The Radiotopia Showcase series presents The Great God of Depression, a five episode podcast.
In his 2017 Netflix special 3 Mics, comedian Neal Brennan details his lifelong struggle with depression. I recently outed myself as having battled clinical depression for decades. Last week, in The Hollywood Reporter, media executive Paul Greenberg shared his success story with ECT in treating his depression. It’s fair to say that opening up about clinical depression is moving towards removing much of the stigma that surrounds it … and that’s much-needed progress.
However, the progenitor of clinical depression disclosure is author William Styron (Sophie’s Choice) who shares his clinical depression story in the memoir Darkness Visible.
Producers Karen Brown and Pagan Kennedy’s podcast The Great God of Depression shines a light on two stories. The first, of brain scientist and “openly crazy” Alice Weaver Flaherty (The Midnight Disease) who, in 1998, slipped into a manic period that resulted in her discovering William Styron’s memoir. The second story is a deeper dive into William Styron and how his depression journey eventually led to the door of Flaherty’s office.
Later in life and after his second depressive episode, Styron claimed that he had lost the ability to write. It wasn’t that he was suffering from writer’s block, he claimed he was unable to use his hand to write.
In Darkness Visible, Styron is a little hard on doctor’s so rather than defy their Hippocratic oath, they pointed Styron and his hand issue in Flaherty’s direction because her manic illness presented itself as the peculiar and rare hypergraphia (the intense desire to write).
Where one couldn’t write, the other couldn’t stop.
The tales of Flaherty and Styron unfold over the brief five episodes, each running about 30 minutes or less. In them, you find out about Styrons stays in hospitals and Flaherty’s struggles around pregnancy. While neither are terribly invasive stories, they are just enough to provide context for their illness.
The God of Depression does an excellent job of showing how hard Styron struggled when his depression returned a few years after the publication of his revolutionary memoir and after doing the media rounds as … well, the God of depression.
He apparently felt that his inability to keep his depression at bay made him somewhat of a fraud. Styron was very far from a fraud because even a cursory understanding of the illness would tell you that a return of clinical depression (at some point) is almost a certainty.
The return of Styron’s depression simply reminds us of just how insidious depression is. Is it curable? No. Treatable? Yes.
Styron and Flaherty’s stories are important for two reasons. One, despite his belief that he would die of suicide caused by his clinical depression, that wasn’t what killed him. William Styron died in 2006, at 81, of complications from pneumonia.
Two, in addition to being “openly crazy” Alice Weaver Flaherty is an associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, she has a Ph.D. from MIT and is a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital (where she heads a group that examines how “…the human brain represents our body, a factor that helps drive suffering in depression …” among other diseases).
Living with a mental malady like clinical depression or bi-polar disorder is never going to be easy because despite all of the effort (medicine, diet, exercise, etc), those diseases are always lying in wait.
Importantly, The Great God of Depression reminds us that mental illness need not be a death sentence and that you can live a full life with it. Can you live it easily? Not exactly. Happily? I hope so.
The Great God of Depression doesn’t offer any ideas for the treatment of depression, it simply tells the stories of two people, William Styron and Alice Weaver Flaherty, who did battle with mental illness. Living with mental illness isn’t necessarily about losing or winning each battle, it’s about the ultimate victory, winning the war. And it’s a war that can last a long time; hopefully, a lifetime.
It’s a great series and helps move the discussion of these things one step further. And that is indeed much-needed progress.
If you need help. Please call.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
A version of this was published at TheLatest.com, August 7, 2018