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Rage, Rage Against the Cliché

I was recently interviewed on camera about what it’s been like to live with severe OCD. The producers were making a 2-minute spot intended to encourage people who are struggling to reach out and get help.


I’ve seen more and more of these kinds of videos and while they’re well intended, they often leave me feeling kind of empty, if not slightly annoyed. Do you know the ones I’m talking about?


The subject speaks in a quiet, confessional tone of voice. S/he looks serene, perhaps a little fragile. At the end, s/he gazes into the distance with the same expression I get when I manage to get my income tax forms off on time; s/he doesn’t actually look happy, just mildly relieved. Maybe s/he walks through away from the camera through a field of ripened grain as the focus goes soft. A gull flies overhead. It could be a commercial for a stool softener. How do you spell ‘relief’?


Before I agreed to participate in the project, I had had a good exchange with the producers about my apprehensions, and we seemed to have similar views. We agreed that I would have meaningful input into the final edit of the video. I enjoyed working with her and her crew, and I came away feeling satisfied.


Last week, I saw a rough edit. In it, I spoke in a quiet, confessional tone of voice. I looked serene, perhaps a little fragile. I didn’t gaze into the distance – no, it was worse – I gazed down at a drawing I was working on. Yes, I was a sedated-looking crazy lady ‘doing’ art, maybe even ‘art therapy.’


What had happened to the footage of me cracking jokes and laughing with the cameraman? Why did I look mildly relieved instead of happy? And even though in real life I am healthy, exuberant, and living my dream, why did the video make it seem like I had quietly resigned myself to barely being okay?


A friend and colleague of mine once said, “It is not a matter of answering all the questions, but questioning all the answers.” In this video, I looked good. I sounded articulate. My studio seemed interesting. I was well dressed. You can’t even see the pimple that had erupted the night before on my cheek. I wanted to like the video.


I wondered what the story was actually telling, though. Was it saying, “This intelligent, creative woman went through a really rough time with obsessive-compulsive disorder, then got some great help and worked her butt off, and now look at her go!”? Or was it saying, “This madwoman was lucky she was properly diagnosed and saved by her doctors. Now we keep her away from coffee and sugar and just let her draw all day”?


I have asked the producers for some changes. I’ll have to see what they say. Ultimately, I know I can’t control what people think about me. I will not, however, go quietly into that stool softener commercial. 


Life Drawing, or, Drawing From Life



I’m back in the studio. Yes, it’s been a long absence.

There’s no one reason why I haven’t been working on my graphic memoir over the last number of months. I’ve been busy with a lot of projects, including finishing my Bachelor of Fine Arts, but Dinosaur hasn’t been among them. Mostly, my focus has been on getting experience and training to build my career as an educator. I’m quite anxious to lift myself above the poverty line.


After completing a substantial excerpt last summer, I was devoting my time to plotting out the rest of the book. This involved sifting through many memories of my time in treatment (and earlier), much of which was pretty intense. Intense is okay but it does make it hard to see the forest for the trees.


Furthermore, to be painfully honest, I admit that I'm wrestling with a need for perfection. I don’t mean trying to achieve "perfect" writing or drawing, but to not forget any small detail that might be critical to the story.


Now, after my sabbatical, I think I’m getting a bit more perspective on the core elements, the individual trees of this forest/story. I’m learning to see my narrative not only as I tell it to myself, but as I want to tell it to an audience. That I can see it in both these ways is, I think, a step forward.


Like it or not, piecing together elements of a book is hard slogging, and I find it harder to stick to doing something that doesn’t feel engaging. Which is why I’m drawing today, bypassing words for the time being.


I guess I needed a break from the book. I’ve been scared that I wouldn’t find it in me to re-start, but I’m not worried about that now.


For the time being, puzzling together the written story can wait until I try out some exciting new graphic ideas. It’s always been my intention to incorporate different visual styles, and not just rely on a comic-book look, so I’ll start exploring those now. Be happy for me: I’m going to have a lot of fun. I’ll update Gronk! when I’ve got something to show for my labours.


Hope, Inspiration, And Other Kinds of Snake Oil

The siren call of wanting to help others is very alluring, and I usually succumb to the temptation before I catch myself. I don't regret the desire to be helpful. Recognizing a need and wishing to alleviate it is fine, but best intentions are not always directed in the best way.


Having gotten lost in the wilderness of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, I’m very fortunate to have found my way back to a healthy co-existence with my thoughts. There aren’t a whole lot of people who can say that. In my wanting-to-help fervour, I've occasionally said to someone, “If I did it, anyone with OCD can do it.” If you hear that coming out of my mouth, I hope you'll forgive my arrogance.


For one thing, there is no ‘it.’ We don't all have the same needs, and what for one person is a great solution won't satisfy someone else. As we live our lives, our own needs will evolve. It’s hard, but I think we have to let go of the idea that there is one solution for everyone.


Then there's the problem of the "You can do it!" philosophy, which is especially dubious if I think the methods that helped me will work for everyone. If I assume that I did something right, then others who are less fortunate must have done something wrong, and creeping into judgments like that does not support my intention to be helpful.



Maybe I'm being hard on myself; after all, I mean well. Still, I think the problem with the concept of sharing hope or inspiration is that it sounds as if these can be liberally bestowed on anybody, like confetti at a parade.


It’s not difficult nowadays to find first-person narratives of recovery from mental illness on the Internet, offered by authors wishing to create hope or inspiration or both. When I was suffering a great deal, I used to grit my teeth when writers stated they intended their stories to be hope offerings. Why should they presume that a happy ending for him or her could result in happy endings for everyone? Is hope so cheap, and easy?


Nevertheless, sometimes when I talk or write about my graphic memoir, Dinosaur, I catch myself peddling these same exhortations, because like others, I want to help. This realization makes me very uncomfortable.


Part of my story is that I got better in treatment even though I had no hope. I had washed my hands of life. To my surprise, I found I had other resources I hadn’t previously drawn on: curiosity about who I was, self-compassion, a desire to love and be loved, and most of all, a pissed-off determination to do my best, even if it wasn’t enough. It turned out that my success wasn't measured by my hope at all.


In my best-of-intentions way, let me say this. Make the most out of the hope that you have. Exploit the hell out of it, because it can make rough times much easier. If you have no hope, don't do as I first did and use this as a reason to cop out. I believe that if you strike out on the road, hope will catch up. It can't be found under a rock or sprinkled on you by well-wishers. Cherish hope, because it has to be earned, and that is why it is so very powerful.


Door Number One

The end of 2014 finds me in a period of transition, which makes me somewhat uneasy. One of the biggest changes is that my artist-in-residency at Workman Arts, after three glorious years, is coming to a close.


When my OCD symptoms were most excruciating, having a dedicated space to go to work was nothing less than life-saving for me. That, and my driving need to create, prevented me from shutting myself out of life entirely as it became harder and harder to avoid triggering situations. It also helped to shelter a small corner of myself from my own self-loathing.


It's been scary to think of leaping away from this support. I feel assured that my work will continue to move ahead but doubt can make an otherwise bright day appear quite gloomy. I'm tempted to hunker down in bed and pull the quilt up over my head. There, I would be sucked into a conference with my thoughts, which would blame me for not having found an easier way forward in my career. They would remind me of real or imagined opportunities I failed to take advantage of, point out every flaw in my writing and illustrations, and condemn the sheer megalomaniac folly of working on a graphic memoir at all.


These thoughts are always lurking, whether I choose to focus on them or not. Doubt is a yappy little dog that can't stop barking. Trying to make it go away just makes it bite my ankles. Today, my response to this is self-compassion. I could have chosen a more conventional life, possibly, but that's not relevant at this point. The choice I have now is whether to nurture myself and my creativity, or to to let my barking doubts chew my feet off. I think I'l opt for Door Number One: nurturing.


It’s natural, isn’t it, to look back on the brink of a big change to see where one has come from. Doing that now with Dinosaur gives me the added boost of taking pleasure in what I've accomplished so far. To celebrate my leap into the unknown, I'd like to share some of the  groove of my early drawings, alongside their final versions. As I was moving my studio this month, I unearthed some of this work and saw it with fresh eyes. Enjoy.


From Chapter 1, page 2:


From Chapter 1, page 4


Chapter 6, page 2:



Chapter 6, page 4:


Taking Back #OCDProblems

On November 30, 2014, a loose coalition of OCD organisations and tweeters blitzed the Twitter hashtag, #OCDProblems. A search of the hashtag will show that it had become a panoply of people's perfectionism pet peeves. You know the types, those folks who giggle with mock-shame about how tidy they like to keep their knives and forks.


The blitz, by individuals who suffer from OCD, resulted in some very poignant messages. The Secret Illness has created a short compilation of some of the tweets. Click here to get a glimpse of the real face of OCD. Here are just a couple of examples:



While some of these posts made me feel quite sad, it was nonetheless very encouraging to see people talking about subjects that have previously been strictly unmentionable, even within the world of mental healthcare. Yet again, I am prompted to think that OCD targets the bravest, strongest people. Thanks to everyone in the Twittersphere for making such a compelling stand against ignorance and discrimination.

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