How Writing A Comic Helped Me Cope With Suicidal Ideation
By Mark Stack
Content warning: suicidal ideation and related graphic images
The first draft of my comic’s script was written August 13, 2014, after I had spent the better part of three months in bed. Writing it helped me clarify how terrible I felt; it made me realize I was in a position where I needed help.
I struggled with suicidal ideation as the relationships I had built during my first year of college collapsed during the following summer. All I could seem to do was think about it: the what, the when, the where, of dying. I felt like I was being unfairly made to live past a point where anything good could happen or I could feel anything that wasn’t just an imitation of a past experience. A long life wasn’t necessarily better than a short one. Dying would be a release.
These thoughts scared me, but the scenario only became more vivid as I continued to ponder it. I decided to sit down with my pocket notebook, and drew up a t-chart, writing out a pros and cons list for dying. “Facebook memorial page” — the highlight of my cons column — made me laugh and that felt good, so I considered writing more about my situation. What began as a dark thought evolved into a slice-of-life story about a man living with suicidal ideation in a world where death had ceased to exist.
The fantasy wasn’t quite one-to-one with my reality, but I imbued the character with the truth of what I felt, an enduring hopelessness. I swallowed my pride and made an appointment to see a psychiatrist when I went back to school — I knew this wasn’t a sustainable frame of mind to live in.
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My second year of college wasn’t much better than my first. I had found a way to lose every friend I had made freshman year, embarked upon frequently disastrous romantic ventures, and began to experience serious alienation from my course work as I became aware of how much more my classmates wanted to be there than I did.
My new psychiatrist gave my problems a name (bipolar disorder) and the medication she prescribed helped me maintain a more level mood — at least for the four months I took them.
I had worried about not feeling like myself, about seeing things from behind prescription drug lenses, but in truth, I felt like my honest, enthusiastic self. Just free of the severe manic and depressive episodes.
I didn’t want to kill myself anymore.
Shortly after Christmas, I returned to that comic I had written and believed its ending to be prophetic of my own personal story. I had cracked it. My misery was over. Emboldened by that surge in pride and the post-holiday cash, I started looking for an artist to work with me on the comic. This person would help me tell my story of triumph over adversity. I really had a big head about the whole thing, ignoring the holes in my “success” story.
But as much as I had improved, I still wasn’t happy. I hated the claustrophobic situation I found myself living in — the doctor’s recommended dosage increase finally did what I had most feared it would; I stopped going out, stopped expending energy, and finally stopped getting out of bed.
It was the previous summer without the accompanying ideation. I stopped seeing my psychiatrist shortly after she had recommended the increase because I believed I wouldn’t need to see her again — except for a new prescription when my bottle ran out.
Eventually, the constant urge to sleep took enough of a toll on my studying and my social life that I was compelled to self-correct it. I made the decision to go off the medication after about 120 days; I was attempting to reclaim my life. I didn’t tell my psychiatrist and I didn’t consider what could result from going cold turkey.
By early February of last year, I had been in contact with an Australian artist by the name Conan Sinclair. I had pitched him on the comic, sending him my script with a letter explaining the significance it had to me, and he agreed to work on it. The exchange back and forth was fantastic; it distracted me from even thinking about my situation. The experience of seeing the pages develop from rough thumbnails to finished inks still stands as one of the most gratifying moments of my life. Conan’s work and the rollout of his process continues to impress me.
The comic was finished on February 19 and I immediately began showing it off to friends and acquaintances with pride. I wanted to frame the “not bad” response a comic-book professional had sent me. Seeing people react to the feelings I had put into it was more rewarding than anything I had ever done before.
I was all but saying, “Look at what I did. Look at how brave I am for working through this and sharing it with you.” This comic felt like the key to my creative future; the act of creating it served as the exorcism of my demons.
I attempted to end my life five days later.
The immediate days following my attempt were like watching myself in a movie from far, far away. The fallout didn’t set in until I watched my father cry as he picked me up from school a couple days later. I tried to perform normally on the drive home, but being beside him made things concrete for the very first time; I couldn’t rationalize what I had attempted and felt deeply unnerved.
After I had officially withdrawn from the semester and moved back in with my parents, I told a girl I had known in high school about everything that had happened. She laughed. My face burned red and I didn’t want to let her see that. Looking at the comic again later, I could hear her ringing laughter. “You really thought this would fix anything for you?”
It wasn’t until an intoxicated heart-to-heart with a friend some weeks later that I finally started to get a grasp on my life again. I told him how desperate I had felt and somehow I was able to hear him; I wasn’t alone. I began opening up again to people; I started listening to their stories. It wasn’t an instantaneous healing, but it was a solid stride forward on a long road to recovery comprised of the physical and online community of friends I had met through comics — they heard me and embraced me as one of their own.
I realize now it was wishful thinking on my part to believe that confessional art was going to vanquish my mental illness. Ending my appointments and quitting medication cold turkey in my situation was more than short-sighted; it was the decision of a person who was too invested in what he saw as the “power” of his work. I wish I hadn’t discovered this the way that I did, but I am glad that I was able to finally able to understand the limitations of creative healing, at least my own.
I’ve developed a healthier relationship with my art as a result. I look at the comic now and I feel proud that I tried to express something so painful, so important to my reality at the time, but the true value comes through the communication it has fostered in my life.
My art can still be an expression of my thoughts and a means of clarifying my feelings, but it can’t be the cure to the darkness.
Illustrations by Conan Sinclair