August 27, 1990 12:00 PM

I’ve had these moments before, but never for so long…like some sort of black, terrible mistiness, like the beginning of a disease…I try to fight against this feeling all the time but in it seeps…Everywhere I turn I seem to walk deeper and deeper into some terrible despair.

—Lie Down in Darkness, 1951

He knew, somehow, even then. When William Styron wrote those words he was 24, a neophyte novelist on his way to a Pulitzer prize and three best-sellers. He had never heard of a disease called depression, much less experienced its unique agonies. Yet the heroine of Darkness—and the heroine of Sophie’s Choice 28 years later—suffered from a despair so bleak it led inexorably to suicide. “I reread some of those passages now and see that they are absolute replicas of serious depression,” says Styron. “In plumbing whatever subconscious depths I have, I must have run into my own incipient depression and created characters who reflected it.”

It is a truth he would not have recognized before 1985, the year he was struck with a clinical depression so severe it nearly drove him to take his life. Hospitalization and the passage of time brought him back from the abyss. He decided to write about and help demystify the experience he says was “as close to suffering that’s indescribable as you can get.” He would describe it not obliquely, through fiction, but straight and from the heart. The result, to be published next month, is Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, a terrifying, astonishingly frank account by the most resolutely private of men. “There are so many people out there suffering from this illness who haven’t really heard a voice,” says the 65-year-old writer, who has “a drawer jammed full of letters” received after part of Darkness Visible ran in Vanity Fair last year. “I hope the book says, ‘Maybe you feel this. And maybe you will take hope from the fact that I got well.’ ”

Depression, thought to be biochemical in nature, strikes one person in 20, women more often than men. Styron believes that his own depression was precipitated by a constellation of factors, among them incomplete mourning after the death of his mother when he was 13 (“I remember not being able to cry,” he says) and a predisposition inherited from his father, a Newport News, Va., engineer who died in 1978. “And I was a sickly kid,” Styron adds, “which is conducive to making you depressed. Later I think that, without becoming a full-fledged alcoholic, I was a chronic abuser of alcohol to banish what must have been an edge of depression I had almost every day.”

Styron’s journey into madness—for a form of madness he believes it was—began, as he puts it in his book, as “a cloud no bigger than a wine goblet.” In June of 1985, he suddenly found that “anything more than a couple of swallows of liquor would nauseate me.” The abrupt shift unnerved him, and he initially attributed the odd feelings that were overtaking him to alcohol withdrawal. First there was hypochondria—”the sense that I was dying of something,” he says—along with a vague malaise. “It was not really alarming at first,” Styron writes, “but I did notice that my surroundings took on a different tone at certain times: The shadows of nightfall seemed more somber, my mornings were less buoyant…”

As the summer wore on, the symptoms intensified. Styron felt “anxiety, agitation, unfocused dread.” He took little pleasure in eating and slept only four hours a night. By October, when he and Rose, his wife of 32 years, left their seaside home in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., for their farmhouse in Roxbury, Conn., Rose, 62, was truly worried. “We would take walks through the hills,” she remembers. “We always loved that, but now Bill didn’t love it at all. He was obsessed about the fact that nothing was a pleasure anymore, that he wasn’t seeing the beauty.”

Finally, realizing he was in the clutches of a disorder he could not just “work out of my system,” Styron sought help. It proved to be of little use. His psychiatrist urged him to avoid “the stigma” of hospitalization—though Styron could not concentrate enough to write and was talking of suicide. “I sat in his office saying, Tm suffering,’ ” he remembers. “I felt pain—not like the pain of a fractured limb, yet every bit as severe.”

The doctor prescribed an antidepressant, which proved ineffective, and kept Styron on Halcion, the tranquilizer his internist had given him for insomnia, an affliction he had been battling with prescription medications for years. “It’s now known that Halcion can be a major precipitant for depression in susceptible individuals,” says Styron. “The promiscuous prescribing of tranquilizers in this country is just appalling.” For Rose, the psychiatrist had chilling advice. “He said, ‘Just don’t let him out of your sight,’ ” she remembers. “Think what that responsibility’s like.”

The final crisis came on a chilly evening before Christmas, when the Styrons’ daughter Polly was visiting. “I was close to going to the highway and walking in front of a truck,” says Styron. “I don’t really remember it, but Polly’s journal records my telling her, in agony, days before this, ‘My mind is exploding.’ ”

“That last night, Polly and I just signaled each other,” Rose says. “She kept talking to him, and I called the doctor and said, ‘I want him in a hospital by morning. I can’t do this anymore.’ Bill agreed right away.”

It was the right move. In the hospital’s psychiatric unit, at last, the horror began to fade. Styron had been switched from Halcion to the tranquilizer Dalmane, and his suicidal impulses disappeared. The fog that muddled his thoughts took longer to lift. “I remember reading an article, and the doctors said. ‘What did you just read?’ ” he says. “It could have been about a bowling match or a moon shot. I had no idea.”

Within weeks, however, he was feeling well enough to dream, a pleasure that had been eerily absent throughout his depression’s siege. “I remember a wonderful, all-night adventure dream, like Raiders of the Lost Ark,” he says. “Dreams were my own private signal that I was coming back to normality.”

He credits his recovery not to antidepressants or psychotherapy (though he emphasizes that both are effective in many depressions) but to the seclusion of the hospital setting. “You’re back in a state of half-desired infantilism,” he says. “For a while, that’s all you need. Hospitalization should be shorn of its menacing reputation.”

He credits also the support of his children (Susannah, 35; Polly, 32; Tommy, 30, and Alexandra, 23), his wife, and friends like columnist Art Buchwald. Buchwald, who was emerging from his own depression as Styron spiraled downward, called him nearly every day from October until his release from the hospital in February. “People close to the person suffering have to be endlessly patient,” says Styron, “because the sufferer is in a state of unrealistic hopelessness. Yet there’s a 95 percent chance that they will recover. Any other serious illness has a far less generous prognosis.”

As his recovery progressed, Styron decided to put his ordeal on paper. A New York Times story about the suicide of the writer Primo Levi provided the momentum he needed. “The article had such a quality of bewilderment and shame, as if Levi had let everyone down.” he says. “I got annoyed and wrote to the Op-Ed page.” The letter—in which Styron stressed that the depressed commit suicide not out of moral weakness “but because they are in the grip of an illness that causes almost unimaginable pain”—generated a huge reader response. Soon afterward Styron wrote the magazine piece that he expanded into Darkness Visible.

These days Styron spends his time much as he always has: reading in the morning, taking long strolls with his retrievers, relaxing with wine—he stops at three glasses—in the evening. He writes each afternoon, and it still comes slowly. His three major novels, Lie Down in Darkness, The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice, each took years to complete. His current project, a novel about World War II, has been in the works for four years. “Writing,” says Styron, “is as murderously difficult as ever.”

Those who love him say he has changed. “He’s a better person—friendlier, not as irascible,” says Buchwald, a Vineyard neighbor. “He’s less judgmental,” says Rose.

Styron notices changes too. “If you’ve had a brush with such despair, where life loses all its meaning.” he says, “to have your capacity for enjoyment restored…I see certain things with more exquisiteness now. I feel wonderful.”

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