Interview: Lucy Sullivan Opens Up About Mental Illness in BARKING

“1 in 4 people will have a mental health episode, that’s at least one person you know.”

A fact so startling should make everyone sit up and pay attention to mental illness. However, we are taught that there is such a stigma concerning mental illness, even among the most well-meaning people, that it is a constant struggle to educate people about it.

Lucy Sullivan is the author of a new graphic novel that she is crowdfunding through Unbound.com and has first hand experience with depression. She has used that experience to create Barking. It is a passionately crafted book that attempts to capture the painful, hectic, and scary experience in the hallucinations of it’s main character Alix. The story and art offer a beautiful, scary, and raw revelation of a mind in the throes of a mental health crisis.

I got to discuss with Lucy some of the difficulties in creating a book like this, and found out more about the experiences that led to it.  

Chris Campbell: Can you tell us a little about yourself apart from being the creator of Barking?

Lucy Sullivan: I’m a Londoner, born & bred and as many of us do here I come from a somewhat mixed background. My Dad was from Ireland, my Mum from New Zealand and they ran live-music pubs in the city. I had a pretty unusual but wonderful upbringing. I have a Degree in Animation & Illustration and teach observational drawing. I spend my time working on my graphic novel and obsessing over comics, film, literature & fine art whilst trying to raise my daughter, grow some veg in my garden and walk our dog. It’s a busy time at the moment!

CC: Can you share with us a little about your experience and what led you to creating Barking?

LS: When I was 23 my Dad died suddenly. We were very close and the impact on my mind was devastating. I was living in New Zealand at the time and that moment the phone rang and the time it took to get back to London was the worst I’ve ever experienced. I look back at it and it’s like watching a film with black scribbled all over it. It was a difficult and utterly life changing experience.

In the years since I’ve met more and more people who have been similarly affected by grief and/or mental health problems. It frustrated and angered me how much taboo there still was around the experience and so Barking is my way of starting the conversation I want to have and break down those barriers.

CC: Did you have a similar experience as far as the black dog or do you use this as an allegory?

LS: A year after my dad died I found myself in the grip of a mental health crisis. I was in an utterly self-destructive state that reached a crescendo one night where I put myself and a friend in harm’s way. It was a terrible moment but one that turned everything around for me. I started therapy and a course of CBT and in doing so was diagnosed with Depression and Anxiety. I realise now that this had actually started in my teens but my grief had triggered the crisis.

It was my partner, Stephen, that drew my attention to the Black Dog as as metaphor. Winston Churchill famously referred to his bad moods as the ‘black dog’ in the room, this has since been adopted as a symbol for depression although there is much argument about whether Churchill himself had mental health issues. As I furthered my research I found other myths & allegories that I felt could also describe how it feels when your mind is your worst enemy.

CC: Why is it easier for you to share your story as a graphic novel and not a purely prose book?

LS: There are many aspects to a mental health episode. Not least of all, how individual an experience it is. For me, I think in pictures so it felt natural to turn the story into a graphic novel. There are so many devices in comics to explain time passing, unseen voices and hallucinations. All things that I want to explore in Barking.

Comics have an incredibly sophisticated language but one that allows for experimentation and a readership that are willing to accept the reality presented to them. I don’t think I have the gift for words that such an experience requires. Authors like Matt Haig, Patrick Ness and Sylvia Plath have that talent for prose but my strength lies in imagery.

CC: You have said that your work tends to have a very “sinister” look to it. Is this a conscious choice?

LS: Ha! I think it’s more like I accept that it’s a bit sinister! At first I fought it tooth and nail, especially when I was animating. Clients wanted cute but every time I tried it just came out creepy. I think every artist hits a point where they have to figure out their style & what works. When it comes to comics & animating my style is definitely more suited to the darker side of stories. Luckily it seems to work for Barking.

CC: Why did you choose to render the pages in pen and ink?

LS: Actually I’m drawing out the whole thing in Biro. It’s a unorthodox approach and one that just happened at first. I’d got a Cross pen that I loved drawing with and found by not pencilling and instead drawing it straight in with biro I would get mistakes and smudges, creating a more immediate and frantic feeling to the images. I’m shocking at laying out beforehand so I just freely sketch then scan into Photoshop to layout. I’m inking digitally with a Kyle’s brush plug in. I like the effect it gives me and it’s at least one part of my process that’s efficient!

CC: Do you have any plans to animate Barking at some point?

LS: Oh man, I’d love to one day. It’s absolutely a comic but once I’ve finished a chapter the movement within the frames starts happening in my head. It would take a lifetime to do though as I’m a hand-drawn animator and a control freak, I would get all Otomo (Akira) about it and want to do every keyframe. I don’t think that urge to motion will ever go away but for now I’m happy to enjoy other animator’s work and focus on comics. I’ve got a fair few stories to tell and my next book is already well formed in my head and will be quite different from Barking.

CC: What made you decide to crowdfund your graphic novel?

LS: Mental Health is a tricky subject and although I did tentatively approach a couple of publishers I think crowdfunding is the best platform for this story. It’s paramount to me to tell it honestly and hopefully by going down this route I can reach a wide audience and more people that have gone through or even going through a similar experience.

My publisher Unbound provide an extra element to the process though. Although the project starts out as a sort of Kickstarter you do also get a lot of help; with the video, the costings and a platform for the project on their website. But they are also a literary publisher so I have an editor, the brilliant Lizzie Kaye. Lizzie has worked for amongst others Titan and SelfMadeHero so knows her comics and is keen that I don’t shy away from the truth. I feel very lucky to work with her. Once I reach 100% funded Unbound will sort out the printing, the delivery and help with the promotion of the book. It’s a win/win for me but it is at times very stressful and I’m still really getting to grips with the whole thing.

CC: Has it been hard to share this story? Does it trigger flashbacks or bring you back to that place?

LS: Yeah that’s the big catch 22. I still have depression and anxiety and there’s a definite potential for a trigger from the constant low-level stress of crowdfunding. But I’m trying to channel that into the story. Whenever my Black Clouds descend and whisper doubt I put it in the book. I’ve tried to keep the plotting quite loose for each chapter but I do have many flashbacks when I’m sketching. It can be upsetting, there’s much I’d bleached in my head but I’m nearly 20 years on from that time now and that distance is imperative. I don’t think this is something you can embark on when it’s still raw. I’m in a much better place these days but I try not to take for granted how fragile a mind is, especially when a fissure has been opened.

CC: What have you found is the most common misconception regarding depression and/or mental illness?

LS: There are so many but the idea that you have a choice, can control or decide whether this happens to you is utterly infuriating.

When it comes to depression for me it’s the misconception that you’re just a bit sad or don’t want to go out or even worse that you need to stop being dramatic and be a bit more optimistic. AAARRRGGGHHH!!!! That’s what my depression sounds like. No one would have called me sad in those days. I was raging with anger, paranoia and self destruction. Probably why people found me so hard to deal with at the time and why I want to talk about it. I’ve just discovered something called the ‘grief exception’. The range of emotions you go through whilst grieving have so much in common with depression that the Psychiatric profession had to allow an exception when people are grieving or everyone would be diagnosed. It’s just that when you’re grieving you can point to it, you have a reason and can say that’s what is making me feel like this. For those of us going through depressive disorders the day could be sunny, life could be great but we still feel like that. That’s not a choice, it’s an illness.

CC: Why do you think that it is so hard for people to grasp what those that suffer from a mental illness are going through?

LS: 1 in 4 people will have a mental health episode, that’s at least one person you know. We accept other impacts on the body readily, if someone breaks a leg or is diagnosed with an illness like cancer but not those illnesses that have no obvious physical signs. ME suffers from the same stigma and it has to change. As humans we seem to have a built in scepticism about what other people believe, which saddens and confuses me. Essentially most cultures are built around being told something exists without proof but when it comes to a personal experience the immediate response is disbelief. We all need a bit more empathy, a bit more suspension of disbelief and to try to listen to each other without judgement, it could make a lot of wrongs right in this world. Especially at the moment.

CC: What do you hope to accomplish with Barking?

LS: I hope that readers will find comfort and sympathy from Barking. I hope that it might encourage people who have mental health problems to tell their stories too. Write a book, compose a song, paint a picture or just even talk to someone about it. Stigma and taboo rely on shame and embarrassment in order to exist, they are my enemies and I want to crush them! I also hope to entertain albeit in a darker manner and enlighten those who have never been through a moment like this. Because you really never know, it can happen to anyone. I’m passionate about the shift for better research into mental health so I’m also donating 10% of my proceeds from each Hardback book to a charity that supports that called MQ: Transforming Mental Health (Charity No. 1139916 & Scotland SCO46075) If you would like to back the project please check out their website to see where that donation will go MQmentalhealth.org Thank you to everyone that supports Barking. It literally couldn’t happen without you!

To pledge & pre-order a copy of Barking: https://unbound.com/books/barking/

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