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Telling 'Psychiatric Tales' To Destigmatize Disease

Feb 8, 2011

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As readers of Art Spiegelman's Maus, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, David Small's Stitches and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home are well aware, the graphic format of inked drawings augmented by tightly written captions and dialogue balloons — a medium long associated with comic strips and satirical political cartoons — adds a powerful dimension to memoirs.

Darryl Cunningham joins these illustrious illustrators with his heartfelt first book, Psychiatric Tales. Drawing from his years spent working as a health care assistant on an acute psychiatric ward in his native England, as well as his own experience with acute depression, Cunningham has produced 11 graphic vignettes about mental illness — and graphic they are.

Cunningham does not try to sugarcoat brain diseases. He employs bold, often stark, heavily inked, black-and-white illustrations and unadorned prose to convey the alienation and misery behind self-mutilation, suicide, anti-social personality disorder, bipolarity, schizophrenia and clinical depression. Depicting self-cutters, he captures the pervasive bleakness with drawings splotched with rain and blood: "Pain provides temporary relief against unbearable emotional distress," he explains.

He confronts issues of caring for the mentally ill, including toileting in a dementia ward, with similar, unflinching directness: "One day, I was helping a staff nurse assist a patient to the toilet when we spied another patient taking his trousers down in the corridor." When they go to check, "Sure enough, he'd left us a pretty present, in the form of a huge turd swimming in a pool of urine." He comments, "It's hateful work, cleaning up feces and urine," but adds, "it's basic nursing, and if you can't do it, then you shouldn't be a nurse."

The baldly stated aim of Psychiatric Tales is "stigma-busting." Cunningham, whose crusade sometimes veers into the doctrinaire, asserts, "This is needed because fear and ignorance of mental illness remains widespread in society." Urging compassion, he titles one chapter "It Could Be You" and comments, "We don't tolerate sexism or racism these days, but people with mental health problems are still fair game." Including himself among the afflicted, he adds, "Our lives are difficult enough as it is."

Cunningham closes with his own deeply affecting, ultimately affirming story, "How I Lived Again." He confesses, "My life during the writing of this book has been something of a struggle." Four years lapsed between chapters while he grappled with severe anxiety and depression after realizing deep into his training that he wasn't cut out to be a mental health nurse. He depicts himself at his suicidal nadir with a hole in the center of his boxy torso, representing "an emptiness that could never be filled." Gradually, aided by Prozac (which lifted his mood) and the Internet (which enabled him to promote his work), he developed "a small amount of self-worth through artistic talent." His encouraging advice to fellow sufferers: "Look deep into yourself for the qualities you need to survive. Your talents, hopes, dreams and desires. Because these are the things which will save you."

Nursing's loss is literature's gain. With Psychiatric Tales, Cunningham has crafted his own effective way to help both himself and other sufferers of mental illness.

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