Today, as part of the blogging series for Authors for Mental Health, I welcome guest blogger, artist and author, Khale McHurst. Khale creates on the lands of the Wurundjeri people where they live an incredibly boring life with their wife and pets. Khale has been using graphic storytelling to connect with others since their mid-twenties, writing stories about mental illness, recovery, queerness and religious trauma. Khale’s illustrations are influenced by their Australian upbringing (which involved both an avid interest in native flora and fauna, and a steady diet of pop culture) as well as time spent living in rural Japan. Whilst learning to diversify, Khale prefers to create with pen and paper wherever possible.
And now, Khale’s post …
Recovery Through Storytelling
I never set out to write comics about mental illness. I’d read comics as a child – bite-sized adventures peppered with gags, neatly arranged so as to fit into a standard issue. I was not familiar with comic storytelling that addressed Serious Issues. That changed in my mid-twenties, when a doctor diagnosed me with anorexia nervosa (after my then-partner had broken down and begged me to go see one, terrified by my disappearing body).
After the initial flood of information about my failing organs and the importance of weight restoration came other diagnoses. Depression. Anxiety. OCD. My malnourished brain struggled to make sense of it all, and even more so to communicate these struggles to my partner.
I was an illustrator, but once the words ‘mental illness’ became a part of my medical record, the medications started – experimenting with different classes, different brands, different doses. ‘The right fit is out there, we just have to keep trying’. ‘Are you sure you can’t tolerate these side effects?’ ‘Yes, it’s supposed to make you that drowsy’. But worst of all: I couldn’t draw. My artistic passion completely dissipated overnight, and as someone who had always expressed themselves on the page, it felt like having my hands cut off.
This went on for months, thoughts and feelings raging inside me but with no creative outlet. My frustration escaped as crying fits dispersed throughout the work day and desperate bouts of self-harm in the evenings. I needed this out of me. I had to find a way to release the valve.
Comics are deceptively simple. Each panel is just one small drawing. Surely I could manage one small drawing. Once I had drawn one, I drew another, then another in sequence until I had made a page of tiny drawings arranged into some sort of narrative. I showed my partner. ‘This makes much more sense than how you’ve been explaining it to me’, was her response. I made more pages, and each time I showed them to her she understood me better.
What was far more miraculous though, was that I began to understand myself better. I kept drawing, one tiny picture at a time (for the thought of anything grander left me utterly stupefied), writing the story of my diagnosis, and using these pages as a kind of self-directed art therapy.
That was over a decade ago, and the comic born out of those art therapy sessions became a 300-page graphic novel, chronicling my journey with an eating disorder from initial diagnosis to eventual recovery.
I’ve never managed to return to those enormous watercolour paintings I used to create, but with graphic storytelling as my tool, I have been able to win back my sense of artistic self. Better yet, I now have a skill that helps me to make sense of the mess in my brain, which has become increasingly important as I’ve aged. Since my late twenties, I’ve been able to add to my list of diagnoses: bipolar disorder, panic disorder and PTSD. The latter is the subject of my current comic project ‘TRIGGERED: a story of PTSD, a plebiscite and the patriarchy’. The story speaks to a lifelong experience of misogyny and sexual violence, and the work I am doing in trying to find a way to live with my history and the ongoing effects of trauma.
Writing about my trauma has been the most emotionally demanding job I have ever undertaken. It was only in recent years that I even dared to speak to a therapist about my history of sexual abuse, so the process of spelling it out graphically still knocks the wind out of me some days.
I am trying to be considerate in what I portray in my comics. As a survivor, I know the dangers of navigating the world and its triggers. I know naturally that fellow survivors will be drawn to this work – so how do I illustrate traumatic events without triggering those who themselves carry similar trauma?
I made a plan before I began – narrative tools that I could use in order to communicate events without ever directly showing them. Surely that would make my work safe for others. What I spent less time considering was how to make the work safe for myself. I assumed that if I avoided drawing any physical acts taking place, I wouldn’t trigger myself. How wrong I was.
I found that even the simplest drawings – a drawing of the corner of the bed, of the walls, the pattern of the sheets – could dig a hole through my guts and leave me struggling for weeks to get through the day without a full-body flashback.
In writing about my history of abuse, I am forcing myself to keep my trauma ever at the surface – easy to access, my memories as clear as they’ve ever been – but in doing so, making myself vulnerable to the smallest triggers.
I am learning through this process that I need to take things slowly. When I write about trauma, I write at half my usual pace, because so much time is spent in self-care mode, trying to soothe myself against the wave of memories I have unearthed. It is not easy to engage with this story, but I know that it is important to keep sharing it. Shame hates the light, and it is time to take the power out of these secrets I have held for so long.
Image by: Khale McHurst. Image description: Illustration of foxes, running together, with swirls of colour.