Why I Turned my Anxiety and Trauma into Odd Creatures
by Billy Hebb
(Vancouver, BC, Canada)
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, I don’t often see representations of mental illness that reflect this stance, and 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 are the two qualities that have the power to keep him in check. His weakness is also his most terrifying strength, which makes Neville the Unspoken one of the most difficult monsters of anxiety to manage.”
Neville is my fear of taking up space, and performing for others. There are other monsters too, who embody different struggles. Rufus the Charming, dressed in a fake smile, depicts the habits of people-pleasers. Burch the Paranoid, with his distant and unfocused stare, is our tendency to obsess over future events that will likely never come.
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. I think they’re a fun way to let down the walls and be vulnerable with our struggles. And maybe when someone is in the midst of an anxiety attack, or in a spiral of compulsive, negative thoughts, these paintings will help them look at their monsters in a more compassionate way. They are, after all, part of us.
You can learn a bit more about what I do here: https://youtu.be/S0jgob5K47o