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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Matthew Johnstone is an artist, writer and exhibited photographer. He has battled with depression for over 20 years. New Zealand born, he's worked in advertising in Sydney, San Francisco and New York. He lives in Sydney with his wife and daughter.
Mark Thwaite: Why did you want to write about your depression Matthew?
Matthew Johnstone: For many years I wouldn’t accept that I had depression as it didn’t fit with who I thought I was. I dealt with it by changing relationships, jobs and countries. Although these life changing remedies momentarily suspended symptoms, the depression would eventually catch up and when it did it would always be bigger than the time before. You can only continue with that kind of path for so long.
I had two distinct parts to my life, one was my public, career part where you’d never guess anything was going on, all created with enough energy to run a small nuclear reactor. Then there was the private part of me which was desperate to find answers to this Black Dog that dogged for nearly 20 years.
I trialed all sorts of different treatments from guru-land crystal gazing to traditional mental health routes. Typically I did all these things when I was in crisis and by which time it was too late anyway, it was sought of like trying to put out a big house fire with the extinguisher you keep in the laundry cupboard.
I also read a library of books trying to understand what I was going through. Although many were great the one that helped me the most was William Styron’s book Darkness Visible. This book wasn’t helpful in the ‘self-help’ sense, in fact it was down right depressing but what it did was absolutely nail what I was going through. I felt validated, authenticated and for once in my life not alone. I decided I wanted to take it one step further and illustrate it, because being a sufferer myself I had often faced the difficulty of trawling through a word heavy tome when you had the concentration of mist.
The clincher was coming very close to losing my life in the 9/11 attacks on New York. It made me realize life was very short and, that up until then, I had not been living my life ‘authentically’. I was exhausted of hiding behind a mask. I decided to take my skills from 15 years of being a creative in advertising and put them to a higher purpose of selling an idea that, for many, is a difficult one to understand.
MT: Was writing therapeutic for you?
MJ: I can honestly say that apart from marrying my wife and having our two little girls, it is by far the best thing I have ever done with my life. But the funny thing is I went through an extremely uncomfortable time just before the book was published. This, I think, was partly due to the fact that the book revealed the ‘image’ I’d spent so many years carefully cultivating to be a fraud.
I now realise there is nothing more liberating than confronting who you ‘truly’ are. I’m sure this is the same for anyone who confronts a secret such as alcoholism, gambling, drug addiction or even their sexuality. That first step towards embracing the problem is always a liberating one because you quickly realise you are not alone. It’s not to say that first step is easy BUT, if you are true to yourself and to others there are no shadows in which this dog can hide.
MT: How long did it take you to write and draw I Had A Black Dog?
MJ: A few months after 9/11, I went into the office one Saturday afternoon to storyboard some ideas I’d been kicking around on the book. What I wrote and scribbled in those four and half hours is pretty much what is published today. It was the easiest bit of creative I’d ever attempted and it was like a huge weight, a boulder, had lifted off my shoulders. But, as a psychiatrist said to me recently, ‘there was a life time of experience in that boulder’.
The finished product took about four months to illustrate.
MT: What made you decide to choose to use the graphic novel format for your book?
MJ: Because I had 15 years of advertising behind me, doing it visually was the easiest option. I also truly believe the expression that an image is worth a 1000 words. It’s not appropriate for all things but, in this case or subject matter, I think the images are much more visceral and easily absorbed than a lot of words.
I treated every page like I would treat a print ad i.e. ‘how can I communicate this as simply as possible?’ I also wanted the book to work so you didn’t even have to read the words to understand it.
MT: Have you been pleased with the responses to your book? Have you learned anything from them?
MJ: The response has been absolutely amazing and incredibly humbling. I never claimed to have the answers but, what I’ve since realised with this little book, is that it acts as a drawbridge for people to be able to say: ‘this is what’s going on for me and this is what I need you to understand.’
It has also proved to be a good tool for people in the mental health industry as a way of getting patients to open up. There is something about having your feelings validated by someone else’s experiences that makes it OK and easier to talk about your own.
I think one of the reasons the book has been received well is because it’s not written by an armchair general but rather a struggler from the trenches.
Through letters and emails I am amazed at other peoples’ insights and understanding, much of which has come though their own journey. I feel really privileged to have these stories shared with me.
I’ve also come to realize that all people want is a voice and to be authenticated. Although our experiences may all vary the lyrics are always the same.
MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
MJ: I write broad stroke thoughts, then storyboard those ideas, then go back and write till it’s right.
And how do you illustrate: draw or paint or use technology?
I draw in pencil (HB and 2B), then scan the images and colour them in photoshop.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing/drawing?
MJ: If I’m not working on new book projects I’m either, freelancing in advertising, taking photographs or being with friends and family.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your “ideal” reader? Did you write specifically for them?
MJ: In the instance of I had a Black Dog I basically wrote for me. I wrote what I thought I’d like to find in a book store if I was going through depression (which I was). Anything else I write is purely tapped from my own experience, I always think if it doesn’t write or draw itself it can’t be true or it’s not quite right.
MT: What are you working on now?
MJ: I’m currently working on three different book projects but the one that is the most pressing is the follow up to I Had a Black Dog which I am creating with my wife Ainsley (yet to be titled).
It will be the same format as I Had a Black Dog but targeted towards the partner, friend, parent, teacher, employer and caregiver of someone who has depression.
People who have any form of major illness, be it physical or mental, are always the centre of their immediate universe and the people who look after them or live with them are the ones trying to keep everything together. They have to deal with the illness itself, the pain, the sadness, the oss, foul moods, overseeing medication, keeping spirits up and so on.
Through interviews, research, insight and experience from our mine and Ainsley’s relationship, the new book will offer a road map on how to navigate any kind of relationship when going through a depressive illness – from what you may have noticed in someone, to what not to say, what to do, how to do it, and how the caregiver can take steps to fortify and protect themselves.
MT: Who is your favourite writer/artist? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
MJ: The Fountainhead by Anne Rand, Perfume by Patrick Suskind, (recently) The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Ian McKewan & Iain Banks.
Visually: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Jimmy Corrigan and anything Michael Leunig.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
MJ: Create what feels natural, write from a place of truth (even if it is fiction) and, if you really believe in what you’re doing, you’ll get there in the end. Remember that publishing companies are made up of people with opinions and their opinions are not always right. If your work is good it will find the right home.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
MJ: If you want to know anymore please go to my website: ihadablackdog.com
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