Robert L. Hamlett’s Surviving Depression offers a window into the life of a man to whom many people can relate. His style may not be as eloquent as some, but Hamlett does get his point across. After living 39 years with severe depression, and now being more than 25 years depression-free, Hamlett intends Surviving Depression to give hope to those who suffer. “If only a handful of the depressed seek help as a result of this book,” writes Hamlett, “my life will not have been lived in vain.” I feel that the book achieved Hamlett’s goal of inspiring hope; however, as this is only his first published book, there is definitely room for improvement.
Surviving Depression traces Hamlett’s life from his early childhood until he finally received a prescription for a combination of medications that successfully keep his depression in remission. Most of the book takes place during the Vietnam War era and shortly thereafter. During this time, antidepressant medications were still experimental and many psychiatrists still believed that depression was solely a reaction to circumstance. The context of the book, however, must be applied to the present day to gain any inspiration. The hope, therefore, lies in the hands of science. Compare the available remedies of the 1970s and 1980s to the medicines and therapies we have today, and one will find much hope that depression can be held at bay.
Throughout Surviving Depression, Hamlett emphasizes his fear of slipping into a major depressive episode and having what he calls a “meltdown.” He writes his memories in such a way that just as the reader gets comfortable with who Hamlett is, his meltdown tears the sense of security from the reader — much like a meltdown does to its victim. Hamlett’s first meltdown forces him to drop out of school. Another makes him run away from life and even pushes him to the brink of suicide. Hamlett captures his “escape to nowhere” with vivid detail:
The next morning, I shaved for the first time in several days. I also put on the best clothes that I had brought with me. I wanted to look like a reputable citizen. Then, I went to a local gun shop. I had finally convinced myself that taking my own life was the only way to end my suffering … I am not sure exactly how long I stood there staring at that weapon. It could have been a minute or ten minutes. I had no concept of time. Many scenes from my life crossed my mind … No, I could not kill myself … I turned and walked out of the store empty-handed.
Only after being hospitalized a second time does Hamlett break free from his depression. His psychiatrist prescribes a combination of medications that allow Hamlett to function normally, and he remains on those antidepressants to this day.
Surviving Depression achieved its goal, but I do have reservations with the method Hamlett chose to use. Memoir is definitely an appropriate form of writing for a topic such as this, however, focusing on the negative aspects of his life seemed a bit overwhelming. Certain parts of the book triggered my own depression and sent me into a meltdown-like state. I appreciate the heart behind the work, but I would have preferred that the author focus on the solution instead of the problem. Hamlett covers every way to deal with depression that I know: ignoring it, taking medication, talking to a therapist, and a combination of medicine and therapy. Obviously, ignoring depression will not help to relieve it. For Hamlett, talking to a therapist and taking antidepressants in conjunction saved his life. When his psychiatrist restricted his medications, Hamlett slipped into another meltdown. For some, this is a real risk. For others, only therapy helps relieve their depression. Still others feel that antidepressants alone suffice in treating their condition.
Overall, Surviving Depression was a good book, a quick read, and inspiring enough to convince me to consider other methods of treating my own depression. The book really does give hope for a better future, especially when one considers that science has come a long way since the events of the book. Treatments are more effective, cheaper, and the stigma of mental illness is dissipating. I highly recommend this book to anyone who needs that extra push to get help. I do caution, however, that reading this book while depressed may worsen your symptoms.
Surviving Depression: My Agonizing Struggle with Sanity
By Robert L. Hamlett
Vantage Press: July 1, 2008
Paperback, 147 pages