Joyana McDiarmid's first two chapters of her serial Long Division start off in a mental institution and work backward from there, as we follow Elena's first days at the hospital and find out how she wound up there. The comic notes up front that "while based on real events, this is a work of fiction". This makes sense, as the narrative is too fluid to be precisely autobiographical, but the specific details of life in a mental hospital feel well understood and experienced. Whether that's from McDiarmid's own experiences or visiting someone in such an institution is irrelevant, of course.What the book does demonstrate is the insidious, destructive power of depression, one whose effect is that one's house is built on sand. In other words, for a depressive, any kind of sudden trauma or distress has the effect of sending them into a tailspin. What's worse, depression has a way of destroying friendships and relationships because the depressed person doesn't know how to seek help, or worse, doesn't feel like they deserve help. McDiarmid covers all of this ground in this comic, but it's her visual approach that makes the comic particularly interesting.
This is a story of a young woman who is struggling, but McDiarmid has the important understanding that this mental illness is one related to neurochemistry. One's brain and brain chemicals simply aren't working right, and the result is a profound effect on mood and behavior. McDiarmid gets at a problem intrinsic to treating mental illness: some perceive it as a sign of being weak, that one should simply "get over" bad feelings and move on. Others fear the stigma of being "crazy" and never coming back from that label. McDiarmid portrays that illness as a series of nerve endings, emphasizing the somatic nature of people as being made up of bones, nerves and flesh. There's a drawing early in the first issue where a pill Elena swallows dissolves in her stomach, gets transferred to her blood stream and then starts acting on her synapses. Drawing the nervous system winds up being an easy and clever way to draw depression as a series of roots, of tangled lines, as a maze that one gets lost in.
Elena's backstory reveals the ways in which depression can prevent one from emotional self-care. That's especially true since Elena appears to be bi-polar when she suddenly has a burst of energy and announces that she and her friends can make things with an Etsy store. At the same time, she wasn't able to communicate her needs to her boyfriend, a sometimes demanding and emotionally distant person. That clouded her judgment when another man showed interest in her and she wasn't honest with herself regarding her feelings and the boundary necessary in such a situation. When she confessed to her boyfriend that she had kissed him, that sent him into a self-righteous frenzy. Going home, McDiarmid illustrates the depressive mindset perfectly by drawing everyone on the bus out of self-destructive words. The present-day scenes in the hospital are bracing and awful, as they reveal the purpose of most such hospitals is to make sure you don't kill yourself and take your medication. One is lucky if one finds oneself in a hospital with truly compassionate caregivers, especially in a situation where Elena technically checked herself in. The frequently open-framed pages give the narrative a certain fluidity that's akin to the ways in which days can run into each other when experiencing depression, and how those days and details can blur. This is a bracing but humane and forgiving look at a powerfully difficult state of being, one that requires an enormous amount of work to dig out of. I'm especially interested to see in future chapters just how committed Elena becomes to the idea of getting better, the very possibility of such a thing.