Healing the Burdened Psyche, One Zine at a Time – by Tam Martin Fowles
In this guest blog, Tam Martin Fowles continues to reflect on the surprising healing qualities of her recent foray into zine-making, and highlights the power of respectful witnessing.
In December 2023 I became a grandmother for the second time. A few days later – as described in my earlier blog post – I attended a two-hour zine workshop. I had no expectation that this would be a pivotal point in my “recovery journey”.
Fast-forward seven months: I just made a zine about one of the most painful and frightening experiences of my life. And it was so much fun!
I have tried to write about this challenging period before; tried to explain to trusted others what it was like to feel I was possessed by a malevolent entity so evil that I feared what it might make me do.
I feared that I might harm a child or (given the appropriate weaponry) commit indiscriminate mass-murder. I felt as though if I allowed a fraction of the pain and rage that filled me to escape it would become a kind of napalm, blinding, maiming, burning and destroying everyone and everything nearby.
I knew that I must stay away from people, especially those I loved, because I was a danger to be near. I fantasised about the ways that I might kill myself, ridding the world of my toxicity; the one unselfish act that I could carry out; but still The Evil held me prisoner. I didn’t do it, further proving (within the warped logic of madness) that I did not deserve to live.
Attempting to describe that time has always aroused a howling echo of the pain and fear and shame I felt. Putting it into a zine evoked no such response.
Today’s is perhaps the 30th zine I’ve made in the past seven months. My first one – Mad and beautiful are not mutually exclusive – was on purple card, with sharpie writing and images cut from magazines. In the subsequent weeks and months, I kept on making zines. I made them in the evenings after work, at weekends, and in my lunch breaks. I quickly filled two drawers with materials, stashed under my bed, easy to access if I woke up in the night feeling creative. I became a little concerned that my compulsion might not be healthy, but still I kept on making zines.
My initial intent was to add the zines to Hope in the Heart’s Messages from the HeART collection of artworks by creators with lived experience, each containing a message to people in power; to use them to challenge the culture of harm in mental health and associated systems. And so I have. But the zines have taken me much further than this original goal.
A few weeks after that fateful workshop, a serendipitous meeting with Hel Spandler, principal investigator on the MadZines Research Project, and later their research associate Jill Anderson, led to a relationship with the Madzines team that I value enormously. Their aim to “craft contention about mental health” mirrors my own, and their encouragement and interest have helped me to find focus in my making, and a welcoming place for my newborn zines to be received, honoured and shared.
What first appeared to be (and was) a fun new way to express myself has evolved into an extra-ordinary, gentle yet powerful – and sometimes even joyful – catharsis that’s allowed me to unwrap and examine some of the most challenging memories that have populated my psyche over fifty years and more. Somehow, the zine-making process has illuminated these and then transformed them from a weighty internal burden to an animated fusion of paper, text and image that seems to absorb each memory’s intensity, lightening my psychic load.
There is a kind of rapid alchemy about the process, a ritual and a power in the brevity of zines. To extract the essence of an experience and spread it across a few small pages and for that to be ingested anew by the maker and others, who will be affected in their own variety of ways, seems like a magic spell.
Looking back over my short, late-onset zine odyssey (so far) I see a multi-layered feast of meaning and restorative reframing. I am surprised to find that I am different now. I feel closer to myself, more grounded and alive. Of course, daily creativity alone can do that. But as well as settling into a creative flow that I have doggedly pursued throughout my adult life and only previously connected with in frantic, short-lived bursts, I have stumbled across an accidental therapeutic process inherent in the making, sharing and processing of snippets of my life as zines that continues to transmute and transform long after each is completed.
I rarely plan a zine. Like all the creative endeavours I have undertaken in my sixty-plus years, I have the spark of an idea and it evolves into something organic, and often surprising. When readers wonder aloud how a particular zine can encapsulate “so much pain” in so few pages I know what they mean. But the process of making the zines has never been painful for me. Rather, it has been a playful sojourn into happy memories of childhood creativity that overshadow the simultaneous evocation of memories laden with anger, trauma and grief.
The permission to cut and stick; write and draw; print and paint; stamp and stencil and colour, all on the same page if I want to, with absolutely no expectation (from myself or others) of perfection is a liberation I haven’t experienced since my village primary school days. In this unique nostalgic hinterland, I am transported beyond pain as I access and express personal material that could be distressing in any other context.
After making each zine, I feel called to explore it again and again, usually over days or even weeks, reading the words, connecting with the images, processing what has come from my psyche in a once-removed state that encompasses fascination, understanding and a level of self-compassion that I usually find as elusive as my new on-tap creativity.
Encountering each tiny account of long-ago despair; of myself as a lonely, bewildered, abandoned child, or the madness that both devastated and transformed me, and the appalling psychiatric system that I survived against the odds (but not without long-lasting harm), I embrace the person I was for that small pocket of time. I find myself marvelling at her story and commending her courage and resilience. Each tiny missive is a rite of passage; a time machine that transports me safely back to an event in my past that needs some healing; and healing magically takes place.
I suspect I might not have continued to feel so motivated and inspired if I were creating in a vacuum, and certainly the powerful sense of restoration I’ve experienced would be less powerful without the added element of sharing with others and receiving their responses in fine Truth and Reconciliation fashion.
My Hope in the Heart day-job provides a platform for zines to be displayed as part of our ongoing Messages from the HeART exhibition. My connection with Hel, Jill and the Madzines team has evolved to see my zines featured in short videos and, more recently, several conferences. The conversations they’ve engendered, the empathy and outpourings of other people’s stories as they’ve leafed through the pages and resonated with mine, has been both humbling and exalting.
I was profoundly moved to witness an audience watching a video of Jill mindfully and reverently “being with” one of my zines (tracing the shapes, turning the pages…). Additionally, I’m gratified that many “people in power” have responded at a deeply human level, allowing me to tick the original “outcomes” box that is no longer my most important reason to make zines, but still a solid one.
All these responses have reinforced my sense that there is something transcendent in these small, imperfect, intimate booklets that makes them very much greater than the sum of their parts.
At one point I became concerned that the original zines were getting damaged by the frequent handling at events. Then it occurred to me that perhaps this is a natural stage in their evolution; that with each new human encounter a zine is slightly changed, the person reading it is slightly changed, and the maker is changed too. The gradual disintegration of a zine through multiple encounters is part of its alchemical journey and unique ripple effect. In the same way, I’m keen to encounter more zines created by others, to be part of their evolution and make them part of mine.
I am grateful to Hel and Jill for their encouragement, and for honouring my process in a way that empowers me to take it ever-further. I feel as valued and valuable to them as they have become to me, and the childlike part of me that dives into the making again and again feels held and safe to keep on going, delighted by the adventure of it all.
A few weeks ago, Jill and I were discussing how great it would be to emulate some techniques used in children’s books. I said I’d like to make a pop-up zine but lacked the mental capacity to work out how. The elation I felt today came from the rudimentary, but indisputably pop-up, image I created of the terrifying entity I once believed possessed me. The distress associated with that memory could not compete with the intense and joyous satisfaction of ousting the monster from my psyche onto the double-page in a fanfare of creative, pop-up 3D glory.
That zine is called The Exorcist. An apt title if ever there was one.
Tam Martin Fowles, July 2023
Tam Martin Fowles is the founding Director of Hope in the Heart CIC , a “Lived Experience” Consultant and Mad Activist
Read Tam’s previous blog
Read Hel and Jill’s reflections on the ‘Messages from the Heart’ exhibition