'll always be looking over his shoulder for it to happen again.