What Lost at Sea can Teach us About Anxiety and Depression
Bryan Lee O’Malley is probably best known for his Scott Pilgrim series, in which 23 year old Scott Pilgrim must battle robots, ninjas, and more in order to defeat Ramona Flowers’ seven evil ex-boyfriends and win her heart. It can be serious on occasion, but most of the time the series is off-the-wall, crazy, and full of upbeat humor, video game logic, and pop culture references.
Lost at Sea could not be more different.
Lost at Sea is a graphic novel which O’Malley published before Scott Pilgrim. The story follows Raleigh, an incredibly shy 18 year old who somehow ends up on a cross-country road trip with three of her classmates, none of whom she has ever talked to. This includes Ian, a cultured teen prone to bursts of anger; Dave, a laid-back smoker still recovering from a painful breakup; and Stephanie, a kind and extremely hyperactive delinquent. Raleigh is the outsider of the group, the others have known one another for years and had planned the road trip together.
Raleigh barely talks, and it quickly becomes clear that she feels that she is worthless and quite literally soulless. As the trip goes on, she becomes friends with the other people in the car, gradually opens up to them, and learns to accept herself. On the surface, the novel is a story about Raleigh forming new friendships, trying to move on from her own previous romantic relationship, and general adolescent confusion. Although moving in its own right, the story can also serve as a look at both what living with anxiety and depression is like, as well what one can do to support someone dealing with them.
Trapped in her Own Head
The novel itself somewhat unique, in the fact that many pages include no dialogue with the other three characters, and instead take place entirely inside Raleigh’s head. Pages are filled with paragraphs of rambling text covering the panels, which detail her innermost thoughts and feelings. Given how little she initially talks to the others, it is largely through these inner monologues that the reader comes to know Raleigh (spoilers for the novel follow).
The reader’s introduction to Raleigh comes in the form of one of these thoughts, as Raleigh opens the comic by saying that she has no soul. This sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Raleigh’s inner monologue for most of the novel is heavily juxtaposed with her outer state. On the surface she is usually straight-faced and very occasionally smiling. But internally she is almost entirely negative, reminiscing about how cold and useless her high-school friends are, or how she despises her appearance, or how she feels like a horrible burden to everyone around her. Depression and anxiety often aren’t things that are visible from the outside, and this is exemplified in Lost at Sea. Even Dave and Ian never seem to notice how much pain Raleigh is in. In the end, Stephanie is the only person Raleigh truly confides in.
Cats and Best Friends
Easily the most touching part of Lost at Sea is the way in which Stephanie cares for Raleigh, and how close the two grow throughout the book. Despite the fact that they’ve only known one another for a few days and in terms of personality are polar opposites, Stephanie treats Raleigh like a human being (more so than any character depicted in Raleigh’s flashbacks), and takes everything Raleigh tells her completely seriously. When Raleigh describes how she has a ‘problem’ where she sees cats everywhere, Stephanie doesn’t laugh at her or even question whether the cats are real, she takes it in stride, agreeing to tell Raleigh if she sees any cats, so that Raleigh will know she’s not crazy. Cats can be seen as a metaphor for mental illness in the story: Raleigh feels that she is the only one who can see them, in effect that no one notices that anything is wrong with her; and she becomes closer to Stephanie when Stephanie confirms that she can see them too. Later on, when Raleigh is sitting on a hill and surrounded by cats, Stephanie is the only one there who notices, and shoos them away.
This assertion of cats is supported by Raleigh’s oft-repeated belief that a cat stole her soul, or in other words that her mental illness has stolen her life from her. It is left for the reader to decide whether a cat literally stole Raleigh’s soul or whether she is deluded or speaking metaphorically, but in the grand scheme of the novel it doesn’t matter; the focus is instead placed on how her new friends react to this. Stephanie immediately suggests that if a cat stole her soul, they should go and look for it, and proceeds to wake up Dave and Ian to search the town for Raleigh’s soul. During the following sequence, Raleigh appears to be having fun and connecting with the others, and their acceptance of her situation brings her closer to them. This acceptance both by oneself and others is a major theme in Lost at Sea, as well as being a good way to deal with or help others with depression.
In Limbo and Lost at Sea
The climax of the novel is heartbreaking, as Raleigh unexpectedly completely breaks down in front of Stephanie while they’re taking a break from chasing cats. She explains how she thinks maybe she really has had a soul throughout their trip, she feels like she’s crashed their trip and messed up all their lives with her pointless problems, and that she feels that she is effectively dead to the world. Stephanie deals with it awkwardly, but calls Raleigh the coolest person she knows, saying “Anyway, I know you’re all fucked up or whatever, but so am I, okay? So’s everyone. Or everyone I know, anyway.” She finishes by telling Raleigh that she know’s Raleigh’s going through a lot, and that if she was in her place she never would have been able to handle it and would have given up years ago. Their conversation ends with Stephanie murmuring words of encouragement before silently embracing a sobbing Raleigh. No matter how unsure of herself she is, Stephanie does everything possible to support Raleigh: She acknowledges how hard Raleigh’s situation is and makes it clear that she’s not alone and has people there for her, even if no one can understand what she’s going through.
And this is the main message of Lost at Sea. Depression and anxiety are possible to overcome, but not easy. That it often takes support from others, and that things won’t always be perfect. The final scene of the novel is a tad bittersweet, but largely hopeful: Raleigh acknowledges that what happened in her past won’t go away, and how sometimes she still feels awkward and wonders if everyone hates her. But she also talks about how they’re all friends in the future, and that (eventually) she maybe just stopped worrying about not having a soul, and that she’s gradually started feeling happier. Depression and anxiety aren’t things that just go away out of nowhere, they’re things that people have to fight for a long time to be rid of. But eventually, they can be overcome, especially with help from others.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
Such a strange, marvellous little book. I wish it was longer though.
I read this years ago. Thinking about reading it again and I wonder if I’m too old for this book now.
I read this book entirely on my morning train ride just yesterday and I already don’t remember most of it. I’m not entirely sure what the conflict is? I kept waiting for something solid to materialize but it never really did.
I completely feel that, it’s definitely not a book that everyone enjoys. The way I read it, the conflict is entirely character vs. self, in that everything revolves around Raleigh struggling to come to terms with breaking up with Stillman. I actually have always found it interesting in that it’s one of the few books I’ve read with no external conflict in the story.
I think everyone can identify with this.
I loved this so much! It was so relatable and the characters were so realistic.
I read this book because I am in a very similar stage in my life – just graduated from high school, feeling slightly lost, young/lost love, etc etc etc – and I did identify with her as a character, and I have written things similar to some of the things written in this book… But I have never published my journal/poetry.
THis one has a very strange aesthetic to it.
O’Malley is becoming one of my favorite comic writers.
Malley introduces fantasy elements to the story, but makes them completely optional to your understanding of the story. This is what I liked about this the most.
Wow, Lost at Sea sounds like a highly impactful graphic novel. Thank you for drawing my attention to it.
I absolutely adore Bryan Lee O’Malley.
As a portrait of the confusion, loneliness and terror of someone going through a major transition in life, Lost at Sea is powerfully accurate.
Just the right amount of mysterious in this one.
The thing is teenagers make me uncomfortable. Even when I was a teenager I was anxious to be done with it (dating people older and trying desperately to not be “trendy” – all very teen-age in and of itself, I know). when I over hear teenagers at restaurants I wince and cringe at how they spout out their opinions like they are the first to take note of things. I feel sad when the 5th graders at the school I work at begin to act like middle schoolers.
It is ridiculous of me and most likely a reflection of some sort of unresolved “angst” of my own. I am mostly likely so “teen-age” at my core that I don’t like to be confronted with it.
But I’m not mature enough to deal with that so instead I read this book and think, hmmmm, yeah. okay. Where are the funny parts? Where are the parts we can laugh?
I read Lost at Sea a few months ago, and found how O’Malley presented Raleigh’s inner conflict very interesting. As readers, we’re taken inside Raleigh’s mind and become aware of what she is experiencing. Everything happening externally on their road trip felt very fleeting in opposition to the internal. Which had a good impact, I feel — it’s relatable, as far as dealing with your own interior life while you navigate the exterior, where others may not be so aware of what you’re going through.
Lost at Sea was AMAZING!
Bryan writes fantastic dialog, and I love his art, and it has been fun to watch both of those things evolve over the years in his work.
I really enjoyed this book. It’s rather strange, though. And I enjoyed this analysis of it too.
It’s TOUGH to write a teenage main character that is both realistic and not annoying. Some people can do it… Bryan Lee O’Malley being one of them.
I like how the story’s format allows for that juxtaposition of visual and textual output. There’s an element of stream of consciousness to Raleigh’s introduction and following thoughts that is directly contrasted though heightened by the normalcy of her outward reactions. It allows those moments when things bubble up to the surface to be only that much stronger of a revelation. Even after those revelations, however, I appreciate the self-doubt you mention O’Malley introducing into the narrative, as that may be one of the hardest things mental illness can face you with. Good article!
I really loved this book. I’ll admit, it was a bit slow to get into, but it really was a fantastic read.
Can’t wait to read it!
I got in as far as your spoiler tag, and by then you had convinced me to pick it up and read it. So maybe I’ll come back to this article sometime soon.
As someone with anxiety and depression, I’m looking forward to reading this. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!
This is a helpful conversation. As someone who teaches English to nurses, the texts we use in order to learn how to conceive of, imagine, and talk about illness(es) is often on my mind. I’ve loved to use graphic memoirs (over graphic novels, that is) as some of these texts, and ‘Lost at Sea’ seems worth exploring not just for my own interests but for the sake of my students.
Thank you! Also, that sounds like such an amazing experience and great cause. I hope everything is going well!
Great Review. Thank you very much. I love Bryan Lee o’malley’s novels and relate to them in many ways. I like to read about what people see in them. Thanks. Loved reading you