My dad has told me my entire life that I have “a heart of gold.” I think, in part, what he meant was I have a heart that truly feels.
But it seems to me the ability to feel joy is balanced out conversely with the ability to feel pain. From a young age, I remember having feelings of elation that would quickly give way to a deep melancholy, with no time frame as to when I would receive solace. But at least I could still feel.
Then, last summer, after a bright day of teaching windsurfing to kids and laughing with my students, I drifted into a dark abyss such as I had never before experienced. At first I felt sorrow, then painful, heart-wrenching anguish… then nothing.
I felt nothing. Sadness was gone, happiness was gone. I felt nothing. It was as if my humanity and everything I understood about myself was stripped from me. I felt subhuman. I was breathing, but life as I knew it was not in me. My soul, my essence, had shut off, leaving me am empty shell, a flickering hologram of who I was. It was terrifying. The only thing I actually felt was fear, and it was convincing me I had never felt anything but emptiness and would never regain the ability to feel, to exist as the John Dornellas the people around me knew. It was crushing me like a gargantuan stone dropped on my shoulders.
In my anguish and sensory amnesia, I made a decision to call a friend who I knew struggled deeply with depression. I had no hope I would ever get out of my current state, but he told me I would again see light and feel happiness. And I believed him. Even though I could not convince myself, I knew he spoke the truth: that I would make it out alright. That small glimmer of faith he instilled put a crack in the huge stone of fear that was crushing me.
The light did eventually begin to shine for me again, and I learned a powerful truth—when we gain solace from our struggles, we have a unique ability to share that solace with others, as my friend did with me. Since then, I have been able to share my experience and try to give hope to those who could find none with a long embrace or a simple, “You’ll be alright. You will see light again.”
I’m amazed by how many people suffer from depression, many far more seriously than I. I have friends who immerse themselves in the composure of music, or write, or run for hours to reverse depression’s power. For me, when I know I’m on the verge, I pray like crazy—then get into the ocean, my “happy place.” Spearfishing and freediving, holding my breath, comforts me. I feel close to my Creator when I am deep under water on a breath of air. A long paddle, a windsurfing session, a surf alone or with a buddy… they help me to get outside of the oncoming fog of depression, often keeping it at bay until it dissipates.
Above all, knowing I am not the only person who struggles with this, but that I have friends and mentors who are trucking along with me gives me hope. So hold strong. People love you and need you. You will see light again.
—John Dornellas, writer for Spearing Magazine, Hawaii Skin Diver Magazine