How William Styron Kept Me Alive

"Darkness Visible" was the only book I took into the mental hospital, and it was the book that brought me out

Photo by shando on Flickr

Novel Gazing is Electric Literature’s personal essay series about the way reading shapes our lives. This time, we asked: What’s a book that changed your mind?

My first night in the hospital, I sleep on a gurney in a room imbued with the scent of hopeless men, the sounds of adults bawling in agony. The man adjacent to me, doughy and pallid, a homeless schizophrenic who has ingested some bad drugs, keeps muttering about humus and the mysteries of women’s bodies, about how he’s Jesus, how he’s going to kill the people that only he can see. Quiet finally comes when he’s tranquilized into insentience.

I curl up, feeling prenatal and pathetic, and face the wall. The hospital thrums all night, bodies in perpetual motion. A young girl on suicide watch tries to walk out the door and is apprehended. As two men escort her back to her room, leading her past my gurney, I can see her forearms mottled with scars, her eyes dark and sunken into her head.

In the photograph on my hospital bracelet, I’m snarling.

In the morning I go to the in-patient psychiatric unit, still wearing the clothes I arrived in. It’s a place of penitentiary gloom, free of lusts and luxuries. A blue gauzy shirt, three sizes too big, is draped over me; all of my things are locked up.

It takes a day to really assimilate into the unit. I’m initially hostile to the staff, and one of the patients, a bearded and garrulous man who’s been here for two weeks and will remain here for another three (this is his seventh or eighth stay in the unit), comes up to me and asks, sharply, “What are you doing here? You don’t belong here.” I threaten to break his face. I’m escorted to my room.

The unit can be broken down into three sections: the bedrooms, which I avoid because sharing quarters with three noxiously flatulent psychotic men who thrash in their sleep and openly masturbate is not conducive to a good night’s rest; the hallways, in which patients pace and lurk and occasionally sleep, all furled and exposed and uncaring; and the Dayroom, in which a television acts as electronic idol—it is to the patients what the Monolith is to David in Kubrick’s 2001.

With its hermetic atmosphere and unusual internal logic, the unit feels like the setting for a chamber drama, replete with a cast of tragicomic characters. Some patients burst into chortles, bouts of unending histrionics, for no discernible reason. Other patients sleep their days away, emerging only to eat, then receding back like the tide. Some amass trays of food in their rooms, flies doing curlicues over the remnants. One woman, with the sallow complexion of a nun, has revealed—during a movie about alien abductions, apropos of nothing—that she was raped by her uncle, and that her swollen belly may, in fact, contain his child. The older men in the room respond with skepticism and mirthless chuckles.

Being a city hospital, the unit lacks most amenities: salt, internet, phones, deodorant, shoelaces. You don’t realize how much you’ll miss these things until they’re gone. Garishly lit, and locked at both ends, the long halls have a sealed-off feeling. They’re the color of dirty teeth, often fetid, filled with the effluvia of bodies losing control.

The in-patient psychiatric unit of the hospital is a place of rigorous regulations. Maroon tape sections off the nurse’s station, sequestering the patients. The chairs are surprisingly heavy, so that patients can’t throw them. The mirrors are dented plates of aluminum. Patients adhere to strict routines; if dinner is served several minutes late, tantrums are thrown. When the food arrives, it’s all complaints about the blandness—every day, with little alteration.  

Wall-eyed and languid, sapped of energy by exhaustion and medication and sleep deprivation from sharing a bedroom with volatile and vociferous men, I spend my first day wandering the halls.

My lone, loyal companion during my stay is a book, a copy of William Styron’s Darkness Visible, which I picked up the day of my unwitting arrival from a bookstore in SoHo. I had spent the previous two weeks sleeping on friends’ couches and working as a customer service representative for a meal delivery company, spending my days answering emails and phone calls from customers vexed over the quality of their avocados, and doing cheap cocaine by myself in dive bar bathrooms to mitigate the feeling of failure that clung to me like stale cigarette smoke. The job numbed me; the drug obliterated the haze like a great beam of light from a lighthouse. When my boss, a stoical, laconic man who had been with the company since its embryonic stage, called me into one of those homogenous glass conference rooms, I knew what was coming. He asked me if I was happy. I said, Yes. He said, No you’re not. He said, We want our employees to be happy. So, after assuring me that my work had been very good, he nonetheless fired me for “being unhappy,” for bringing down the morale of the team.

When I found Styron’s memoir, I felt an epiphanic pang: this should be the last book I ever read.

The emasculating feeling of having been fired from a minimum wage job for being “unhappy,” and the more pragmatic problem of now having no source of income, commingled with the still-lingering malaise of having been dumped by my on-again off-again girlfriend several weeks earlier. An aphotic darkness, heavy and impermeable, pervaded my mind. A coterie of friends met up with me at a bar, where I, ripped on my favorite palliative, I desperately, futilely tried to use a torn can of Modelo to carve up my forearm in the sordid bathroom, an inane idea whose Sisyphean hopelessness seems, in retrospect, sort of silly. The next day, compelled by notions of self-destruction, I went to the bookstore, where I spent many afternoons typing fervently, thinking of myself as a writer, seeking solace in the pages of books. I was flummoxed, unsure of what to do with myself as I felt the end encroaching. I perused the great variegation of books. When I found Styron’s memoir, I felt an epiphanic pang: this should be the last book I ever read. I bought the book and shoved it into my bag, ensconced between an antiquated iPad and a notebook rife with the scrawlings of coke-induced mania.

That night, I went to a friend’s apartment, where I was ambushed by a gaggle of friends who, after an intense confrontation during which I almost punched one of them in the face, put me in an SUV and took me to Bellevue.

At the hospital, a man searched my bag, cataloging everything so they could store my stuff in a giant paper bag in a room rife with evidence of an outside world. When I saw Styron’s book sitting there amid the miscellany of items, I asked if I could bring that with me, so I at least have something to read. After a prolonged moment, they said yes.

For the duration of my stay, I carry the book everywhere, tracing the letters on its cover with the bulb of my thumb, flipping its pages and listening to the paper rustle. (There is a tiny library in the recreation room, though most of the books are bedraggled and battered, pages torn out, books left disemboweled, which contains, inexplicably, a pristine copy of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Oprah’s seal of approval adorning the cover, as well as a bevy of coloring books whose pages are already violently mottled with crayon and marker. Seeing the carnage, I keep my own book close.) Like Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon, Styron’s splinter of a memoir taps into specific but familiar feelings of despondency, and, eventually, hope.

Initially, reading it is difficult, my brain not yet used to the drug they’re feeding me. My thoughts are soupy, a fog of confusion; words waver and swirl around the page. “The madness of depression is, generally speaking, the antithesis of violence,” Styron wrote. “It is a storm indeed, but a storm of murk.” But Darkness Visible cuts through the brume. As nothing sharp is permitted here, I feel a twinge of satisfaction at having snuck writing so lacerating into the unit. I chose Styron’s memoir as the last book that I would buy, the last I would add to my shelf, surrounded by wayward piles of hardcovers and softcovers and dog-eared mass markets, hundreds, some unread, some read repeatedly, but in the hospital, the book becomes something more, something almost transcendent: a source of familiarity, a relic from my outside life; it reminds me that I want to write, and that if I let the life drain from me, I will not be able to. In this sense, William Styron helps keep me alive.

The book reminds me that I want to write, and that if I let the life drain from me, I will not be able to.

If the stigma surrounding depression has been ameliorated in the almost 30 years since Darkness Visible, there still comes with the disease, like a parasite attached to a host, a sense of embarrassment and shame. You can see it on the faces of your friends when you try to tell them how you feel, their mouths contorted into looks of discomfort, their reticence exuding an air of apathy. The disquieting silence can make the depressed feel even worse for having become a burden. Reading Styron, I feel as though I’ve gained a new, caring friend, someone who understands. When I try to write about my own emotions, I don’t feel as narcissistic or melodramatic because Styron felt that same compulsion. Once the fog in my head started to dissipate, the medicine (an antidepressant, of course, and a small dose of an antipsychotic to mollify the mania to which I was occasionally prone) now working, I was able to luxuriate in Styron’s writing, able to write myself.

In 1990, during a radio interview, Styron described the disease: “I think the closest I’ve ever been able to hit upon an analogous pain is that of suffocation or of being in prison in an intensely hot room from which there’s no escape. It’s that kind of sort of diabolical discomfort.” I feel such a diabolical discomfort in a small, hot room, sudorific, the air stagnant and room suffused with the smell of sweat and flatulence. I want to cover my head with a pillow, but it’s too hot. I lay furled on the long, narrow bed, trying to ignore the sound of slick skin and enlivened breathing. My roommate hordes his food, leaving a pile of partially-eaten sandwiches, cookies, apples on the small table between our beds. A flotilla of flies accrues. I take one of the half-dozen wrapped cookies he’s stored in a pile. When he returns to the room, vexatious, bellicose, screaming about the missing cookie, they move me to a different room, one with four other roommates, none of whom ever leave their bed. In order to read, in order to live, I have to escape the hot room.

From the book:

A phenomenon that a number of people have noted while in deep depression is the sense of being accompanied by a second self—a wraithlike observer who, not sharing the dementia of his double, is able to watch with dispassionate curiosity as his companion struggles against the oncoming disaster, or decides to embrace it. There is a theatrical quality about all this, and during the next several days, as I went about stolidly preparing for extinction, I couldn’t shake off a sense of melodrama—a melodrama in which I, the victim-to-be of self-murder, was both the solitary actor and lone member of the audience.

Depression expunges from my mind any sense of lucidity; it is a roiling fog permeating my skull, leaving me unable to write. Words elude me, seem to evanesce. Styron’s writing cuts through the brume, and I am able to write again, scribbling my thoughts on anything I can find—paper plates, napkins, the cardboard sleeve from my doctor’s coffee. They give me a felt-tip pen, so I can’t stab anyone, and eventually some sheets of paper, which I festoon with slovenly handwriting, words fervidly scrawled before they disappear into the bog in my mind. According to James Salter’s review of Styron’s collected letters, the bibulous writer, who penned all of his works in longhand on yellow legal pads, found writing to be the hardest thing in the world, each word “sheer pain.” Yet it was the only thing that made him happy. Writing about my time in the hospital, about the influence of Styron’s book, makes me feel like I have a second self, like I’m writing about a character conjured from my imagination. There’s a sense of distance, of dislocation.

In Styron’s exacting lyricism, I find hope, a companion to my pain.

My hasty scribblings and Styron’s book are the only things I take with me when I leave the hospital, my hair an oleaginous mess, my friends relieved that I’ve seemingly climbed out of that dark pit of despair. I usually find Styron’s prose irritatingly loquacious (e.g. Lie Down in Darkness), but his writing about depression touches me, cuts me deep. In Styron’s exacting lyricism, I find hope, a companion to my pain. Depression is a selfish disease. You succumb to solipsistic thoughts, luxuriate in self-pity. It is a malady you can never truly mitigate, an affliction of histrionics and hyperbole, that sense of “melodrama” which Styron couldn’t shake off. Reading Styron’s descriptions of something I had tried but failed to articulate so many times, I feel less alone. All of the ineffable feelings I’ve felt are articulated with eloquence and precision and empathy in Styron’s book. I have wanted to be a writer my entire life; in my second grade yearbook, where it asks what I want to be when I grow up, I wrote, “A writer.” But everything I write seems to return to depression, the most loyal partner of my life; in Styron, I find, for the first time, writing that earnestly, honestly captures how I feel. It gives me an impetus, an inspiration.

The book now resides on the top shelf of my bookcase, nestled between similarly lissome paperbacks by Paula Fox and Renata Adler. When I feel, as Melville said, grim about the mouth, I turn to Styron’s memoir, as some turn to prayer. It is a beacon of hope for me, the light in the darkness.

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