Monday, March 19, 2018

Katherine Wirick's Down & Away

Katherine Wirick's long-term project has been a book about Dada artist John Heartfield. However, as she notes in this illustrated zine, her entire artistic output from 2015 were the few drawings that appear here. The reason is revealed on the first page: she committed herself to a neuropsychiatric ward because her depression had led her to suicidal ideations. Her journal of this experience, Down And Away, is at once heart-rending, hilarious and simply fascinating. As someone who has spent many hours visiting people held in such wards, every aspect of her experience there felt familiar, from the items banned for inpatients to those ubiquitous socks with gripping pads on them. Wirick is an exceptional writer, unflinchingly documenting her experience as a way of helping to create a public discourse about mental illness.

She goes into some detail about this, noting that discussing cancer publicly used to be taboo, something that seems unthinkable now in the age of valorizing cancer patients. Obviously, AIDS is another disease that used to be taboo and is still sometimes discussed in whispers in some corners. A greater awareness of mental illness and a willingness to make it part of the public discourse, but Wirick notes that it shouldn't be up to laymen to help the mentally ill. They are simply not prepared or trained to help them, not to mention that the boundary between therapist and patient is there for the therapist's sake as much as the patient. Wirick states unequivocally that only through cheap meds, easily available therapy and well-funded inpatient facilities can mental illness be dealt with. It is a matter of public health, one with clear solutions that go beyond simple platitudes.

Wirick never once sentimentalizes her experience, nor does she suffer the kind of platitudes associated with hospitalization. It wasn't the love of her husband who made her smile for the first time after she was committed, it was a joke on Spongebob Squarepants. She simultaneously refrained from killing herself because of her husband's love and regretted the decision. Love doesn't fix mental illness anymore than it does cancer or the flu. Wirick also notes that there was an intense amount of boredom in the ward but it was also difficult to get much rest, as nurses constantly came into your room (which had no locks). She vividly describes the many people she met in various states of distress and illness, as well as the oasis that occupational therapy provided for her as an artist. Above all else, her acidic wit comes through on every page; her humor isn't there so much to distract from the reality of what her situation was, but rather to affirm it. Even the title of the journal is an inside joke with herself, as Wirick is a huge baseball fan and "down and away" refers to a part of the strike zone that is especially hard to hit. And of course, she was down emotionally and put herself away. This is required reading for anyone who's ever suffered from depression or suicidal ideations.

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