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Home arrow Psychology arrow Subjective Darkness: Depression as a Loss of Connection, Narrative, Meaning, and the Capacity for Self-Representation


Individuals who have written about their own experiences with depression provide a unique glimpse into the inner workings of their subjective worlds. Their collective narratives provide a particularly rich backdrop in which to contextualize our understanding of what it means to be depressed on a more personal, intimate level.

William Styron suffered for many years from severe depression and wrote extensively on his battle. Throughout his descriptions, one of his major contentions was that the word depression does not convey the magnitude of anguish he faced on a daily basis. He believed it was too benign a word, dissonant from the chaos and suffering that people often feel when struggling with irresolvable pain. According to Styron,

the word has slithered innocuously through the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control. (1990, p. 37)

One of its most damaging and alienating qualities, according to Styron, is the fact that this melancholic condition defies adequate description through language, and, therefore, much of the exquisite agony of the sufferer is lost in shoddy translation. This exacerbates the state of anguish with the further insult of incomprehensibility:

That the word “indescribable” should present itself is not fortuitous, since it has to be emphasized that if the pain were readily describable most of the countless sufferers from this ancient affliction would have been able to confidently depict for their friends and loved ones (even their physicians) some of the actual dimensions of their torment, and perhaps elicit a comprehension that has been generally lacking; such incomprehension has usually been due not to a failure of sympathy but to the basic inability of healthy people to imagine a form of torment so alien to everyday experience. For myself, the pain is most closely connected to drowning or suffocation—but even these images are off the mark. (Styron, 1990, pp. 16-17)

Although Styron emphasizes the impossibility of symbolizing such states of overwhelming mental, emotional, and physical torment, he does find vivid ways of communicating the essence of his pain in words. He describes his own form of subjective darkness in his book Darkness Visible, as “gloom crowding in on me, a sense of dread and alienation and, above all, stifling anxiety” (Styron, 1990, p. 12). Reflecting on the onset of a depressive episode as marked by familiar foes, he says, “my brain had begun to endure its familiar siege: panic and dislocation, and a sense that my thought processes were being engulfed by a toxic and unnameable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world” (Styron, 1990, p. 16).

Another person who has provided a firsthand account of the propensity for depression to wreak havoc on a person’s life is Andrew Solomon. He has also struggled with depression, and felt that his own experience was marked by overwhelming feelings of apathy, a lack of motivation to the point of psychological paralysis, and immense anxiety. He describes the downward spiral of his own experience by saying,

I found myself feeling strangely detached from what was happening in my life . . . and I thought about making plans with friends and I thought mmm . . . why bother, and I thought about doing everything else and I felt why bother about one thing after the next. There was just a complete lack of interest in any of it. (Solomon, 2012, http: //www. charliero se. com/view/interview/12380? sponsor_id= 1)

Solomon’s indifference was accompanied by feelings of being extremely overwhelmed, to the point where he felt incapacitated and everything— even the activities required for daily life such as eating, bathing, and returning phone calls—became extraordinarily difficult. Solomon (2012) says, “I felt myself in this strange, this slowed, almost paralyzed state. You’re in this state in which you simply can’t do the ordinary things that you’ve previously done” ( id=1). He compares the overwhelming sense of anxiety that accompanied his depression with the feeling of being completely out of control right before falling. He says that it is like that moment when you stumble,

before you actually hit the ground, that feeling of out of control terror but

instead of it lasting for a split second it lasts day after day, week after week,

you’re just stuck in this feeling of being terrified of everything, and not even knowing what it is that you’re terrified of. (Solomon, 2012)

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