science of us

These Are Not Sad Stories

How graphic medicine humanizes the world of health care.

Photo: Rachel Lindsay / Grand Central Publishing.
Photo: Rachel Lindsay / Grand Central Publishing.
Photo: Rachel Lindsay / Grand Central Publishing.

At age 23, Rachel Lindsay was working for a Manhattan advertising agency when she had what her family deemed a bipolar disorder–related manic break. She’d recently been promoted onto an account making antidepressant ads, and her work there led her to question her own understanding of marketing and mental illness. Following a dramatic upheaval, she was involuntarily hospitalized.

While in the hospital, Lindsay drew comics and cartoons about her experience, as well as about her history with mental illness. These comics eventually became a book, RX: A Graphic Memoir, which came out earlier this fall. (Lindsay is now a full-time, Vermont-based cartoonist and art instructor with a side gig at a record-pressing factory.)

Photo: Rachel Lindsay / Grand Central Publishing

Her book is also part of an emerging publishing trend: “graphic medicine,” or illustrated memoirs grappling with life, death, health, and the medical industry. While cartoons and chronic illness might seem like an odd combination, readers have been finding that comics can provide an antidote, or at least a balm, to the isolating world of pain, illness, and health care.

Some recent graphic medicine titles include Peter Dunlap-Shohl’s My Degeneration: A Journey Through Parkinson’s, Dana Walrath’s Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass, and Jennifer Hayden’s The Story of My Tits, a memoir about breast cancer.

“I wrote my book to reclaim the history of my life,” Lindsay told me. “To tell my own story, separate from the hospital notes. And to then share it with people as the truth.”

Echoing Lindsay, the cartoonist and doctor Ian Williams, who in 2012 coined the phrase “graphic medicine,” says that part of the phenomenon’s appeal is that comics allow artists to “reclaim” their own story by “wrestling some of the power away from the experts.” Instead of being “objectified by the medical gaze,” he told me, artists “are choosing how to depict their bodies and deciding how much to show, or withhold, from the reader.” (Beyond being a general trend, “graphic medicine” is also a website, a specific book series, and an annual conference theme.)

Photo: Rachel Lindsay / Grand Central Publishing

At the same time, graphic medicine can also bridge the gap between patients and the medical world. In Lindsay’s case, in the months since her book’s release, she’s been asked to speak at hospitals and at medical schools — including Harvard, Mt. Sinai, and the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons — in front of doctors and medical-school residents (as well as regular fans and readers). She’s been surprised and moved by their responses. “Based on some of my own bad experiences,” she said, “I’d lumped all doctors together, and at first I never felt like I could trust them — I felt like I had to be really controlled around them, and that I could never be myself.” But the clinicians (and psychiatrists and social workers) who’ve reached out to her have wanted to learn more about her story, and to use it in service of improving the patient experience overall. Lindsay said that their responses “made me realize that my frustration and anger were counterproductive. And that the most I could do was let this book speak for itself. It was heartening, and disorienting.”

It helps that some of those doctors, nurses, and residents are cartoonists themselves, like Williams, but also (to list a few) Grace Farris, Mike Natter, and palliative care physician Nathan Gray, who in a recent graphic medicine story for Topic wrote that doctors and nurses are similarly “searching for ways to reinject humanity into our hospital routines.”

The strongest force driving graphic medicine cartoonists seems to be an urge to create the thing that the artist would have appreciated reading themselves the first time around. “Whatever the subject, whether it’s cancer, bipolar disorder, loss of a child, ADHD, or surviving sexual trauma,” nurse and Graphic Medicine co-editor MK Czerwiec (also known as Comic Nurse) told me, “the artist’s intention is for the book to serve as a guide for others.”

Lindsay said something similar: “The last thing I wanted to do was suggest that my journey was anything like anybody else’s, but I also knew that there were various parts of my story that other people might relate to.” Specifically: “the realities of having a chronic illness, of dealing with it within our health-care system, and of being involuntarily hospitalized.”

But why comics rather than a written story, or a photo essay?

“For trauma in particular,” Lindsay said, “comics really allow you to show rather than tell. There are certain things that I just cannot put into words, period. And having the flexibility to move back and forth between image and words — it’s really helpful.”

For a reader, Czerwiec told me, comics can be especially useful in situations when someone is under great stress (like in the face of a new diagnosis), and when they need to learn a lot of important information, quickly (like what that diagnosis means, and what they should do next). “This applies just as well to someone newly diagnosed with cancer as it does to medical or nursing students,” she said. “Or even think of the informational card about what to do in a crisis on an airplane — it’s a comic.”

This all makes sense to me — it wasn’t quite graphic medicine, but earlier this year I published a comic about my own struggles with alcohol, in part because I was hoping to do for someone else what Julia Wertz and her sobriety comics did for me. Drawing felt less rigid than typing, and I felt freer to let whatever was there just come out. (I also sometimes publish graphic medicine on Spiralbound, the comics site I run on the side.)

Even though the topic is heavy, Lindsay’s RX: A Graphic Memoir is funny throughout. I laughed out loud a few times, including at the image of her angrily stringing together beads during the hospital’s jewelry-making class.

I also laughed at how she rendered herself quitting her advertising job, getting a terrible new hairstyle, aggressively buying marijuana, and planning a move to Arizona. I mentioned this to her, and she seemed amused that I’d found it funny. “I know, it’s — that’s one of the more surprising reactions that I’ve been getting. Because, like, that was an excruciating experience.”

I think that’s why the illness-comics combination — of levity and pain, traditionally — works so well: It allows artists to reclaim a story not just from anonymity but from darkness, too.

These Are Not Sad Stories