At this point I think we can all agree that Get A Grip has expanded its self-care-for-comics-makers universe from the confines of what are traditionally considered “drawing injuries” to what we can think of as “creative injuries.” Be you a generator of comics or animation content of any kind, creative injuries are whatever body/mind conditions you are coping with that could keep your from your creative practice. Maximizing physical health is one aspect of injury prevention and so is maximizing mental health.
Ellen Forney’s books, Marbles, Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me and Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice From My Bipolar Life are inspiring books exploring creativity, identity, and mental health. A natural extension of her memoir Marbles, Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me, Rock Steady is combination memoir and self-help manual, providing useful techniques and advice for getting stable with bipolar disorder. Frankly though, I don’t think you need to have bipolar disorder to get a lot of benefit from these books.
Here is part one of an interview between me and Ellen Forney. We talk SMEDMERTS and rock bands.
Kriota Willberg: Are you sick of people calling Rock Steady a “companion book” to Marbles?
Ellen Forney: I guess “companion book” would be about as accurate as it could be… Rock Steady is a lot of different things. In a way it‘s a sequel because in Marbles I say, “You know, it continues! I do all of these different things to stay stable.” So it’s an expansion.
One thing that is really important to me, the farther away I get from my diagnosis, is the challenge of staying stable; gathering all of the different tools and resources. Marbles is my personal story with tools folded in. It was VERY very important to me when I was doing Marbles, that there were specific tools in there that my readers could use. Like “How to swallow your pills in one gulp!” or “Here’s cognitive behavioral therapy!” And it’s really satisfying to me now to have Rock Steady out as the flip of that – emphasizing tools but from a personal point of view.
It was really important to me that I included places where I messed up. Where I kinda “fell down” and learned my lesson and had to keep going. That’s the kind of thing that we need to know. I think it goes for anyone who’s in that sort of… difficulty in life. To know that you’re going to mess up and it’s not necessarily a slippery slope. It’s not that you failed. It’s just a part of taking care of yourself.
Willberg: Let’s talk about SMEDMERTS!
Forney: Sure! One of the things that I do as a cartoonist, is figure out what the essence of things are. What’s the essence of this character? Story? How bare bones can you make it? I really like to make things as spare as I can. Visually and conceptually. So SMEDMERTS is a distillation of a variety of things that fold into a bigger picture of taking care of yourself. S.M.E.D.M.E.R.T.S. is…
Sleep – First and foremost in being healthy. The more research I did, the more I felt that sleep was more important than ANTYTHING else.
Medication – It’s important that if meds are part of your treatment to take your meds regularly with the oversight of a doctor. But I also want to emphasize that not everybody needs to be on meds. Not everybody needs to be on meds indefinitely. I think that there’s a lot of overmedicating right now. That was tricky for me to navigate.
Eat well – I didn’t get into what eating well means because that is so different for different people.
Doctor – See your doctor. This one could have been “Therapy.” Stick with whatever treatment program works for you. After awhile it may not be your doctor. Perhaps… it’s a book! Like Rock Steady.
Mindfulness and Meditation – I’ve only incorporated that into my own self-care a big handful of years ago. It’s so important to get perspective and self-awareness. To really have a grip on something is to step away and ask, “What is going on right now?” That’s what the whole practice is about.
Exercise – An incredibly important part of keeping your mind healthy is keeping your body healthy and feeling like your body is as able as is appropriate for you. Whatever a healthy body means to you is really important. The endorphins and the dopamine (generated by exercise) and how that feels good is another way to think of medication and the chemicals that help your brain.
…Routine! – Routine was something I was told would be good, but it sounded like a drag! I have come to embrace it and rely on it on a purely logistical level of remembering things. When staying healthy you have to remember to take your meds, get your sleep, etc. It’s easier to remember everything when it’s a part of a regular daily routine. Circadian rhythms are the cycles of light and dark, night and day, and that’s what calibrates out bodies. It’s the regularity of the day and night that biologically calibrates us. In the effort to keep the rest of your life rolling forward like a well-functioning engine, what our mind and body needs, is to have that regularity.
Here’s the answer to feeling like a routine is going to keep you from being creative – If you think of a rock band that is grounded in a solid rhythm section you can have any sort of wild guitar solos (on top) because of that groundedness. That kind of regularity doesn’t mean you can’t have variation. It’s just anchored.
Willberg: That’s one of my favorite metaphors! When I first heard you say that it was like, oh my god! That’s brilliant!
Forney: I’m not sure that I made that up. I have this picture in my head of a marching band… I must have made it a rock band! And maybe I’ve just described it in more detail.
Willberg: Either way, it totally works!
Forney: Tools – We’re going to keep coming up with situations that require a lot of different coping tools. And by “tools” I mean strategies. Feeling like you have a grip is feeling like you have the means to be flexible and figure our new things. For example, a couple of years ago I was on my way to get my blood drawn, which I always hated. I realized I’m always going to have to get blood draws. I needed to figure out how not to dread this. I thought about a little kid going to the doctor getting a lollipop afterwards. I thought if I promised myself some sort of treat that maybe that would help, and it totally did! My treat is generally an over-priced macha-latte-soy… whatever! But having a treat was something that was a new tool.
In Rock Steady, music is really helpful. You can use it as a strategy. I made a playlist on Spotify. There’s music that’s meaningful for you. What playlists can you make? How can you incorporate it into your life? And there are more strategies for making tools.
Okay, so that’s “T,” and “S” is…
Support System – It’s just too much for us to do all by ourselves. Sometimes you feel like things are beyond you. It feels so helpful to have ways to bring it back into your grip, but one of those things is recognizing when you need help. You can’t move your couch without help from someone else. That’s fine and that’s totally a part of healthy problem solving.
Willberg: And friends want to help. I think that’s something that we often forget. Asking for help is another way of opening yourself up to friendships or even complimenting people.
Forney: Definitely! Think about people you’ve helped through a crisis. It makes you feel purposeful, like you have something to offer. And support is emotional, financial, it’s someone you can call, or people checking up on you and encouraging you to come out.
After immersing myself in research and reading all these eye-rolling acronyms, I decided I wanted to have an acronym too! I felt like giving an official nature to all these basics bringing them all together into one thing. Taking care of yourself is a practice that is more holistic than we generally encounter as self-care. Putting it together as an acronym made a lot of sense.
I came up with a silly word. For me that’s also part of the humor in the whole book. Humor is one of the most disarming ways of getting information across. Having a sense of humor for a thing that seems like such a pain in the ass is important. How else can you do all this?
After I came up with SMEDMERTS, it called for that weird little jazz-hands monster. I drew it on a scrap of paper and it kept making me laugh. I got really attached to it. I consider it a mascot: a side-kick but also a visual representation of a whole concept – a lot of things boiled down into one image. And that’s what comics is. It’s taking something that is complicated or abstract and using signs and symbols to distill it into a simple visual. That character summarizes Rock Steady and what I wanted to get across pretty neatly: Self-care is complicated and involves many different aspects of your life.
In the upcoming part 2 of our interview, Ellen talks about the common fear of artists concerned that seeking mental health treatment will limit their creativity. Can one be creative and steady at the same time?