Feature: Sharing Pain: Zines and Mental Illness

by Shelley Lloyd

In her introduction to Writing A Riot: Riot Grrrl Zines and Feminist Rhetorics, Rebekah J. Buchanan calls zines “messy, complex texts” not unlike the lives of the girls who engaged in the writing of zines (xxiii). Elaborating on the need for zines, Buchanan states that “Individuals participate in zine related activities to understand the world around them and situate themselves in specific cultural sites” (xxiv). Because “Zine work is active” every line, every doodle is placed in a page with the utmost care, as through these zines “writers determine what to present as well as how to present situations through a constant negotiation with self and audience” (xxiv). Creating a zine about mental health upends the understood relationships of power by engaging in alternate literacy practices that transform literacy into a performance and social practice.

Arthur W. Frank tells us that “the teller of chaos stories is, preeminently, the wounded storyteller, but [that] those who are truly living the chaos cannot tell [their stories] in words” (Frank 98). It would make sense then that those who suffer from depression would rely on alternate forms of writings if “such speech is quickly frustrated” and they are unable to adequately command words to tell their stories as they unfold they would fall back on the oldest form of communication: visuals. These zines “juxtapose the public with the private, publishing personal information on the web for an audience of voyeuristic strangers” as a way of fostering “a false sense of intimacy between the author and the reader” just as the traditionally published memoirs and autobiographies did before them.

While you cannot learn the language of depression the same way you would French or German, this language is vital for everyone. The language of depression, when we bother with it, has mostly been studied through the lens of pharmacology, giving us insights into the rhetorics of depression and the marketing of medications since the first SSRIs came on the market, but these rhetorics have done little to dissect the everyday language of depression as it is seen in the actual writings of those who suffer from it. Yet with an estimated 16.2 million adults in the United States suffering from some form of depression in 2016 we need this language more than ever, that we might write the story of depression (healthline.com). After all, “The language of depression implicates both healthy and ill individuals,” since the Food and Drug Administration relaxed the “rule obliging companies to offer a detailed list of side-effects in their infomercials” in 1997 that allowed for direct-to-consumer antidepressant medication advertisements for the first time (WHO.int). With this law change, the public has learned a very black and white definition of what depression is – and what it is not.

But how do we write the language of depression? If it cannot be taught through conventional means how do we –how can we be expected to – dive into the practice of studying texts written in this language?

Kimberly Emmons describes depression as sitting “at the intersection of physical, cognitive, and emotional realities” and states that “Without diagnostics such as blood tests or X-ray imaging, depression becomes visible or remains invisible through the language used to describe it” (1). Of course, this is in no way meant to act as a direct translation from the language of depression to the language used by those who are not similarly afflicted: English. We need not provide a direct translation, however, in order to get across the points being made.

The language of depression is practiced daily by those who suffer from its effects. To write this language means to don masks, and to give “oneself to writing” to be “in a position to do this work of digging, of unburying” (Cixous 6). The work of writing should not be easy or a comfort, yet the urge to share drives us down corridors we never imagined. In order to share we put on masks,masks we don’t remember assuming, masks  we all came by differently. It is from behind these masks that we communicate with the outside world. And it is through these masks that our language becomes something we don’t share with the rest of the world. Our masks act as modulators of that English, creating new dialects and facets of English that are more familiar to some than others. These modulators release the language of depression upon the world. We learn to read in a foreign language every time a healthy mind engages with the language of depression.

In true Riot Grrrl fashion, Reading in a Foreign Language — a zine I created as part of an altered book assignment in a Ph.D. course at Clemson University — seeks to not only disrupt what we think we know about depression and mental illness, but it also performs pain publicly. I gave the base text of my zine a new subtitle: An Exploration of/on Depression. The finished zine was divided into sections, with each section taking its title from a journal article that had been originally published in Reading in a Foreign Language.  As a way of organizing disparate and occasionally random seeming pages this method both aided and hindered me in the editing of my zine. The “chapter” pages contain a background of circuitry that continues at the bottom of the scanned book pages in order to give the book a uniform size.  I explore the reason for this and the Bride of Frankenstein imagery in the second section of the zine on a page taken from Kimberly Emmons’ Black Dogs and Blue Words: Depression and Gender in the Age of Self-Care. I write “My mom once compared me to a robot. I prefer to think of myself as a patchwork girl-cyborg hybrid.”  On this page of the zine Emmons quotes Andrew Solomon tells us that “It,” depression, “can be described only in metaphor and allegory” (qtd in Emmons 97). My green highlights on this page  focus on the use of figurative language in the rhetorics of depression while in the gutters of the page I scrawl inelegantly in metallic Sharpie about being a mish-mashed cyborg – the imagery I prefer to use when referencing myself in my most depressed states.

At the bottom of the page Emmons’ claims that “the metaphors for depression encourage narrow practices of self-doctoring that fail to participate in social, community, or other dialogical responses to the illness experience” (97) tying it back to the first section of the zine in which I had taken a chunk of fiction I had written previously that centered around a dangerous self-harm situation and tossed in it alongside serious academic pages as well as some of my own poems and artwork. Titled “Lament From A Southern Rock Opera” the story – and the section sampled – tell the story of a young woman named Viv who cuts slightly too deep one night and is forced into counselling. As Viv tries to convince everyone that what she did was not a suicide attempt she finds that she does not have the language to explain the difference, just as I, as the author, found it extremely difficult to find the words necessary to separate self-harm from suicide. Ultimately, I – and Viv – failed. So, the story sat on my hard drive until I decided to sandwich it between pages from Emmons and from Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling.

Both the Emmons’ page and Cvetkovich’s spoke of writing the experience of depression, setting up the overall goal of the zine: attempting to write about depression and self-harm in a way that is both academic and accessible. Yet, on Cvetkovich’s page what I scrawled had nothing to do with writing. I simply asked the question “What is this madness anyway?” thus setting myself a secondary goal – one that I did not think about consciously until after I had completed each individual page and was putting it together after the final edits – defining “madness”.  Much like what happened with my fiction attempt, I’m not sure I accomplished this goal by the end of the zine.

The zine opens with a section entitled “1 Text as a vehicle for information: the classroom use of written texts in teaching a foreign language Tim Johns and Florence Davies” after the first article published in the source book. The Emmons’ page that opens the zine and prefaces “Lament From A Southern Rock Opera” sets the tone for much of the zine by establishing the difficulty that comes in trying to write fluently in the language of depression in such a way that it would be understandable to those who are not familiar with the language of depression. Emmons’ states on this page that to her “what is striking about the stories from this late twentieth-century period is their reliance on relatively simplistic identifications with rather than more critical revisions and elaborations of the depressed self” (127). I’m unsure if most of my problems with being able to write about my own depression – as opposed to depression in the abstract – is because I cannot even manage “relatively simplistic identifications” or if my exposure to Riot Grrrl and zine cultures at a young age made me less open to a simplistic “I suffer from depression therefore I am a depressed person and little else”. This page from Emmons dives deep into what depression memoirs looked like post SSRIs. 127 pages deep in her book, it is an interesting place to start a text, but it does set up – right away – both a problem and an excuse for the audience from the author. “I’m sorry if I don’t manage to accomplish everything that I set out to do with this project: it was hard.”

After a few attempts at writing depression I come back to this idea: “Is it possible to write a true depression memoir? Or does the madness make it impossible?” Scrawled on another page from Cvetkovich across from highlighted quotes that seem to dismantle Emmons’ idea that depression identities were – or have become – rather simplistic in depression memoirs written towards the end of the twentieth century: “these writers combine both scientific and cultural understandings and both personal narrative and scholarly research” (93). Perhaps this is due to Cvetkovich’s own experience with writing depression zines in the 1990s.

In relinking depression memoirs with medical fields and identity, this sets up the next section of the zine that questions definitions and how we phrase things in the language of depression. It also calls back to Frank’s chaos narrative and perhaps why it is so difficult to write about depression from the middle of treatment (or not, as the case was when I wrote this zine). By placing scribbled questions across from a page that introduces a critical of medication point of view — and in particular with my choice of wording in calling depression madness throughout the zine — this complicates any thoughts of treatment or how to live with depression. Especially considering the glitched photograph of an old prescription bottle towards the end of the zine. This seems to give the whole project a slightly helpless feeling. As though there is no fighting against depression, there is only living with it.


Buchanan, Rebekah J. Writing a Riot: Riot Grrrl Zines and Feminist Rhetorics. Peter Lang, 2018.

Cixous Hélène. Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Translated by Sarah Cornell and Susan Sellers, Columbia University Press, 1993.

Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: a Public Feeling. Duke University Press, 2012.

Direct-to-Consumer Advertising under Fire.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 4 Mar. 2011.

Emmons, Kimberly. Black Dogs and Blue Words: Depression and Gender in the Age of Self-Care. Rutgers University Press, 2014.

Frank, Arthur W. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. The University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Koskie, Brandi. “Depression: Facts, Statistics, and You.” Healthline, Healthline Media.



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