Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affects many soldiers who return from war having endured danger and physical injury. But a stigma still exists against “invisible illnesses” such as this.
Published as part of Singing Dragon‘s line of graphic medicine comics, At War With Yourself is an adaptation of creator Samuel C. Williams‘ conversations with his friend Matt about his experiences of PTSD, and how he has learned to cope with the condition. We asked Williams some questions about the comic, mental health and stigma.
Steff Humm: The dog in At War with Yourself is crazy cute. What’s her name?
Samuel C. Williams: Her name is Sparkle and she’s a Red Setter. She is a lovely and really affectionate dog, but also well-disciplined as you can imagine from a dog of an ex-serviceman.
SH: You’re both a comics creator and an illustrator. How did you get here? Have your background and ambitions always been in graphic novels?
SCW: I used to draw a lot when I was younger and in school, but I’m not sure I ever really understood the fact that it could be a job. It wasn’t until I got into my twenties and met lots of other people doing creative things that I realised it might be an option. At that time I was starting to read a lot more comics and thought it would be a good format for me to present some of things I wanted to write.
SH: At War with Yourself progresses at a relaxed pace, concerned just as much with the conversations you had with Matt and his wife as well as depicting his actual experiences of trauma. Why did you decide to tell his story through interviews over coffee and walks in the park? Are your graphic conversations true to life?
SCW: The conversation in the book is pretty much as it happened in real life. I think it is quite a true representation of our relationship and also makes an important point about having people to talk to about this kind of condition. There is still a massive stigma attached to discussing mental illness and especially with military personnel as I think it sort of goes against what is expected of you in that role. I think it is important to show by example that talking about mental illness is the best way to get help, feel better and find your way.
SH: You have said that you wanted to write about PTSD to raise awareness of your friend’s condition. Have you ever considered writing about your own experiences with anxiety and depression? How has suffering with mental health difficulties informed your approach to this book?
SCW: Yes, I definitely intend to write more about mental health using my own experience – I am currently working on a couple of projects. The first is a collection of diary style comics looking at my personal experience of living with mental illness and being a full-time parent, about the joys and challenges of being a parent while dealing with mental health issues. The other is a project talking about the hereditary nature of mental illness and how we can use some understanding of that to help ourselves and others, and for which I’m hoping to interview medical professionals from lots of different areas.
As for it affecting my approach to this book, I think it just gives me empathy towards someone else’s struggles. Also Matt knows a lot about me and my history so I imagine that made him feel more comfortable talking with me.
SH: Can you tell us a bit about art style and choice of colour palette? How do you think these will impact the reader?
SCW: I think it is fair to say that I’m not the most accomplished artist but I think my approach and style suits the subject in this instance. There is a certain amount of chaos to my style which I think works well with the subject matter, as well as the simplicity which I think helps it feel more approachable.
The changes in colour are really just to help the reader keep track of where you are chronologically as there are a few instances of flashbacks etc. but I intentionally kept it very simple to try not to distract from the what is being said.
SH: The book is really engaging for its balance of information with empathy. Why do you think comics are an effective medium for spreading your message?
SCW: Thank you, my hope was the book would give lots of information about PTSD whilst also showing some of the personal story and our relationship.
I think comics work really well for discussing complex issues without daunting the reader with masses of text.
SH: Your friend’s account of his recovery has been positive in terms of the support he has received from the army and health services. Many people suffering with mental ill-health find it more of a challenge to get help. Was the process as smooth for him as it appears from this narration? Based on your observations, how would you recommend coping during the wait for therapy sessions?
SCW: Unfortunately due to quite a limited page count on this book there are certainly things that were left out. Matt is lucky that he had a lot of great support, most importantly from his partner Jane, but there were certainly struggles, such as with alcohol, and points at which things did not look so positive.
I think from my own experience and from talking to Matt the one key is to talk. It is easy to cut yourself off, to deem yourself not worthy of help, but whoever you are there will always be someone that wants to know you are OK. If you can’t talk to someone close to you, talk to anyone, there are lots of organisations out there.
SH: We’re always looking to widen our knowledge. Which comic has had the biggest impact on you as a reader and creator?
SCW: Matt Kindt and Jeff Lemire’s work was a big part of me reading comics and starting to make them. There are also loads of great and inspiring people making exciting work at the moment. Some of my favourites at the moment are Rozi Hathaway, Tillie Walden and Mike Medaglia.
Images from Singing Dragon