Depression and Webcomics: How a Comic About Mushrooms Taught Me to Love Myself
Just a heads up: this article is going to talk about my experience with depression, anxiety, and self care. If some or all of these things make you uncomfortable, or are a trigger for you, proceed with caution. Take care of yourselves!
Mushrooms, a 2014 webcomic by Katie O’Neill (AKA strangelykatie—read more about her here), details one girl’s struggle to live a normal life—or as normal as you can expect when you are covered in mushrooms. In the comic, the protagonist struggles to leave her home, pushed into solitude by her fear that the mushrooms will draw stares and unsavory comments. She struggles to find interest in things she may have once loved, staring blankly at the television screen and unable to focus on music. Sitting on the edge of her bed, she wonders:
Though I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced the sensation of mushrooms spawning on my limbs, this entire situation still felt oddly familiar.
Each panel makes me recall a moment when each of these things (leaving the house, watching tv, or even bathing) seemed impossible. I think back to my first few therapy sessions when I was asked to describe when I began experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety. No one had ever used those terms to describe what I experienced. I’d always imagined my feelings as some sort of monster, every single thing I’ve ever hated about myself pulled together into some sort of shapeless presence. It was the “monster” that weighed on my thoughts and my body when I tried to get out of bed in the morning; it was the monster that loved darkness, isolation, and self-criticism. It was the monster that was so talented at infecting every fiber of me with self-hate.
The protagonist of Mushrooms has her own monster to battle—the mushrooms. Mushrooms are known for their ability to grow quickly in the dark, absorbing liquid to speed up their growth process. The term “mushrooming” refers to just the very particular way in which mushrooms grow and multiply. In Mushrooms, we see that the protagonist is a victim of literal “mushrooming.” You see her covered in mushrooms, shut away from the world, and left to wonder how this happened. Her confusion at what came first felt so similar to my own confusion about my depression. With every episode, it was as if, overnight, my body and brain had been infested, my tears acting as nutrients for my self-hate and the feelings “mushrooming.” Often, it was just easier to isolate myself to avoid seeing the face on other people. Everyone knows this face; it’s the one with the eyes that ask all the questions, the one that begs you to help yourself. Seeing that face always made me (and still makes me) feel like I was disappointing everyone and I was not ready to admit that I needed to do something about that.
It took years of self-examination to work up the courage to even set foot in a therapist’s office. Still under the impression that this was “just the way my brain worked and how it would always work,” I spent the first 30 minutes of the session offering up as little information as possible. I convinced myself that the person sitting in front of me was untrustworthy, only interested in gathering details for her next publication. In the last 15 minutes of my session (I know because I spent most of my time checking the clock above the door), attempting to get through to me one last time, my therapist paused, took a deep breath, and said, “It sounds like it’s really difficult to be you, to be inside your brain. I’m so sorry about that. I want to help you learn to love yourself.” I had one of those really awkward movie moments where someone is so physically uncomfortable that they begin to laugh and the laughter slowly devolves into this mixture of dry heaving and tears.
After years of isolation and suppression, the mere possibility that someone was able to understand, even for even a second, what happened in my brain all day was what broke me. For years I’d denied myself that very necessary love and care I needed not just to survive, but also to thrive. It felt like, for the first time, I’d looked in a mirror and seen what had grown unattended, like in the absence of love and care, “mushrooms” had grown all over my body. It was time for me to make myself a priority, to stop pretending that my lack of involvement in my mental health was anything but harmful.
Self-care has been a huge part of this journey. All I’d known about self-care prior to really taking the time to research it was that sometimes it involved spending a lot of money that you didn’t have on things you didn’t need. Which, yeah, I mean sometimes it does. Sometimes you need to spend the little that you can afford to spend on yourself. Spending money has always been a huge stressor for me, so I have never been able to make a purchase for myself and not immediately be filled with guilt.
I think about what would be most helpful, and I think back to how I felt when my therapist said she wanted to help me. The idea that she could even topically understand what I felt reminded me that I wasn’t alone. Ultimately, for me, that is the most powerful form of self-care: knowing I’m not alone.
I’ve been on tumblr for about five or six years, so I’m not a stranger to the self-care community. It was through this community that I discovered webcomics. I know I’m about one million years behind on this, but whatever. Intimidated by the idea of actually having full real conversations about my depression with actual real people, I found that the easiest way for me to validate my feelings and know I’m not alone is through art.
Webcomics created by people who are depressed or have experienced being depressed open up a dialogue that is still just beginning. Since first being diagnosed, I have met several people who have just as much trouble talking about mental health as I did. Putting words to these feelings isn’t easy, as my awkward first session with my therapist shows. Even if you can come up with the words, having these conversations isn’t easy. Despite the fact that major depression affects almost 14.8 million people in the United States, the stigma surrounding mental health is very real. People who are mentally ill need a way to access self-care communities that makes them feel comfortable and able to express their feelings.
Taking these feelings and putting them into pictures, online, for everyone to access opens this community up for those who have trouble with these discussions. It’s a way of letting someone in and helping yourself that still feels safe.
Including themes of mental health and self-care in webcomics makes them easily and widely accessible. Personifying feelings like self-hate, doubt, and disappointment in ways that are non-threatening, e.g. in the form of a young girl covered in mushrooms, allows the reader to attach meaning to the pictures themselves. Reading through Mushrooms for the first time allowed me to view my depression from an angle that is difficult to imagine: recovery. Having this struggle visualized and represented in pictures and words made it feel more real: “I can’t be imagining this if someone else feels this, too. If they can get better, or at least try, maybe I can, too.”
I am able to contemplate my own actions, breaking down healthy habits and separating them from those that feed my illness. Like, for instance, letting myself sleep in for an hour or two vs. letting myself sleep for 14 hours. Seeing back-to-back panels of someone sitting in a darkened room has often jarred me out of my own depressed haze. Reading webcomics can be really similar to looking in a mirror, without the added bonus of self-judgment because being kind to others has always come easier to me.
But, the best (okay, not the best, but one of the best) part has to be that most webcomics are FREE. Most people can access them from the comfort of their very own beds, which is crucial on the days when you know you need to take care of yourself, but getting out of bed seems impossible. For these days, I like to keep a few of my favorite comics saved in my bookmarks. Keep them in a special folder if you want to!
A few of my favorites are:
- Mushrooms (obviously)
- Hyperbole and a Half (a popular suggestion)
- Lucy the Octopus (deals with bullying, self-hate, and struggling with identity)
- The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal
I’d be lying if I said each webcomic that attempts to address mental illness does so perfectly. Finding a few that are helpful to you and using those to find others that are similar is what really allows you to build a strong self-support system. The comics don’t even need to focus on mental illness or feature characters that are “goin’ through stuff.” Webcomics can provide hours of distraction and enjoyment, no matter the subject. Looking for something NSFW to take your mind off of your stresses? Check out some recs here. There is a webcomic for everyone. Are you into reading about centaurs? Check out Hotblood!
If webcomics aren’t your thing, that’s okay. The whole point of this is to find something that is “your thing.” I know people who like to file paperwork or organize as a self-care (this person may or may not be me…). You are worth the time and effort it takes to find out what self-care activity is right for you.
You are so loved and so important. Find ways to make you feel that way all the time (or as often as you can).