New graphic novel shows what it's like to experience psychosis
Digital team's blog
Elaine is a writer and illustrator. After experiencing a psychotic episode as a teenager, she began work on a graphic novel inspired by some of her experiences. Although it took her years to find the right way to tell her story, the novel Look Straight Ahead went on to win awards. She'll be part of a panel discussion on comics and mental health at this year's Thought Bubble Festival in Leeds. We caught up with Elaine to find out more...
"My name is Elaine and I live in Saskatchewan, Canada. In 2002, I suffered a mental breakdown brought on by anxiety, stress and sleeplessness of the pressure of my final year of high school. I was hospitalised for seven weeks.
I experienced all the textbook symptoms of bipolar disorder: grandiose delusions, euphoria and paranoia. I believed, at different times, that I was dying or had already died, that I was the most important person in the world who was being quarantined by the government, and that there was a bomb inside my head that would explode if I ever fell asleep, killing everyone within a 100-mile radius. It was an altogether harrowing journey, but one which I was never ashamed to talk about – I was very fortunate to have a supportive family and group of friends.
After making a full recovery (which was every bit as abrupt as the onset of the illness), I began trying to write about my experiences. One early attempt was more of a traditional novel, which focussed on the fantastical elements of the story. I came to realize that what I really wanted was to highlight the blurring of the line between fantasy and reality, and that it was easier for me to do that through a combination of words and pictures in the form of a graphic narrative. 2009 was the year I hammered out a proper storyline, and Look Straight Ahead was born. The story follows a young man named Jeremy during his own mental breakdown and how it affects him as well as the people around him.
The majority of the book is drawn in black and white, but I used colour in several of the pages showing hallucinations, as well as unusual panel shapes and compositions, as a way of heightening the battle for control going on in Jeremy's mind.
I posted the comic online as I was drawing it. The initial response was a mixture of indifference and positive feedback, which was actually a good confidence booster as I'd feared an entirely negative reaction! Over time, it gained a small devoted readership, and it was really good to see that it was a narrative that touched people. Readers left comments and told me that it had helped them to understand what loved ones where going through, or that it had reaffirmed their own experiences of mental illness. I had a woman approach me in tears at a comic convention in Seattle to thank me for making the book, saying she had been going through a bad bout of depression and it “couldn't have come along at a better time” for her.
Earlier this year I was invited to speak at a major human rights conference in Canada (it was the Canadian Association of Statutory Human Rights Agencies). I spoke and gave a reading from Look Straight Ahead to a hall filled with members of Canada's most influential human rights commissions, to offer an understanding of mental health concerns from the patient's experience. The response was overwhelmingly positive and I felt proud to know that so many organizations are working so hard to shatter the stigma of mental illness, and that my own work may be a small part of that.
If I were to sum up the journey of Look Straight Ahead, it's one of self-healing and of affirmation to those it's touched."
You can follow Elaine on Twitter @ElaineMWill, and hear her speak about her work on the following dates:
Words4Every1 Writers' Group - Nov 7th @ Arts4Every1 Centre, High Wycombe, Bucks – 3PM-6PM – Free Entry
Comics and Mental Health - Nov 11th @ Room 2, The Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds, Yorkshire – 6PM – Free Entry – 16+ event
Nov 14th - 15th @ Thought Bubble Sequential Art Festival, Leeds, Yorkshire