Anxiety is a wild ride. There’s a slew of complex emotions and experiences that accompany mental illness; nerves, fear, tentative happiness, the never-ending quest to convince yourself that you deserve to be content, the arduousness of forming human connections, and so on. In ‘Bird Brain’, I’ve illustrated comics showing what it’s like living with the unfaltering rollercoaster that is mental illness...using pigeons. In particular, anxiety is explored through three themes - negativity, relationships, and positivity.
There seems to be a general assumption in society that anxiety and depression just involve sitting in bed crying. There is an element of truth to that, of course, but it’s much more nuanced. Sometimes, I’m walking around and crying! In the six or seven years since my anxiety started manifesting, I’ve had my fair share of negative experiences. Panic attacks in supermarkets, debilitating existential dread, constant scrutiny of every word that leaves my mouth, you name it. The first section of Bird Brain showcases all the forms that self-hatred can display itself in, and hopefully drive home that what may seem minuscule to most can have catastrophic implications for someone with anxiety.
As you might guess, the above aspects of mental illness make it exceedingly difficult to establish meaningful and strong relationships with others, both romantic and platonic. The second section, ‘Relationships’, is composed of comics inspired by real conversations and anecdotes in my attempts to explain mental illness to those around me, and how anxiety has affected the connections I share with those I love.
Although I feel that my mental health has improved drastically over the years (partly due to medication, a subject that is broached in several comics) there’s still a long way to go. However, I believe that anxiety doesn’t have to doom you to misery for the rest of your existence - there are infinitely more good times than bad, no matter how far-off the former may seem sometimes. The final section, ‘Positivity’, concludes the book with comics that look on the bright side, expressing my core belief that life is still worth living despite what you may go through.
Overall, in Bird Brain I’ve attempted to display the complexities of living with anxiety, in ways that hopefully make you think about the intricacies of mental illness whilst also having a bit of a laugh. If it also helps you have a bit more sympathy and love for pigeons, as well, then my life’s work is complete.
Anxiety is a wild ride. Generally, there seems to be an assumption that if you’re mentally ill, you just sit around and cry all the time. There is a certain amount of that, true, but that’s not all it is. Sometimes, I walk around and cry! There’s also a slew of complex emotions and experiences that accompany anxiety; nerves, fear, tentative happiness, the never-ending quest to convince yourself that you deserve to be content, the arduousness of forming human connections, and so on, usually all concurrently to form an unmanageable cocktail of emotional despair.
I first started experiencing anxiety when I was around 17, as the prospect of jetting off to a university (where I knew no one except my then-boyfriend) to fend for myself for the first time in my life began to loom over me like a giant blimp full of killer bees. (Side note: don’t ever ever ever ever ever follow a romantic partner to university. It rarely works out well.) Initially, I thought I was just undergoing a completely understandable case of nerves. Nerves that just permeated my entire being 24/7 and suddenly made me hate myself for every awkwardly-strung together sentence that left my stupid gross mouth.
It began to hit home that something wasn’t right when I went with my flat to the university club’s first Fresher’s night. As soon as I entered the campus club, it was like being submerged in water. I couldn’t breathe. There was too much stimuli: too many bright lights, too much noise, and too many people. Way too many people, who I felt were all suddenly fixated upon me, sneering at me, at how I looked, how I moved, how I just existed. It’s kind of funny how anxiety makes you feel like you’re simultaneously the most important and the most insignificant person in the room. I couldn’t breathe. I was probably standing in the entrance for all of a minute before I calmly walked out into the smoking area, hopped the security gate preventing people from sneaking in, and ran all the way up to my flat to bury myself under my bedcovers. I promptly cried myself to sleep. It was 10 PM, and I had been at university for eight hours.
Over the next few years, I had various instances like this, not just in densely-packed environments but over the most inconsequential things. I couldn’t engage in basic conversation without feeling like I was sweating out my body’s entire water content. The thought of having a social interaction I wasn’t prepared for sent my heartrate into overdrive. After one extremely bad day, all I wanted was some fries from McDonalds, only to be told that their frying machine had just broken and they had to close early – this made me break down crying all the way home. Although, to be fair, part of me thinks this reaction was totally justifiable.
I tried to brave the campus doctor and counselling services, but it was almost as if there was a physical barrier preventing me from getting help. I had no idea where to begin if I attempted to talk about what I was going through – I didn’t even know why the hell I was even feeling this way in the first place. So I did what seemed like the only reasonable solution to this dilemma, and kept all my feelings bottled up and squashed down in the deepest parts of my psyche.
A consequence of repressing how I felt meant that I became weirdly talented at presenting a well-adjusted persona to the world. I’d navigate through social situations with apparent ease, all the while internally screaming and looking forward to when I could get home and cry into my pillow. I think I told maybe three or four close friends about it, but only through rambling Whatsapp messages, never in person unless I was absolutely shit-faced and couldn’t keep the bad feelings in their bottles.
Eventually, despite feeling as though I couldn’t hate my life any more, I graduated from university and became increasingly disillusioned with where I was headed. I felt stuck in a full-time retail position, in an incredibly wealthy area where basically every customer was an arrogant toe-rag constantly in Can I Speak To Your Manager mode.
I’ve always loved drawing, and so I began doodling silly comics about the existential nightmare that was my life as a way to vent. I didn’t have a working scanner or a working art programme, so I took terrible quality photos of the comics to upload to Tumblr, and then to a Facebook page I had created.
One day, I was waiting to meet a friend in the town centre and was idly watching a pigeon pecking at the floor. A middle-aged couple walked by, and immediately started talking about how they hated pigeons, calling them dirty little rats with wings.
I’ve always loved pigeons; I find them really cute and quirky, and feel like they have an undeserved bad reputation. Pigeons used to be revered for their uses in sport and as messengers, and even as a source of food, but once better alternatives came about everyone just released their domesticated pidges en masse. That’s why city areas are so densely populated by them. So it made me kind of sad to imagine a pigeon being able to understand that couple’s insults and feeling terrible about itself. When I went home, I made a comic about it, and people seemed to really like it.
The positive reaction to this comic inspired me to start using pigeons as representations of myself in all my future comics about mental health. It’s weird, but there’s something reassuring about projecting yourself onto something generally disdained and getting an encouraging response to it. You think that if people like this strange little depiction of yourself, then you in your entirety might actually be liked after all, despite what your annoying brain might otherwise try and convince you of.
Also, I feel like this artistic choice helps condition people into feeling a bit more affectionate towards pigeons, and I’ll take that as my life’s work complete already to be honest.
So, several comics and existential episodes later from this decision, here I am writing this introduction. For this book. A REAL BOOK. That I gone and drew myself. It’s a bit surreal, and I am trying to play it cool, but my skeleton is ready to vibrate out of my skin from excitement. Thank you to everyone who has ever liked one of my drawings, or sent me a lovely message – you are the reason I’ve been able to keep on doodling, and I wouldn’t be here without you.
I hope you enjoy Bird Brain and that it helps you remember that no matter what you’re going through, you’re not alone. I also hope that you find some money in your pocket that you’d forgotten about, and that you see a really cool pigeon today. Enjoy!
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These people are helping to fund Bird Brain.