For years I have pondered the mystery of my father’s alternating cycles of depression and elation that governed his life. I wondered what was at work to give rise to this strange and sad mix of horrible and wonderful days. I have read countless accounts of the various explanations for what is known now as bipolar disorder and the equally numerous treatments that attempt to alleviate it.
One of them was William Styron’s account in Darkness Visible of his battle with the storms of depression. The other day I noticed it on my bookshelf and decided to read it again. Styron describes his depression as “a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self—to the mediating intellect—as to verge close to being beyond description”
He begins with an account of a trip to Paris in the winter of 1985 when he realized that the melancholy that had dogged him for months was descending into a “siege” that rendered him practically speechless and socially inept.
After he returned to his home in Connecticut he became bedridden, unable to write, with suicidal thoughts and a degree of suffering that was indescribable. In time he was hospitalized where its seclusion and the support of his family and friends enabled him to recover.
In my father’s case, neither psychoanalytic therapy, the drugs available at that time, electroshock treatment, or the best private "rest homes" gave him any lasting relief. Would the newer drugs and treatments available today have made a difference? Perhaps they might have made it easier for him to manage the furies more effectively or put them at a greater distance.
However, I am not at all sure about this and I remain a skeptic about the current views of the brain mechanisms that may be responsible for bipolar disorder. Yes, he may have had some kind of chemical imbalance, but I saw the world in which he grew up, the way his mother and father treated him, and how he had to spend his working days in the family business. It was never a placid situation. There was no escaping the world he brought with him but neither could he escape the one he had to live through during each and every day of his relatively brief life.
Styron also attributes the source of his depression to his early years where his father battled “the gorgon for much of his lifetime, and was hospitalized …after a spiraling downward that in retrospect I saw perfectly resembled mine.”
After reading Darkness Visible, I asked myself if Styron’s account of his descent into madness helped me to better understand my father’s torments. I confess it didn’t, although many readers wrote to him to say how grateful they were for describing so clearly their own battles with depression.
The only thing that ever helped me was an experience I had as a young man, after having my wisdom teeth removed. He was with me when I was recovering from Sodium Pentothal (so-called truth serum), the anesthetic used then.
Its aftereffects led to a period of uncontrollable crying that I was fully aware of but could do nothing to stop. I said to him then that I finally understood why he couldn’t do anything about the demons that descended upon him.
But that was an atypical experience as Sodium Pentothal is rarely used today. And yet it taught me why it is so difficult to grasp the essence of this illness that plagues so many people today. As Styron notes, “To most of those who have experienced it, the horror of depression is so overwhelming as to be quite beyond expression.“