Megan Purdy asks the questions in this round table discussion responding to several comics tackling mental illness, and its resultant behaviours.
Sara Lautman’s comic Some Notes on Compulsive Hair Pulling is beautiful and affecting. The comic is about Lautman’s struggle with trichotillomania: how she got her diagnosis; how she deals with it; how she relates, or doesn’t relate, to other popular depictions of physical and mental illness.
What did you think of her suggestion that there’s something subversive or resistive in trichtotillomania–not the act of compulsively pulling out your hair, but the being-a-woman-with-“unfeminine”-hair or being-a-woman-with-an-illness of it?
Ginnis Tonnik: In potentially labeling trichtotillomania or the act it causes subversive, should we be separating the two? I don’t know if you can. Context is important. It strikes me more as the intellectualizing smart women with mental illness often due as a way to cope, to make sense of it, to erase the shame. And that’s not to say that’s trivial because eradicating the shame associated with mental illness is extremely important, but it’s not what leads to self-care. I can think of rationalizations for self-injury of oh it’s my body (which is an important act for a woman), and I can do whatever I want with it, but it’s also just that–a rationalization for me to perform a fucked up coping mechanism. In sum, knock off my own intellectualization, calling being a woman with unfeminine hair due to trichtotillomania subversive makes me extremely uncomfortable because it can glorify mental illness, in this romanticized, artist-intellectual way that our culture just seems to adore especially when it comes to women.
Sarah Register: I’ve struggled with hair pulling and various compulsions since I was around ten years old. I plucked out my eyelashes until my eyelids were completely bare and pulled out hair from the top of my head until I had a pronounced bald spot that I hid with an elastic headband. By the time I hit the headband stage, I was on the cusp of my teenage years and incredibly awkward; I wore homemade long cutoffs and oversized t-shirts with frogs on them. Femininity was not a word that one would subscribe to me at that age, with or without the trichotillomania. My experience is notably different than the artist’s because I didn’t deal with hair-pulling as an adult (I’ve since moved on to peeling my nails, but that’s another story), but “trich” had nothing to do with my gender or how the world perceived my lacking femininity. I don’t think you can’t choose your coping mechanisms or compulsions. I remember the exact moment I first pulled out my eyelashes but I couldn’t tell you why I did it. I just knew that all the issues stemming from my parent’s divorce and then the subsequent difficulties with stepparents and the yelling through bedroom doors (among so many other things)–all of that noise in my head turned into a quiet hum. With every distinct pluck and brief but sharp pain, my anxieties got pushed a little further away. I get the notion that women might suffer more from having to cover up bald spots and other self-harm evidence than men because of our notions of femininity. For me, however, it wasn’t subversive, it was just deeply personal.
Al Rosenberg: There are things I suffer from that I like to think are subversive, but that does not actually make them so. For many years I dealt with debilitating panic attacks and had to go to extreme lengths to prevent them. Everything seemed like a trigger and I got really good at suddenly leaving conversations or situations that would set them off. As a teenager this was socially crippling, but I forced myself to believe it was radical self-love and self-care. So what if people couldn’t stand to be around me because I was so jumpy and prone to fleeing? I knew what was good for me and they should be so lucky to learn that about their own bodies. Looking back this belief was the coping mechanism, not the actual behaviors. So, I was easily swept up into Lautman’s suggestion. Sometimes you just have to accept your own shit, and a spoonful of sugar makes it go down just a bit easier.
Tell me about a comic about health or illness that resonated with you, for good or ill. What makes for a good “health” narrative? A good “illness” narrative?
Here’s why I ask: When I was doing Russian lit, I connected so strongly with Dostoevsky, which was great, but yet, I found that living in the headspace of his characters while I wrote papers that year was profoundly bad for me. Too much alienation and misery when I was already feeling terrible.
Colleen Lynne Cox: There is no one answer as to what makes a “good” or “bad” narrative about health and illness. Diversity of narratives is the only one solution to providing different avenues to experiencing a situation–or at least, it was for me.
I’ve struggled with paranoia throughout my life. It subsided as I grew into adulthood but really haunted me as a teenager, in the literal sense of the word. Embarrassing as it is to admit, I was in a state where I believed: 1.) Ghosts and/or demons are real and 2.) one is following my every move. What dispelled those feelings for me was delving deeper into the world of horror. I realized other people were having these experiences, which moved what I felt into a shared experience of paranoid fantasy as opposed to a real “sixth sense” awakening. This was the point in my life where I discovered the works of Junji Ito and Hideshi Hino. Their works are not specifically about conquering fear in any shape or form–in fact, most of their characters submit to some horrendous fate that would make one’s skin crawl for days–but there is an absurdist viewpoint to their stories that somehow makes them less frightening, as if the authors are both exorcising and making fun of their own fears on paper.
Later, I was exposed to the works of Nekojiru (Chiyomi Hashiguchi), above, who’s self-titled comics ran in Garo magazine from 1990 until her suicide in 1998. I would not recommend Nekojiru’s comics to just anyone, but for those of us who might’ve been that odd, bullied kid who scribbled things that upset our parents and displaced our frustrations onto the unfortunate ant colony in the backyard, her comics are both upsetting, familiar, hilarious and cathartic (though you wouldn’t dare admit that to anyone). Her drawings are, at their surface, amateurish, demented and somehow hilarious, but it is her storytelling that quickly divides the room on whether she was a sort of genius or should’ve been institutionalized immediately. Not everyone is going to find a comic about a little cat girl eating two screaming snails as their bereaved snail mother looks on funny or helpful.
What lay in these comics that helped me to process my paranoia was similar viewpoint to my own, a shared sense of horror and dark humor at both the unknown and supernatural and the overbearing happy-sappy pop culture world around us that bombards us with smiles and cuteness and advertisements reinforcing mindless joy without question. It is not the solution for everyone to read comics like this to work through their issues, but for some who need a weirder option from sweetness and light, it will help you to feel less alone.
Al Rosenberg: I am currently working on an essay about illness narratives in geek culture, so I have read quite a few recently.
One that especially touched me was Watching by Winston Roundtree on Virus Comix. It’s a one page webcomic about a person from the future watching a terminally ill woman from the past (our time). What particularly resonated with me is the discussion it provokes about the way we see people who are dying. The terminally ill aren’t often allowed to also be depressed, or afraid. We want our sick to be chipper, wise, always finding the silver linings.
To me a “good” narrative about illness is one that leaves room for the human element. There is sometimes happiness even in depression. And there is often fear in illness.
Ginnis Tonnik: Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home is particularly memorable for me because of how she addresses her OCD in relation to her family life. While my experience with OCD and anxiety is very different how she situated OCD as this sort of a way for a kid to feel in control in a world where they feel they have no control resonated and still resonates with me. Hyperbole and a Half also addresses depression in a hilariously honest way. Her posts and cartoons on her childhood as one big existential crisis make me laugh from the sheer hilarity and the funny-cuz-it-feels-so-true.
Ginnis, what do you think about Allison Bechdel’s treatment of mental health in Fun Home and Are You My Mother (below)? And specifically, the points of connection between mental health and the treatment of LGBTQ people?
Ginnis Tonnik: I really like that Fun Home draws that connection–about how social stigma impacts mental health. I can’t help but think of past studies that looked at queer folk as inherently mentally unstable rather than suffering from social stigma. Fun Home manages to draw attention to this in a relatable way for any person experiencing mental illness while also situating itself specifically within being queer in a heterosexist world. It’s one of my favorite books for this reason.