Can a Self Care zine be a MadZine? A Conversation with Meg-John Barker

One aim of the MadZines project is to explore whether zines, and zine culture, can help to expand and enrich discussion about contested issues in mental health.

We are interested in the potential of zines to foster dialogue, rather than seek closure.  Mirroring that idea, we have launched a series of MadZine dialogues with people we think have something useful to contribute. Unlike conventional interviews that researchers analyse, our intention is to share these dialogues as part of our ongoing thinking – opening them to other people’s thoughts and interpretations.

Meg-John Barker (M-JB) is well-known in queer, sexuality and gender circles and has published many books and zines about mental health, relationships, and self-care. Helen Spandler (HS) is the Principal Investigator on the MAdZines project.  Helen and Meg-John had a long and wide-ranging conversation about their ongoing relationships with zines.  In this blog, we share the part of their conversation which focused on radical self-care zines. We’ve been reading lots of self-care zines in the project, and we were keen to discuss how they relate to MadZines.

HS: Our project is about zines that ‘craft contention about mental health knowledge and practice’. That could mean all kinds of things, but it’s essentially about challenging what is commonly understood about madness or distress, including from the so-called psy professionals (psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy, etc).  I know your background is in psychology. There’s been a lot of ‘critical psychology’ these past few decades and we’ve seen quite a bit of change. Given all this, how far do you feel challenging these ideas and practices is still important?

M-JB: Oh, I think it’s still very important. The people I mostly speak to are therapists and readers of my work, most of whom have never come across these more critical ideas. I think the standard perspectives you get around mental health – if you take a counselling course or if you pick up a self-help book – are still very basic. That’s partly why I’m so passionate about getting these more critical and social justice ideas – about mental health and other topics – out there in accessible ways like comics, zines, self-help books, and podcasts.

HS: Are there particular issues/experiences around mental health that you think need to be challenged or contested right now?

M-JB: I think the mainstream understanding of mental health is still very binary: you’re either someone with mental illness, which means that it’s not your fault, but you need expert help in order to get ‘better’. Or you’re not someone with mental illness, which means that your struggles are your own fault and you need to pull your socks up – do mindfulness, have better stress management, that kind of thing. I’m very keen to challenge that binary in my work.

In addition to this I think there’s a huge issue with the way our struggles are individualised – by mental health industries and by wider culture. The suffering that mostly comes from cultural messages and toxic systems is located in the individual – it’s seen as our fault, and our responsibility to fix it. It’s so hard to escape that way of understanding suffering because it’s reinforced at every level.

Finally, there’s something for me about how we’re encouraged – by various invested parties – to locate our struggles and distress at one level of experience. For example, medicine focuses on body/brain understandings and treatments, psychology and psychotherapy on inter-relational ones, activism on the level of social systems, and spiritual approaches on the level of universal humanity – what it takes to become ‘enlightened’ for example. I’m increasingly sceptical of approaches that focus on any one of those levels, and ones that ignore any of them.

I think that zines can do great work at normalising mental health related experiences, as well as illustrating different ways we can engage with them. Those zines which bring together many voices are great for showing readers that there are diverse ways of experiencing a particular thing – so they get that sense that however it is for them is okay.

HS: There seems to be a proliferation of perzines about people’s personal experiences of mental-ill-health, and especially what might be called self-care zines where people offer tips and strategies for looking after our mental health. Personally, I love this, but I can also see the downsides. What do you think?

M-JB: Yeah. The vast majority of mental health zines and graphic novels are perzines and memoirs, where the focus is on individual stories. I guess there’s a danger there that they focus on that level of experience – without much sense of the other levels that I mentioned. This is why I always like to ask ‘what does this open up and what does it close down?’ – assuming that everything we read, and write, will do something of both.

Reading one perzine about a mental health struggle we share can give us that sense of not being alone, the permission to claim it ourselves having seen someone else do it, perhaps some ideas about how we might reach greater peace with it, or engage with it to reduce the suffering. It can be so good to go deep into one person’s experience if we don’t get into comparing ourselves to them. For me there’s something valuable in seeing somebody else treat themselves – and their distress – so seriously. It can remind me that it’s okay for me to do that too.

At the same time, if we don’t experience this thing in the same way that person does, it may give us more of that sense that there’s something wrong with us. If what worked for them doesn’t work for us, we may feel a sense of failure. I think that’s the benefit of reading collective zines or multiple zines.

HS: Yeah, the danger of comparing ourselves to others is so important. This can happen when we compare ourselves against conventional ideals of ‘recovery’ which might be about seeking professional help and engaging in therapy (pharma or psychological). But it can also happen when we compare ourselves against alternative survivor-led ideals – which might be about not engaging with professional help but seeking peer support etc.

Mental health service users are actively encouraged to practice individual self-care and self-help, especially in the current context of neoliberal austerity, and a lack of collective support and provision.   So, you could argue that self-care zines are not really “challenging”, at least in relation to that particular context. But there is something important, and even critical, about caring for oneself in a context where we are always being driven to compete, succeed, produce etc. You quote Audre Lorde in your own self-care zine: ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence.  It is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare’.

Do you think a self-care zine can be a MadZine? (I suppose I mean can it be ‘radical’?). If so, in what ways? Do you think it would need to have certain qualities, or maybe not have certain qualities?

M-JB: Mm good questions. I suppose here I’m thinking of recovery plans which service users are often encouraged to make, like the WRAP plans. The emphasis in WRAP plans and the like is often on individual knowledge, skills, and needs. They often include lists of what triggers you, what helps when you are triggered, what supportive people in your life need to know.  Activists like Sascha Altman DuBrul and Jacks McNamara, for example with their T-maps, have come up with somewhat similar ideas – often in zine-type format – which have a more radical feel to me. They have more emphasis on collective care, and less of an ‘us and them’ around the person struggling and their supporters. There’s more of a sense of how we can all struggle and all offer care, through building relationships and communities.

Another great example of a radical self-care zine is Simon Forsyth’s ‘Write Your Revolution’. He takes a punk approach to self-care asking how we might resist, rebel, and reclaim. So the focus isn’t on individualised practices but more about how we can creatively engage with the toxic systems and cultural messages around us, and imagine something different.

So yeah, zines that just encourage individualised forms of self-care, or therapy, can still be seen as radical in the sense that – for marginalised people – even surviving in a world that doesn’t see us as valuable is a radical act.

But both of these examples go further than just describing routes to self-understanding and self-care.

HS: Yeah, I like this, they can both be radical, but in different, perhaps complementary, ways.

M-JB: How would you answer that question?  Do you think self-care zines can be MadZines?

HS: For me, I think, self-care zines might be defined as MadZines when they are not too prescriptive – avoiding things like top-down lists of things to do to practice self-care – but instead showing an honest personal struggle with practising self-care; that it’s not easy and it’s often a work-in-progress, rather than “this is how I got better” type of thing. Zines that don’t set themselves up as the official view on the matter – “this is how you should look after your mental health” and, by implication, if you don’t, it’s somehow your fault for not trying hard enough.  Instead, they present someone’s individual perspective or different people’s perspectives.  Given the contested and diverse nature of mental health struggles, I think that is really important.

I think it  also helps if they are humorous or satirical in some way. I suppose the key to a more “radical” self-care zine is somehow being aware of the wider structural inequalities within which practices of self-care are situated. But I guess I myself am being a bit prescriptive now and I certainly wouldn’t want this to be a tick box of “things you need to do to make a radical self-care zine”. That’d be awful!

M-JB: Heh quite! I agree that the sense that self-care is incredibly difficult under the current form of western capitalism is a vital thing for a self care zine to get across. Otherwise it can just reinforce that kind of comparison/criticism, self-monitoring culture which is such a huge part of the problem. Helping people to find their own path rather than prescribing one that ‘should’ work for them – or for everyone – is vital. And I agree that some degree of irreverence, humour or satire is great. I definitely get that from those writers I mentioned. Do you have any other examples?

HS: Your Hell Yeah Self Care zine, although I guess it’s light on satire (it’s hard to do everything!).   In terms of satire, Rachel Rowan Olive’s Screaming Awareness Week is interesting in the way it highlights some of the problems with Mental Health Awareness weeks and ‘It’s good to talk’ campaigns. As does I don’t want to talk about mental health by Annie Pocalypse. We have been thinking too about ‘Quiet Activism’. In terms of a ‘quiet’ self-care MadZine I recently read a lovely perzine by Harriet Porter called I love me: a zine about self love and self acceptance. I’d also mention Sensitive not Sick by Beth Ingram. As you can see, the titles of zines often distil the key critical message! That reminds me of another one, Fuck Bath Bombs – Take a Sick Day, a mini-zine with an anti-capitalist take on self-care.

M-JB: OMG that sounds amazing! The Harriet Porter one sounds fascinating for bringing together mental health and relationships. I’m very interested in the connection between mental health movements towards self-love, self-acceptance and self-compassion, and alternative ways of doing relationships like self-partnering, solo-poly, relationship anarchy, asexual and aromantic relating, and queerplatonic relationships – stuff I covered in my Queer Relationships zine.

HS: You’ve written what you’ve called ‘anti self-help’ books (like Rewriting the Rules). Now you’ve just published a book about self-care (Hell Yeah Self-Care!) which was based on your zine. Would you call that an anti self-care book?

M-JB: I guess I would, although it’s tricky. Though I wouldn’t want to distance myself (by the word ‘anti’) from the Audre Lorde understanding of self-care – which is central to the project – I would certainly want to distance myself from the most mainstream version where it’s just about shopping and bubble baths! My co-author, Alex Iantaffi, and I toyed with having ‘collective care’ in the title instead, which is a term that better captures what we’re talking about in the book, but we felt that self-care was a more familiar term for people. And I guess it’s no bad thing if people pick up a self-care book and learn that we need systems and structures of support in order to treat ourselves and others in caring ways, and that we’re all interconnected and interdependent.

HS: Yeah totally. And, the way I see it, there’s no collective care without self-care, although in a way, I guess you could practice self-care without collective care, but you do need a supportive context for both.

M-JB: Alex and I argue in the book that self-care is very hard – if not impossible – without collective care. If we have no models of self-care in the other people around us, and zero support to be self-caring in our work, our communities, and wider culture, I doubt it would really be possible to practice self-care as an individual.

HS: Do you think your self-care zine and the book serve different purposes?

M-JB: Mmm. Yes I think they do. The self-care book is in written form, albeit with illustrations, so it has more space for explaining the ideas we’re playing with – and where they come from – in detail. It’s also a workbook so there’s much more space for people to write and draw on their own thoughts, experiences, and plans. The zine is more about explaining the key points in accessible, engaging ways, in a short space. It certainly invites people to engage with how it works for them, but probably they’d want to write or draw their thoughts in a notebook, or even create their own personal zine about how self-care works for them.

Helen and Meg-John have written a previous blog together about Queer and Mad Studies.

You can find out more about Meg-John’s work here

Do you have thoughts about  the issues discussed  in this blog?

Do you have any examples of radical self-care zines?

Please get in touch!

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