DRAWING Conclusions: An Essay on Cartooning and Mental Health
Fig. A: From Ellen Forney’s ‘Marbles’
Hi. My name is Whit Taylor. I’m a cartoonist and comics writer. I also happen to be bipolar type II. This does not mean I’m “crazy”. In fact I don’t even know what crazy actually means. That I even had to bring that up though illustrates some of my hesitancy to reveal this. Yes, my experiences with depression (and very infrequently hypomania) have been internal for the most part, but it’s something that manifests externally in the way I see the world. For me, being a creative has always gone hand in hand with some of my mood issues and the more I meet other artists I realize that I’m not alone. I will be talking about my own coming to terms with my mental health, how this relates to my cartooning, the real or imagined association between “creativity and madness”, and why I don’t necessarily see it as a negative thing.
I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember. Yes, everyone has dysfunctional family situations to a degree, but I can’t blame this on my upbringing or even on purely situational factors. Bipolar and other related disorders run in my family, so it was not surprising to receive this diagnosis, even though it was hard to hear. My mental health issues manifested in different ways growing up. There was the childhood OCD and anxiety disorder diagnoses. Then the low-grade depression (dysthymia) coupled with bouts of major depressive episodes (aka. the dark cloud in front of you that you CAN’T see beyond). And finally, as an “adult” the bipolar II one.
Fig B: Did you know that Catherine Zeta Jones came out as being bipolar type II a few years ago? Clearly we have ALOT in common.
How was this decided? Well I told my old psychiatrist that I had in fact had a few distressing week-long episodes of increased energy, racing mind, rapid speech, and insomnia which led me to initiate all of these ridiculous creative projects that I could not follow through with. I even went on an intense green smoothie binge once, but that’s for another essay. So she took note of this and explained to me that the fact that I had had a HANDFUL of these mood changes meant that I had bipolar II which is typically considered a milder form of bipolar disorder. I wasn’t having full blown manic episodes, but milder ones (aka. hypomania).
To be honest, the diagnosis pissed me off, so I sought a second opinion. This time I signed up for a research study which included an intake through a well-known university. One four hour intake and a phone call over Thanksgiving break later and…I was bipolar II AGAIN. I started bawling. Why? Because I thought it meant I was weak or a failure. I knew objectively that this was silly though. I grew up with people who were bipolar and I know that they are awesome, even if they struggle with difficult mood fluctuations. But for me it felt different. So I sat around aimlessly for a while and then moved on…to cartoon.
Fig C: Me in the grips of hypomania…just playin’. My brother got me a gift certificate to Cracker Barrel and I was stoked at the thought of biscuits and gravy.
Cartooning is the one thing, other than my family and friends, that has helped me through less than stellar times. In fact, I don’t know what I’d do without it. I’ve mentioned before that I am not a slow and methodical cartoonist but a fast and rough drawer. I think it’s a way for me to relieve stress and that the rhythm of it is soothing. And the storytelling aspect, whether autobiographical or fictional, allows me to work through past experiences and explore themes that resonate with me for some reason. In other words, comics are therapy.
Comics are always a form of self-exposure and expression, meaning that what you create reveals something about you, inherently making you vulnerable. My comics tend to be very personal as it is, but I’ve always struggled with what to share and not to share. In my comic Relics, I revealed that I been coming to terms with my mental health issues, but didn’t go into much depth. Perhaps because it was autobio I didn’t want to fully go there. It’s in my most recent work Up Down Clown however that I’ve really started to explore a lot of difficult personal issues in the form of fiction. The story is about a birthday clown who struggles with bipolar disorder and how it affects his creativity, relationships, and sense of self-worth. Believe it or not, writing fiction can be more personally taxing than autobio. Who woulda thought?
Fig D: From ‘Up Down Clown’
I don’t doubt the therapeutic aspect of creation or the association between artistry and mental health issues. In fact, I believe they exist, even if it’s based on anecdotal evidence. And I know this through growing up with artists, becoming friends with artists, and working at a counseling center at an art school. No, I am not some PhD who has done a dissertation on the link between creativity and mental illness (the more modern term is psychiatric disorder apparently…yuck to both) but that’s my belief.
If we do want to go the academic route though, there is some emerging research on the link between creativity and mental health issues…and there is no consensus. The idea of the “tortured artist” is not a new one and has in fact been romanticized possibly in a detrimental way, as it implies that in order to be an artist you have to suffer from some sort mental instability. I don’t think this is necessarily true. Terminology is also a roadblock to doing legit research. What do “mental illness” or “creativity” even mean? And if we’re honest, does having a few “hypomanic episodes” even constitute a bipolar II diagnosis, or is it within the “normal” range of human emotion? Mood is on a continuum, but perhaps researchers will need to prioritize how these mood fluctuations affect every day functioning as opposed to just defining things from limited DSM criteria.
Fig E: Is this guy Bipolar or anticipating his possible reactions to the Breaking Bad finale?
Some argue that studies done by researchers in this field, including Kay Redfield Jamison, Nancy Andreasen, and Arnold Ludwing, do not have strong enough research methodologies to defend this link between mental illness and creativity (Kaufman, Scientific American, 2013). Also “in a recent report based on a 40-year study of roughly 1.2 million Swedish people, Simon Kyaga and colleagues found that with the exception of bi-polar disorder, those in scientific and artistic occupations were not more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders” (Kaufmann 2013). I also read various pieces explaining that mental illness in RELATIVES may be a more accurate indicator of creativity in the subsequent generation.
On the other hand, unusual activity in the frontal lobe, specifically the prefrontal cortex, as well as neurotransmitter imbalances (particularly dopamine for schizophrenia and norepinephrine for bipolar), may lead to symptoms that “might be loosely analogous to creative processes – drawing unusual connections or thinking in a unique way are hallmarks of the artistic mind” (Sussman, Stanford Journal of Neuroscience, 2007) These creative traits “are not only descriptively similar to some of the side-effects of mental illness – the neurological brain states are actually the same” (Sussman 2007).
Fig F: Cliche? Whateva. This is like Mariana Trench deep.
So where does this leave us? Who knows. Maybe it’s not about finding correlations and drawing conclusions, but rather, in the case of comics (or any other art form), seeking out common experiences and sharing them however anecdotally, with the purpose of lessening alienation and discrimination. Part of it for me is exploring other cartoonists’ graphic novels and minis. I often see the sad sacks, perpetual isolation, “lives of quiet desperation”, and disconnection with a world that seems a lot happier than what you’re feeling inside. And to me, comics have not only provided an outlet for my creativity, but an avenue for discovering that I’m not alone. Works like Nate Powell’s Swallow me Whole, Ellen Forney’s Marbles, or Hyperbole and a Half's depression-related comics made me realize that I have nothing to be humiliated or alienated about. We need more work like this, because it helps to eliminate stigma, which is the most daunting issue that many with mental health issues face. And think of how many people that is. The CDC estimates that depression will be the SECOND leading cause of disability in the world by 2020 after ischemic heart disease! Say what? Yes, that’s right. So clearly, we’re out there. We’re everywhere. And whether it is due to sociocultural factors, upbringing, genetics, whatever, it’s real.
I’m not saying that accepting that I am bipolar is easy. But I’m trying to focus on the positive and realize that for me at least, some of my mood fluctuations have helped me creatively, intensifying my emotions and self-expression (obviously this can’t be said for everyone with bipolar as levels of severity and functionality differ). I’m writing this essay not for pity or sympathy, but rather to fight stigma and let people know that mental health issues may be part of who you are but they do not define you and are not something to be ashamed of.
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