From Inside the Experience – by Tamsin Walker
Tamsin Walker, our Madzines PhD student, explores zines and graphic memoirs from inside the experience of psychosis and dissociation.
When I read textbooks about madness, they do not feel mad, they describe madness as if it is a specimen that can be described rationally using logic. It is as if madness can be understood within our usual ways of thinking and experiencing, our usual language and our usual structures of understanding. But why would we articulate it in this way if this is not how it is experienced? How can we understand madness if we do not first represent it as it is experienced?
When I selected some of my zines to share with Hel and Jill, I noticed the ones I chose fell broadly into two categories. They were either zines which reflected on the process of making zines or zines which articulated and shared madness from the inside of the experience. This blog is about the second type of zines and graphic memoirs.
Zines and graphic memoirs from inside the experience are zines which do more than show or tell the reader about an experience, they give the reader a sense of that experience. They are zines and graphic memoirs in which experiences that often get called psychosis or dissociation are shared with the reader in the way that they are experienced, from inside the mind of the person experiencing them. We all experience from inside our minds, but for people who haven’t been mad this seems to get forgotten.
From the outside, experiences that get called dissociation and psychosis can seem nonsensical. A person’s emotions, actions, beliefs and reactions can seem incongruous when we don’t know the links their mind is making, or the way they are perceiving things. Similarly, a person’s responses to hearing voices might seem odd if we weren’t aware of the voices they were hearing. Like voice hearing, if we recognise how something is being experienced, instead of dismissing it as nonsense, we have the opportunity to understand it better.
Zines and graphic memoirs from inside the experience show the links that the person is making, how one object, event, thought or emotion is associated with another. Off my Meds and Psychosis Summer 2012 are brilliant examples from inside the experience. Psychosis Summer 2012 is a zine by Lea Cooper and Off my Meds is one of the comic strips in Matt Burrell’s graphic memoir, Off my Meds and Other Stories. Instead of looking back on the experience and trying to share it from this position, they are told as if they were experienced whilst it was happening.
Cooper and Burrell don’t try to distance themselves from the experience, by suggesting the associations aren’t meaningful, or trying to reinterpret them, they just share the associations as they experienced them. In Lea Cooper’s, Psychosis Summer 2012 we see rain linked with “a truth”, the sign for Brighton station associated with light and illumination, these things together creating an illuminated path, then we see a light coming from a shop filled with lamps, the protagonist’s feet resting on newspapers on a tiled floor, a fox looking as us with lamps behind it, and finally the protagonist eating a burger and someone saying, “you looked hungry”.
In Off my Meds Burrell doesn’t suggest that the devil isn’t real and can’t speak to him, that he isn’t being followed or the rain can’t be part of his television. Instead we see the devil was making records sound off-key so the protagonist tried to tune them by singing along to them; we see because he thought the devil was tapping on his bedroom window he moved to the kitchen to feel safer; we see that because the devil had told him he was being followed he took a detour to stop them from following him to the clinic; and we see that he felt frightened because the devil had told him that the rain was the metal in his television melted down and turned into glass.
When I made Not my Shame, I articulated dissociation from the inside. Instead of showing time as singular and linear, I shared it as I experienced it. For me, this was because I couldn’t step outside the way I experienced things in order to articulate them. I couldn’t say the order in which events occurred, let alone make sense of them by suggesting that one thing may have led to another.
Sharing dissociation from the inside involved stopping trying to articulate experiences as a story. It meant allowing myself to show how, from my perspective, time jumped about. Events with similar qualities could not be separated, and multiple events and times co-existed simultaneously. In this way, I tried to immerse the reader inside the experience.
They didn’t just see or read about what happened, they read it in the way that it happened, in the order that I experienced it, and through the way things were associated for me. For example, in Not my Shame I showed how when I was being physically restrained in hospital, I was thrown into re-experiencing a similar traumatic experience, and then re-experiencing another experience which was held inside that experience, before finding myself back in hospital and the restraint no longer happening.
Zines from inside the experience do something that textbooks rarely do. They don’t distance themselves from the quality of madness. If we rewrite our experiences as logical and rational, or if we suggest that we were just remembering something instead of (re)experiencing it then we may misrepresent our experience. If we translate our experiences to fit into linear temporal forms or try to make rational logical links, the quality of the experience can get lost.
Zines from inside the experience give readers the opportunity to understand what experiences that are called psychosis and dissociation are like for the people experiencing them. This seems like a good starting point for empathy.