Finding Connection Through Little Monsters
Editor's Note: Thank you to Billy for sharing your story about your mental health journey, and your creative and inspiring message on living with mental illness.
Have you ever heard a story of someone valiantly battling and overcoming their inner demons? It’s a common narrative, one reinforced by depictions of creepy, towering beasts that are supposed to represent the war inside a mentally ill person’s head.
But I don’t seek to do battle with my illness. I don’t see my demons as heinous or vile, but as vulnerable and fragile. My recovery from childhood trauma has meant caring for my illness and being compassionate with my mind. Unfortunately, few mainstream representations of mental illness reflect this stance, so I’ve made my own.
Painting symptoms of mental illness as monsters may be nothing new, but these aren’t the terrifying demons we tend to see. They’re small, odd, and even kind of cute. This doesn’t mean they aren’t mischievous, or that they don’t represent real struggles. But it does open up the possibility to see them as something that we can care for, manage, and live with. To show you what I mean, here’s a description of one of these anxiety monsters - Neville the Unspoken:
"Always near his human partner, Neville the Unspoken hides just beyond sight. He discourages his human from taking up space publicly, or standing up and speaking out. Neville fears the vulnerability behind such acts and so, in a misguided attempt to protect his human, he brings forth an overwhelming sense of exposure.
Neville is born with a touch of narcissism at his core. He would have his human believe that all the world is watching, ready to take them down for any perceived slip up in their words or composure. But it's highly unlikely that anyone would be lying in wait. The world is not watching - people are too busy with their own struggles and insecurities.
But Neville remains persistent. He'll make his human's blood pump so loud that their thoughts drown beneath the noise. He'll make their palms sweat so much they lose grip of reason.
This beast works relentlessly in almost every situation that requires connection and vulnerability. But ironically these very acts of connection and vulnerability can overpower him if given the chance. This weakness motivates him to keep his human hidden at any cost, making Neville the Unspoken one of the most difficult monsters to manage.”
Neville is my fear of being in public. He’s my hesitation to speak up or really do anything at all in front of others. But there are a variety of other monsters, some of which accompany Neville but embody different struggles altogether. Rufus the Charmer, dressed in a fake smile, depicts the habits of people-pleasers. He conditions his human to always say “yes,” taking on any favor or responsibility asked of them. Rufus carries a great fear of being disliked, or not living up to the highest expectations, and will drive his human into making commitments they can’t keep so as to satiate this hunger for admiration. Once Rufus has retired for the evening, Burch the Paranoid will typically come out. Burch is our tendency to obsess over future events that will likely never come. Just as his human is falling asleep, Burch will bring up little mistakes they made earlier that day. He’ll follow with some lavish story about how these mistakes will snowball and lead to massive disruption and failure down the road. He often feeds off of the insecurities left behind by other monsters like Rufus and Neville.
These are just a few of the characters that I hope will become a point of connection for those of us who live with them. In some way, seeing them as these universal monsters that come and go, visiting others as well as ourselves, takes away a lot of their weight. By transforming internal struggles into external characters we expose them. It gives us something outside of our minds to point to and talk about. It gives us a common ground to start on when we first let down our walls in search of the vulnerability that will lead to connection and healing.
But ever since bringing them out of my mind and into the world, I keep finding myself in vulnerable and open discussions about mental illness, with people I would never have expected. People I’ve known for years. And in every discussion where we talk of our demons as something to manage and live with, rather than conquer, there is never a sense of personal failure. This is why I believe we shouldn’t talk about our illnesses as something to battle or “win against” - it too easily shames those who haven’t yet won.
But in all this, I’ve learned one thing for certain: through this process of dropping our walls, connecting and empathizing with others who share our struggles, we can truly help one another learn to better manage our inner demons.
Why is it important for you to share your story and experiences with mental health and illness?
My main goal is to help folks living with mental illness to feel less alone. It took me too many years to finally seek out help, through support groups and family, for the struggles I face as a result of my anxiety, ADHD and childhood trauma. I felt so very isolated and abnormal for far too long. I want to show people like me (well... the past me) that there are others who face these struggles, this stigma, and who understand exactly what they're feeling. I make art that I hope will get this message across in a very emotionally raw, and sincere way.
- Billy Hebbart
Vancouver, BC, Canada
More about Billy: I'm from a small town in rural Nova Scotia where mental illness is something that’s not really talked about, let alone understood or acknowledged. At 18, I moved to Halifax to refine my artistic skills at NSCAD University and connected with a small mental health community called NSCAD Mad. I graduated in 2013 and moved to Vancouver where I now live, work, and share the daily struggles and experiences I have as a result of my trauma and anxiety.
Link to a video I put on youtube about this series of work which you're welcome to use as well: Anxiety Monsters Youtube Video
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