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culture

Psychosis and Stigma, in Graphic Detail

A Toronto artist's graphic novel chronicles her time in a local schizophrenia ward.

Three frames from Asylum Squad Side Story: The Psychosis Diaries. Click for a zoomed-in view.

Toronto-based graphic novelist Saraƒin (she prefers not to use her birth name) has been creating comics since she was a teenager. One of her earliest, a collection of stories called Asylum Squad, featured, in her words, “superheroes who pop pills.” The artist had experienced some depression in her youth, and found refuge in graphic storytelling.

It was an outlet she would return to in 2008, as she struggled with psychosis and spent the better part of a year in the schizophrenia ward at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health on Queen Street.

We spoke with Saraƒin at the third annual Comics and Medicine conference, where she was invited to present a paper on her experience creating Asylum Squad Side Story: The Psychosis Diaries. The graphic novel, her first, is a revamp of her original concept, and it features young characters struggling with visions, delusions, and what Saraƒin describes as “psychiatric incarceration.”

Saraƒin describes her time in CAMH as a constant struggle with voices and images in her mind, but also with those responsible for caring for her. “Saying the wrong thing, looking at the staff the wrong way, could have consequences,” she told us. “I had to learn to adapt to the environment, or else risk being overmedicated to conform.”

Saraƒin acknowledges her own confused state, but adds that, “Anybody, regardless of their state of mind, would get upset after a certain point about the bad food, the bad lighting, the lack of activity, the low ceilings.”

In the midst of her mental and emotional trauma, Saraƒin decided to resurrect the Asylum Squad theme and retool the characters to speak to her experiences. She remembers how the noise of people in her ward shouting and pleading for staff “sometimes made it impossible to concentrate and write.” She gradually earned the right to leave the CAMH grounds on a day pass, and would walk to nearby St. Christopher House to upload her comics to the web.

A turning point for Saraƒin was her interaction with people at The Secret Handshake, a “peer support program created by and for people with schizophrenia.” A man there heard about her work and encouraged her to contribute to a zine he was editing. “I’ve always denied my label of Schizoaffective disorder,” Saraƒin says, “and they respected that.”

When she was finally discharged from CAMH, Saraƒin had created 44 comic strips. She decided to accept the wordy and sometimes disjointed nature of that collection as an authentic record of her psychosis, and worked to complete the book in the same style. “I hadn’t seen a lot of comics on psychotic states. I wanted to speak to people who have had psychotic experiences and say, ‘You can come out the other end. It doesn’t have to be chronic…you don’t have to be medicated for life.’”

While Saraƒin described herself as “extremely happy” about her invitation to present at the Comics and Medicine conference, she was also dealing with the anxiety of sharing her experiences with psychiatrists who might not relate to them. “I’m not completely anti-psychiatry,” she told us, “but I admire the spirit of those who are, and I can see why they feel that way.” Nevertheless, she has found acceptance from medical professionals. “All the doctors that I’ve talked to have been extremely supportive,” she said. “I’m learning to be less stigmatizing and angry.”

Nowadays, Saraƒin is working on the next book in the Asylum Squad series, and advocating with groups like Mad Pride to humanize the treatment and perceptions of people dealing with mental-health challenges. She blamed a lack of resources and training for the conditions she experienced at CAMH. “It’s understaffed, especially at [the site on] Queen Street. They can only talk to you for so long” before care takes the form of pacification or discipline.

(We invited CAMH to talk about the issue of funding. A CAMH representative said only that CAMH is “committed to providing comprehensive, client-centred care in a supportive healing environment.”)

Saraƒin imagines mental-health interventions that could have avoided, in her case, “things done to my body for my own safety.” She wants to see more art programming, housing support, and improved nutrition programming for people living with mental illnesses. Her ability to channel pain, confusion, and isolation through art has allowed her to view her experience at CAMH as a transformative blessing in disguise. “Tragedy is a gift for creative minds,” she said.

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