Monday, July 29, 2019

On Trauma, Brain Clouds, and JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO

by Michele Eggen
If you love movies at all, you know that one of the great powers they possess is the potential to profoundly affect your life. They can equally bring you joy and pain, as at their core they are deeply human stories being told to us through a fantasy lens. Those characters on screen are not merely made-up people used to tell a story. They are versions of all of us, representations that can go beyond just projections of our own individual problems, if you’re willing to let them. We can learn and grow from them, because they so often face head-on those things that we usually keep deep inside.

Sometimes, you’re lucky enough to have the perfect movie come into your life when you REALLY need it. That’s what happened to me not too long ago when I watched Joe Versus the Volcano for the first time. It’s one of those beloved classics that I had somehow never gotten around to before. I’m sure I would have loved it had I seen it earlier, but it would not have had the same impact as it did on the exact day that I first experienced it. Joe Versus the Volcano still works amazingly well as one of those beautiful, odd comedies with great actors and performances, and yet it offers so much more. Its metaphors on anxiety and depression, and discussion of how they relate to trauma, are displayed and dissected without fear of tackling such issues, and therefore ring even more poignant. It’s a movie that slapped me in the face with its truth, and I’m grateful for it.

I was in a very bad place when I first watched this movie. To put it all out in the open right away, for the past few years I’ve been really struggling mentally. In 2016, I finally acknowledged and started to deal with the fact that I was sexually assaulted in college. I often minimize my experience, as it was a one-time, non-violent incident, but I can’t deny the affect it had on me. I crumbled. I wasn’t the woman I thought I was anymore. She was gone, replaced with a mere shell of a person who put on a smiling face for her family and friends, but disintegrated into a mess of scary thoughts, memories and emotions as soon as she was alone. I had no idea how to handle any of this, or how to survive the next minute, let alone the rest of my life, with this in my head.

I talked about the assault with people I trusted, and mostly worked through my immediate, overriding issues about it. That obviously didn’t make me completely better. Along with the trauma, depression and anxiety reared their ugly heads. I think they had always been there in some form, though, and were just waiting for the right time to really show themselves and make me deal with them, too. I had always been a loner, and now my mostly self-imposed isolation was compounded even more. Who would want to be around me now, this sad, lonely girl who often fell into a kind of catatonia for no apparent reason? What little confidence or sense of self-worth I had in myself before all of this had gone out the window. Many days, I still have a hard time finding a good reason to continue to try to get them back.

The really fun thing about depression and anxiety is that you never know when they’re going to hit you and how hard. A couple months ago, I was doing fine, and had been for a long time. Then a seemingly innocuous Twitter conversation triggered me. I hate how much that has become a buzzword for people to use and make fun of, because it’s not funny at all to trauma survivors who must deal with it on a constant basis. Everything came rushing back, and I crumbled again. The next morning, those feelings were still there, and I spent the entire day at work trying not to fall apart, feeling like I couldn’t breathe. I wasn’t just reliving the trauma of the assault, I was hardcore feeling all those things that came along with it and my general depression – loneliness, worthlessness, helplessness. It was one of the worst anxiety attacks that I had ever had thus far, and the fact that it came so far along in my recovery only served to frustrate me more. All I had done in the past couple of years to get better was obviously not helping – so why bother?
This is the headspace I was in when I first watched Joe Versus the Volcano (we’re back to talking about movies now, so thank you for still being here if you are). Even after vocalizing my feelings and having some friends reach out and talk me down, I still wasn’t okay. So I turned to another good friend of mine – the movies. Movies have always been a form of therapy for me through the years, because even when I’m not feeling terrible, they lift me up in a way that few things can. There was no specific reason why I chose to watch Joe Versus the Volcano on that day other than the fact that it just happened to be the latest movie shipped to me from Netflix.

I popped the DVD in, just expecting another funny and cute story like I had come to know from the other Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan mashups. However, I was not at all prepared for what this movie was about to do to me, and for me. A seemingly silly story about a guy in a crappy job who finds out that he is going to die soon so he goes to a remote island to jump into a volcano as a sacrifice to the native people suddenly and without warning became the perfect manifestation for everything that I had been feeling not only the previous day, but many other days before. I was a crazy mix of emotions while watching it. At times I felt full of love and joy at things like the quirky comedy, the appearance of Robert Stack, and the many versions of Meg Ryan.

That joy would be quickly followed by almost a kind of dread at what was to come. I was completely connecting on every level with these characters and how they were feeling, and I was scared of how the movie was going to leave me in the end – either better or worse. This is because Joe Versus the Volcano is ultimately a very true exploration of depression and anxiety, and perhaps offers some ways of how to handle them. I was still trying to understand both of these things myself, and through very clever metaphors, this movie perfectly explained my own feelings to me.

The opening title card and the song playing over the credits tries to make us think that Joe Banks’ problem is merely a dead-end job at a cold and joyless corporation that has cost him his health and happiness. But it’s not hard to see right from the start that his real problem was depression. From the moment Joe steps out of his car, it is obvious that this is not a happy man in a happy environment. He’s miserable; his co-workers, shuffling through the mud with their heads down as if they were on their way to their own funeral, are miserable; his boss is miserable. Joe talks about simply “not feeling good” all the time and not knowing why. Joe’s shoe is torn at one point, prompting him to utter the not-subtle-at-all line, “I’m losing my sole [soul].”
Joe goes to the doctor where he can finally give a name to what he has been feeling. He is diagnosed as a hypochondriac with a “brain cloud.” As ridiculous as that sounds as an actual medical diagnosis, a brain cloud is the perfect attribution for depression. The way Robert Stack’s Dr. Ellison describes it is spot-on. It’s incurable. It’s destructive. It’s a black fog that is constantly hanging over your head in your brain, with the potential to produce either merely a light drizzle or a raging thunderstorm. The drab, colorless office Joe works in can be seen as both the source of his depression and a projection of what is going on in his mind. There’s nothing happy there, nothing to look forward to. When Joe talks about the years he’s lost to his life-sucking job, I thought of the all days and weeks I’d lost to depression. I swear, this movie was talking right to me.

If a brain cloud is depression, then hypochondria is anxiety. It had never clicked for me before how closely those two things are related. The most basic definition of hypochondria is always thinking that there is something wrong with you physically. And while anxiety can be different things for different people, for me (mostly) it’s that mental struggle of always thinking that there is something wrong with me as a person. It’s that nagging voice in your head that tells you that no one really likes you. It’s constantly worrying about saying or doing the wrong thing, or avoiding certain situations altogether so that you don’t embarrass yourself in even the slightest way.

Ellison attributes Joe’s depression/anxiety to his trauma from working as a fireman, and as Joe says to Dede later on, “I had some experiences, and I got scared.” The link between trauma and depression and anxiety is well-known, of course. I knew that my assault, as well as other things in my life, were the cause of these afflictions. Validation is a key part in working through the struggles, and I felt strangely validated by Joe Versus the Volcano, like it was telling me, “Hey, you went through this, and everything you’re feeling now is totally normal.” I needed that.

Meg Ryan plays three different yet key roles in the movie. The Dede/Angelica/Patricia characters serve the story in that they represent the kind of person that Joe needs in whatever stage of his awakening that he is going through at the time. But I saw the Multiplied Megs (as a friend of mine put it) in a somewhat different way. To me, she is the emotional progression I saw in and desired for myself. In each iteration of her characters, I learned a little bit more about myself and I realized that she is the person I used to be, the person I needed to avoid becoming, and ultimately, the person I want to be.

Dede, the meek, high-voiced secretary at Panascope, is a sweet enough person, but there is a lot she lacks. Her emotions are like the closed fist she offers to Joe when tries to take her hand at the dinner table. She at first seems excited at Joe’s new attitude and intensity, but quickly reveals that she really fears it. She can’t handle the emotional weight when he tells her that he is dying. That kind of vulnerability with another person is scary but important in any relationship, and also to the individual as well. I avoided tapping into any real emotions for a long time and it only made me feel worse as time went on. Running from things is easy but ultimately destructive. You don’t want to be a Dede.
The next Meg we met is Angelica Graynamore, the totally untrustworthy painter, poet, and flibbertigibbet. Physically, she’s a stark contrast to Dede with her fiery red hair and colorful clothes, yet she is similarly lacking. She is no doubt more open with her emotions, saying whatever is on her mind with no filter, which in some ways is a noble characteristic. I think her problem though is that she isn’t ready to make that real connection to her own feelings or another human. She even seems slightly non-human herself, talking in a very odd and robotic way. Despite revealing some very personal things about herself to Joe, she still can’t let him in. She doesn’t believe that his empathy is real no matter what he says, and loses an opportunity to perhaps help herself. You can’t be an Angelica.

The final version of Meg is Angelica’s half-sister, Patricia Graynamore. The decidedly most “normal” of the three, Patricia is headstrong and independent. She has passions and dreams, but also an understanding of herself and where she falters. Yet where Dede and Angelica shut down with Joe, Patricia jumps into his situation with him full bore, falling in love with him and ultimately marrying. She’s the person Joe has been looking for the whole movie, the one who is literally willing to take that leap into the volcano with him at the end without fear. She is who he needs at his side and also who he needs to be, because she believes in him and she believes in herself. Patricia is who I want to be – self-aware, open, willing to do the things I’m scared of instead of running away from them.

A scene that really hit me was the conversation between Joe and Angelica in the car. At one point, Angelica blurts out to Joe, “Did you ever think about killing yourself?” My heart stopped at that line. I don’t talk about it much, and many people don’t know how bad things have gotten for me, but suicidal ideation is practically a part of my everyday life. I had just been thinking about it again the day before in the throes of my anxiety attack. It is ironic how shocked Joe seems to be at Angelica’s question, considering that he is on his way to do that very thing – kill himself. What he says to her about choosing to do the things you’re scared of doing instead of giving up is the advice he should be taking for himself. At this point, though, he still feels like sacrificing himself is something that he has to do, that he doesn’t have any other options.

Luckily, though, he has his breakthrough cathartic moment. Perhaps the most poignant scene is when Joe and Patricia are stranded in the ocean on his luggage trunks, near death. A huge moon suddenly rises up over the horizon, with Joe staring in awe, lifting his arms up to meet it. He’s found that state of amazement that Patricia described before, and thanks whatever god he may be talking to for his life. I defy anybody to not tear up at this scene. Joe’s adventure has introduced him to new possibilities he didn’t think existed for him before: a chance to get out of his own head and see the other side of depression. The island of Waponi Woo could not be more different than Panascope, and all the people he’s met along the way have had a huge influence on him. And yes, Joe also gets that fabled chance at love. He still jumps into the volcano, but he is able to survive because he has Patricia with him. The depression doesn’t take him. He has what he needs to fight it and keep fighting it – even when the two of them end up stranded in the ocean again.
I think it’s important to say that, though I loved the movie and it’s now a favorite of mine, Joe Versus the Volcano didn’t completely change my life. I didn’t walk away from it with this new passion for living where everything was going to be wonderful from now on. I’m still depressed, and I still have bad days (such as the ones I had while I was writing this). My particular brain cloud will probably be with me for the rest of my life, but I know now that it doesn’t have to be fatal. Sometimes, when I’m standing on the edge of my own volcano ready to jump in, I think about the movie, and it helps remind me of some important things.

It reminds that it’s okay to have problems and to admit that you have them. Everybody has them in some way. It reminds me not to close myself off from my emotions or ignore my problems, and to let others in to help me. It reminds me that hope and courage are still attainable goals no matter what you are facing. And, as cheesy as it sounds, it reminds of how big the world is, of everything that I still want to see and do. That depression volcano is a liar and will spit me right back out if I fall into it, because it’s not my time yet and I deserve to experience all those things. I deserve to be here. And if you’re reading this and need to hear it - so do you.

Thank you, Joe Versus the Volcanco. Thank you for my life.


  1. Great article Michele! Thank you for writing it.

  2. What a beautiful article. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Wow. Thank you for sharing. I hope your bad days are few and far between. I saw this one in the theater and thought it was a wonderfully quirky little gem that has always been underrated. I'm glad you love it too.

  4. Michele, this was a wonderful article. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to open up like this, but as someone who also suffers from depression and anxiety, I really appreciated it.

    Also, I wish more people would give this movie a chance, because it’s wonderful.

  5. This was wonderful. Thanks for sharing. Your analysis is brilliant, and I hadn't consider this perspective on it, I can certainly empathize with where you're coming from in terms of anxiety and depression.

    I can actually thank F This Movie and Patrick's championing of this film for making me go back and watch it after having only seen it as a kid when it was first on VHS. There is something heart warming that a movie such as this, that can be both incredibly smart while also having such (for lack of a better word) stupid humor can work so well.

  6. It is wonderful that a movie can give you a different perspective on life, Michele. Every day may not be pleasant, yet you can never predict when something worthwhile will happen.

    Movies have saved many miserable days for me.