There are many ways to try to visualize major clinical depression, a disorder that affects one out of every five women and one out of every eight men.
The picture I always found most accurate comes from a scene in the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away. One moment, he’s on a plane, safe and comfortable. He’s flying through a storm, but it’s being navigated. All is well.
Suddenly, the wind roars through the cabin, the plane plummets towards its doom, the captain and crew scream in confusion and terror. The plane crashes into the sea. Hanks’ character is underwater, but through a stroke of fate, he makes his way to the surface, along with an inflatable life raft.
He climbs into the raft, and the camera slowly pulls away further and further. Soon, Hanks is a dot on the screen, afloat in the dark in his tiny excuse for a boat in the vast expanse of ocean. He’s pelted by rain, buffeted by waves that are impossibly high. Alone. Adrift. Directionless. Helpless.
“My God,” I said to my companion seated next to me in the theater. “That’s it. That’s depression.”
Lana Penrose also used an ocean metaphor to describe her depression in her new book, The Happiness Quest (Trafalgar Square Publishing; September 15, 2015). “The waves regenerate on the shore below,” she writes. “Each one pulls back and returns as a formidable peak . . . it sparks within me a multitude of memories of how I once crashed and tumbled myself.
“That’s what depression felt like” she writes. “Haunting, inescapable and as though I was being held hostage with no ransom high enough to assure my release.”
The cycle of the waves also “reminds me of where I’m going [and] where I’ve been,” she writes. And where she’s been is on a voyage that took her two years and through a multitude of treatments for depression, a journey she describes in the book.
The book follows her through the familiar (Cognitive Behavior Therapy; healers, herbs and holistic medicine) to the unusual, such as EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique, which involves tapping points on different parts of the body to realign the its energy system) and examines schemas, the mental frameworks that determine how we see the world (“My mistrust and abuse schema had me anticipating pain,” Penrose writes. “Social exclusion schema had me feeling different and disconnected.”).
During her voyage, Penrose wrestled with the stigma that comes with being labeled a victim of depression. “Once upon a time, I would have been ashamed to admit that I suffered [from this] affliction,” she writes. “I despised my depressive state and cringed whenever I heard the words mental illness. As far as I was concerned, and despite everyone’s best efforts, the term still piggybacked stigma, conjuring images of straightjackets and chilling cries floating down sterile corridors in the dead of night.”
However, she assures friends and relatives who read the book that “just because I’ve suffered mental illness, it doesn’t mean that I’m not a normal, decent human being with the ability to laugh, function, think, contribute to society and appreciate the irony of life . . . .I’m the same person that you’ve always known and loved!”
After her two-year journey and quest for happiness, Penrose has declared herself depression-free. “As I sit here watching surfers fearlessly uniting with the sea, I realize that I, too, have been united—with myself,” she writes. “I’ve cried an ocean of tears to get where I am, but the change in me has been phenomenal, monumental and, if you’ll pardon the pun, mind-blowing!”
Which remedy worked? Maybe it was all of them. Maybe it was none of them—maybe it was the journey itself that brought Penrose peace. And it’s true that in Cast Away, after being tossed about the ocean, Tom Hanks finds a life-saving deserted island and is eventually rescued and returned to a normal existence.
As Penrose describes in The Happiness Quest, it’s up to each sufferer of depression to continue his or her own journey. “As one of my old friends and I used to say to each other as we battled our respective demons, ‘We’ll get there in the end,’” she writes. “And we will. All of us. Provided we never give up.”