Zinesters challenge stigmas around mental illness one photocopied page at a time
Behind every good zine lies a good reason to make a zine. It could be corporate greed that fuels the anger in a political zine or a child who doesn’t fit into a cookie-cutter education system for a parenting zine. Mental illness, with its long history of mass misunderstanding, is ready for its extreme zine close-up. And more and more people are turning to the spontaneity and truth of the zine to express the state of their mental health. Think of it as a perzine at its most revealing: a raw recounting of what people deal with, from treatment to telling friends and family to the struggle of living with mental illness.
With the immediacy and intimacy that only a zine can provide, people are blowing open the stigma that surrounds mental illness. Just as early zines coming out of the gay pride movement reclaimed words like ‘fag’ and explicitly set out to explore the ‘sex’ in same sex, the mental health zine is set to reinvent madness for the 21st Century. The tone can be angry, sorrowful and even joyful, but the goal is always about putting feelings on the page. Now.
So, how are we feeling right now?
Honesty in understanding
The worst thing to call somebody is ‘crazy.’ It’s dismissive. ‘I don’t understand this person, so they’re crazy.’ That’s bullshit. — Dave Chappelle
Just as there are as many reasons to start a zine as there are zines, there are as many different mental health zines as there are people making them. Some focus on treatment options, some on the gaps in health care systems and others are entirely dedicated to day-to-day life with mental illness. But one thing these zines all have in common is a deep honesty about the reality of going through mental health crises and the trials and tribulations of seeking help.
The Illinois-based author of the long running self-published comic series King Cat, John Porcellino, feels that zine-makers are the perfect mouthpiece for this subject. “They’re so honest about the experience, about the disappointment, about how many people end up in dozens of doctor’s offices without any relief,” he says. Porcellino himself has suffered from depression and anxiety since his teens, a subject he took on in his 2000 graphic novel Perfect Example. Now in his forties, the prolific author and illustrator is still finding his way through the woods when it comes to his mental health, and he has been increasingly open about it in his work.
For Dave Cave, author of the mental health perzine Everybody Moon Jump, the impetus for putting all of his secrets on paper is his inner need to share his most embarrassing moments with others. “It’s the opposite of keeping a secret, is publishing, I think,” says Cave who lives in Cameron, Ontario. “I think it’s just overcompensating for when you feel like something is a secret, you just tell as many people as possible and then it can’t be a secret anymore and you can’t be embarrassed about it. You’re taking the shame away.”
“One week in the group, we’re going to be asked to list our fears. I’m getting a head start…” writes Cave in a piece called “My Fears” in issue 11 of Everybody Moon Jump. “Tapeworms/body parasites, snapping turtles, never getting famous, being suicidal again/going crazy again, physical intimacy (more of a dislike), earwigs, physical intimacy with earwigs…”
For Laura-Marie Taylor, author of functionally ill: adventures with mental health, starting a zine about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder was part of her way of processing what she was going through. Her first zine was inspired by an open letter she wrote to her friends and family about her diagnosis — a way of establishing lines of communication and conveying an experience that is often difficult to talk about.
“And then I started getting more readers who I didn’t know and it became clear to me that a lot of people were getting something good out of it,” says the Sacramento based zine-maker. “It stopped being as much for my small circle and more for everybody.”
Taylor’s functionally ill takes the reader through her decision to seek professional help and her feelings about the care she received when she allowed herself to be vulnerable and ask for assistance. The early issues give readers a view of what it’s like to be seeking treatment in a system that is overrun and under-funded. She tells us what mania and depression feel like to her, what it sounds like to hear voices and how she feels about the system that needs to quickly fit her into a box of diagnosis and medication.
“It was strange in the waiting room, when the people around me were so obviously unwell, and I was having an identity crisis: ‘Am I like these people?’” She writes in her first issue. “I’ve developed some coping mechanisms that most mentally ill people haven’t. Some days I probably look like them, but most days, I look fine.”
Her subsequent issues, up to and including the most recent issue #10, reflect on people she has met and groups she has joined in her pursuit of understanding and embracing her mental health.
Breaking down stigma
We don’t tolerate sexism and racism these days, but people with mental health problems are still fair game. Mockery, discrimination and stigma persist despite research showing mental illness to be as real as any other illness. — Darryl Cunningham, Psychiatric Tales
In the foreword to Calgary-based small press Freehand Books’ 2010 release Bitter Medicine: A Graphic Memoir of Mental Illness, Chris Summerville, CEO of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, wrote that the authors and brothers, Clem and Olivier Martini, made the most compelling case he had ever seen for how society has failed people with mental illness.
Bitter Medicine is a graphic biography of one family’s experience after two out of four siblings are diagnosed with schizophrenia. The Martinis paint a picture of a time (specifically, the 1970s) when the psychiatrists they encountered in Alberta believed that schizophrenia was partially caused by bad parenting. When brother Ben Martini commits suicide because he is fed up with his struggles, the Martinis retreat into darkness, afraid of what reaction this family secret will get from the community.
Part of the reason that society has failed people with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia is down to the fact that people don’t always take mental illness as seriously as physical illness. The Martinis show just how damaging this kind of attitude can be. For instance, the book depicts Olivier’s own eventual diagnoses of schizophrenia and how his boss refuses to recognize it as a legitimate illness and, therefore, refuses to give him a medical leave. So he loses his job. “This only reinforced the impression that whatever [Olivier] was suffering from, it was his fault,” writes Clem in Bitter Medicine.
The family had many questions when Olivier was diagnosed, such as would he be happy in the long run and how complete would the recovery be? Throughout the book, Clem Martini notes that the latter is the wrong question to ask. What Olivier went through wasn’t exactly a recovery; rather, “It is a new life, with a new and different way of relating to almost everything.”
This idea — mental illness as not an illness at all, but rather another way of seeing the world around us — is exactly how The Icarus Project wants people to approach the entire issue. Run by a non-profit based in New York, The Icarus Project is an American national network of people who believe that mental health should be talked about and categorized differently than it is. The group, named after the character from Greek mythology that flew too close to sun, looks at mental illnesses as “mad gifts [that need] cultivation and care, rather than diseases or disorders.”
The Icarus Project encourages and facilitates the voices of its varied community by promoting and distributing materials made by its members. One of the most recent releases to come out of the group is a contribution to the mental health zine genre: a collaborative zine called Wax & Feathers. Inside are the experiences and opinions of former and current psychiatric patients. For instance, a contributor who goes by the name Polvora writes about diagnosis and the danger of labeling people by their thought patterns. “While it’s true that some people perceive an alternate reality or experience a state of consciousness that is foreign to most, the problem is that society as a whole has chosen to recognize some of these differences as dangerous or broken rather than [as] a unique experience of individual thought.” In addition to columns and comics, contributors to the zine share their feelings about the various prescriptions they’ve been given through “Side-Effect Haikus.” “Antipsychotic/Why were you prescribed to me?/Thought I was depressed” reads “Abilify” by clarextina while “Wellbutrin” by Sarafin goes: “Though the sex is good/I find myself convulsing/At higher doses.”
Much of this material takes aim at the stigma of mental illness, the idea being that if the stigma were reduced, more people would seek help when they need it. “I think in the marketplace of mental health it is really hard to find something that reflects your experience that isn’t the mainstream ‘biology is the problem and drugs are the answer,’” says Lucy Costa, a Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) Empowerment Council worker who is tasked with the responsibility of being an independent voice for clients. She uses zines in her work because they are an alternative to medical publications that patients can connect with on a deeper level. She remembers visiting a patient who was incarcerated in Oak Ridge, a maximum-security mental health facility in Penetanguishene, Ontario, back in the 1980s. She found the patient reading Phoenix Rising, an early incarnation of the mental health zine, a newsletter-like Toronto publication run by psychiatric patients from 1980 until 1990. Phoenix Rising sported the tagline “The Voice of the Psychiatrized,” and looked at psychiatry from the patients’ perspective, featuring articles on the anti-psychiatry movement, reports on deaths in various institutions and creating a draft bill of rights for Canadian psychiatric inmates. The incarcerated patient told Costa that he had finally found something that spoke to his experience. “To find a zine that was asking questions and taking a critical perspective for him was extremely hopeful. Nowhere else in his experience had he found that.”
The artist as conduit
All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art. — Jorge Luis Borges
Of course, like so much art inspired by biographical circumstance, many mental health zines aren’t interested in stigma at all. Maranda Elizabeth, author of the long-running zine Telegram Ma’am, recognizes that there is stigma around the concept of mental illness, but stigma isn’t what inspires them to make their zine. Elizabeth, who has dealt with depression, addiction and a recent diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, says the appearance of “normalcy” never appealed to them. Instead, Elizabeth is motivated by an enduring will to live. “Survival is the main reason I write what I write,” Elizabeth explains. “These words keep me alive, somehow.”
Elizabeth’s sentiment is one the rings true for many zine makers, cartoonists and novelists who address mental health through their various mediums. It’s not so much a choice to write about mental health as it is a necessity.
“Frankly a lot of zine writers, they’re artists, they’re writers, those are often people who have these kind of problems. So I think it’s only natural that that’s a part of that world,” says Porcellino.
Porcellino’s most recent artistic contribution to the mental health landscape is Toronto publisher Pop Sandbox’s newest project The Next Day. Authored by Paul Peterson and Jason Gilmore and illustrated by Porcellino, The Next Day is a cross media project (there is also a documentary film and website) built from interviews with survivors of suicide attempts. The graphic novel delves into each person’s story beginning with the suicide attempt and then traveling through each person’s childhood and into the details of how they came to choose suicide.
For Porcellino, this project had little to do with stigma, and everything to do with honesty through biography. Porcellino wanted to be as true to their experiences as possible. “A lot of it was up to my imagination. I wanted to bring as much of my own experience as seemed appropriate to hopefully give a little bit of truth or resonance,” he explains. “It was an interesting line to walk, but it was really rewarding to me.” He was drawn to this project because, since releasing Map of My Heart — a collection of his King Cat comics that expressed some of his issues with depression and anxiety — he became more aware of the value of talking openly about mental illness. “As time has gone on and I’ve dealt with my mental health issues in my actual life, I do feel a certain responsibility to be open about those kind of issues.”
“I write my zine more for myself than I do for anybody else,” says Elizabeth about Telegram Ma’am. Dave Cave admits that he makes his zine for himself, too, as does Laura-Marie Taylor. Nita Duangjumpa, who founded a mental health zine distro called Fluxxii, says that most of the people she’s met through her distro also started their zines as a way to get their thoughts down on paper.
In the end, that’s what makes this genre so utterly compelling. These zines are about life, pure and simple. And in that sense, we can all instantly relate the way we could never relate to a textbook account of someone suffering from some complex diagnosis. We all know what it feels like to be angry, disappointed and even downright depressed. Mental shifts aren’t just an issue for people in severe crisis, they are part of our day-to-day. They are part of life experience and the mental health zine brings that experience to the fore, whether we can see ourselves in someone else’s description of a first visit to a psychiatrist or not.
“What I find in the zine writing about this subject is that it’s not cut and dried. It’s very, very real,” says Porcellino. “I feel that people in the underground community are more willing to look at the reality of the situation versus some fantasy that they would like to perpetuate or hope for.”
“I write it both in anger and in love of everyone and everything around me,” says Miranda Elizabeth. “I write it because I can barely find any voices I can relate to, so I have to use my own.”
(text image excerpted from functionally-ill by Laura-Marie Taylor; comic images excerpted from The Next Day, illustrated by John Porcellino, written by Paul Peterson and Jason Gilmore)