Darkness Invisible

Darkness Invisible September 16, 2007 – Here is the question lurking behind the recent news of Owen Wilson’s suicide bid:

In a culture that encourages outing everything from incest to pedophilia, is depression the last stigma, the one remaining subject that dares not gossip its name? Does a disclosure about depression, especially from someone who seems to have it all, violate an unspoken code of silence — or, at the least, make us radically uncomfortable with its suggestion of a blithe public face masking a troubled inner life?

Most of us have experienced the everyday, transient blues — the emotions nibbling around the edges of depression (whether they manifest themselves as a sense of malaise, dejection or comic-tinged despair) that can be brought on by a shift in the weather or an unfortunate event. They may be chronic yet benign, the sort of moroseness that causes the narrator of Camus’s “Stranger” to stand around listlessly puffing on a cigarette. Sadness is probably more endemic to the human subtext than sanguine spirits, which is why funereal songs like Billie Holiday’s “Gloomy Sunday” strike a universal chord and why Freud conjectured that “ordinary unhappiness” (as opposed to what he called “hysterical misery”) was the best the talking cure could hope to achieve.

The romance of melancholy — a style of self-presentation marked by an appealing air of ennui — has been with us since Hamlet. It is perhaps best expressed in the opening of Chekhov’s “Seagull,” when Masha, asked why she always wears black, replies, “I am in mourning for my life.” But a poetic conception that tethers creativity to a despondent temperament is also misleading, discounting as it does how unproductively crippling the malady can be.

Depression — the real hard stuff — is not chic, and it doesn’t sell tickets. It is a clinical illness urgently requiring treatment, usually hit-or-miss medication that tinkers with serotonin or dopamine levels. I am referring to the sort of condition that subverts lives, making it difficult to talk to people and impossible to leave the house. At its worst, it can spiral into the sort of suicidal ideation that requires hospitalization, or into suicide.

From a young age, I have intermittently found myself in this painful, barren zone. Each time it occurs, I am struck by how paralyzing and isolating the experience is; it remains essentially impenetrable to people who can’t (or don’t care to) distinguish it from a random bad day. For all that it is acknowledged to be a disease afflicting millions — we are as much a Prozac Nation as a Fast Food Nation — depression remains culturally quarantined. The revelation that Wilson may be afflicted with a physiological vulnerability to the downward pull — to the sort of self-annihilating impulse best described in William Styron’s “Darkness Visible” — simultaneously fascinates us and causes us to avert our gaze.

Wilson, a 38-year-old light-as-air actor and sometime screenwriter, was a golden-haired member of the Frat Pack, the last person you would associate with a long, concealed history of this disease. He suggests that more familiar construction: a bachelor who ran in a fast crowd, used hard drugs and flipped when his romance with another movie star went sour. According to this scenario, Wilson slit his wrist because he spotted a candid of his ex, Kate Hudson, smooching a new man in a grocery store — as if life obligingly played itself out as a series of press-ready storyboards: Girl dumps boy. Girl moves on to new boy. Ex-boy tries to kill himself. Shoot and print. He becomes just another funny man harboring an inner sad sack — a “Tears of a Clown” syndrome — alongside Robin Williams and Richard Pryor.

However you parse Wilson’s desperate act, it is clear that in an instant-fix, cure-all culture — one in which we habitually reduce fraught real-life dramas into smart-alecky quips on late-night talk shows — we want instant-fix, cure-all answers. Addiction and recovery sagas are by now more boring than heartrending, but they go down smoothly and are media-pleasing. These versions of psychological mayhem sidestep the complex interior drama of self-destruction — Lindsay Lohan’s father visits her in rehab! — and thereby allow us off the hook. How much thought can you give to yet another celebrity who checks in and out of a $1,600-a-day rehab center as if it were Canyon Ranch?

Put it this way: It’s one thing for Wilson to draw upon his familiarity with “the black dog” (as Winston Churchill called it) in order to co-write “The Royal Tenenbaums,” a darkly funny movie about an unhappy family of grown-up child prodigies that includes a lovelorn sibling (played by Wilson’s own brother, Luke) who tries to kill himself. That’s entertainment, diverting in a poignant way. But it’s another thing to be the guy with everything who tries to take his own life. That’s threatening, suggesting a failure of will that might prove contagious — or worse, capsize box-office investment.

People who want to end it all have lost the necessary illusions that make life bearable; the sources of their pain are impossible to pinpoint but all the same infect the air they breathe. The defining tragedy of severe depression is that it comes without an objective correlative like a white plaster cast. This makes it easy to mistake those who suffer from this disorder for people who, with a little coaxing — a dinner with friends or a distracting movie like “Wedding Crashers” (starring, Lord help us, Owen Wilson) — might bounce back the following day.

Perhaps this is what makes depression dangerous to scrutinize too closely. If we don’t keep it at arm’s length, it might implicate us in a way that the coked-up antics of the Rehab Gang fail to. Which is why it is all the more important that when it ravages those who seem as if they should be riding high, it isn’t spun merely as a side effect of addiction or heartbreak. It is an illness that deserves to be given its due, uneasy as it may make us.
Daphne Merkin, a contributing writer for the magazine, is working on a memoir about depression.

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