Interview by Dalton Sharp
Hospitalized for over a year at Toronto’s notoriously dreary Queen Street Mental Hospital, cartoonist Sarafin coped by drawing. At first she filled notebooks with scribbles, but she began to get her creative groove back, creating a comic strip series based on characters she’d developed in high school.
The manga-styled heroines of Asylum Squad struggle with everything from flaming horse head demons to talking plants…and always their own sanity. Though fictional, much of the strip’s insight comes from first-hand experience.
Is it painful writing this strip?
It was actually very liberating when I was in the hospital writing it. It was my only way of really expressing myself without fear of being oppressed in any way by the staff.
Some of it is pretty raw.
I was at 1001 Queen for quite a while because I was so ill that I was completely detached from the world around me and I didn’t know how to relate and ended up on a schizophrenic unit.
My diagnosis was schizoaffective disorder…it’s like schizophrenia with a better prognosis for recovery.
I’m of the mind a label is just a label, its not like a diagnosis of cancer where you can actually see the illness. I treat it like I treat the fact that I’m a Taurus, it’s a way of classifying me, but it doesn’t mean it will always be that way.
But that’s why I was there. I was completely plagued with delusions, hallucinations and voices. And I kinda lost my ability to draw for a while, so it was also my way of getting back creatively.
What’s the feedback been?
I have fans who are doctors, who are psych survivors, and who are happily consuming pills. I have fans from all different areas in the mental health field.
Doctors have particularly liked the fact that it’s an accurate depiction of what it’s like to be psychotic. Most people hear the word psychotic and they assume it means Charles Manson or somebody who’s violent or bloodthirsty.
Psychosis means losing touch with reality, so it’s like you’re in your own little world. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to hurt anybody, but that’s the stereotype of it.
The mental hospital you were in is now being torn down and redesigned…
Because if you’ve ever seen the inside, especially the wards, it literally looks like a jail. It does. It’s cinder block everywhere, there are bars on the…
How old is it?
There was a hospital on the grounds, and the first name of it was the Ontario Lunatic Asylum since the late 1800’s.
There’s a lot of history on that site. And if you believe in ghosts there’s probably a lot of haunted stuff there too. The wall that surrounds the grounds was actually built by patients. They didn’t get paid for their work. They were told it was therapy. Bullshit! It was labour. They should have been paid.
Did you check yourself in, or was it forced?
When I first went in I was basically forced because they can step in after a certain point and basically commit you, but I was waiting for housing, so I actually chose to stay for longer than I should have despite hating it.
I was just dying to get out of there. Finally an apartment came up. Unfortunately it was shared, but it was like being in Heaven! It was like, ‘oh my God! I get to stay up past nine!’
I’m doing my own dishes and loving it! It was weird.
How did your involvement with Mad Pride come about?
Mad Pride started in the ‘90s when a bunch of psychiatric survivors said we’re proud of who we are.
Some people think Mad Pride is all about anti-psychiatry, and there is a degree of that, people who believe the whole practice should be abolished, but it’s more about empowering people with psychiatric difficulties.
Celebrating parts of madness that can be good… the creativity that comes from madness…
MAD Pride is there to say that psychiatry is not the end all and be all. It’s certainly not an exact science. It’s a time of the year for people to get together and support the movement and say I’m mad and I’m a proud human being. There’s nothing wrong with that.
And there’s a parade?
Yeah, there’s a march in Parkdale. A lot of us dress up. I dress up like Harley Quinn from Batman. The joke is that the Batman villains are escaping Arkham, which is Queen Street. They’re the most fun part of the Batman universe. We push a bed down the street symbolically escaping an oppressive environment.
So what is the ideal system? What would it look like if you ruled Canada?
I don’t really have an official opinion. It’s just that certain things bother me. I’m am very bothered by the concept of CTO’s, Community Treatment Orders, which is when you can force people to take drugs. They come to your house, and I’ve actually had to deal with that back in 2007, because they convinced my Dad that I needed it. They can force drugs on you.
I’m not completely anti-medication. I’ve been helped by medication, but I also feel I’ve been harmed. When I was on antidepressants I think it might have contributed to my current disorder. Had I found another way to deal with the issues I had, I might not have ever been psychotic.
Do you think that characters like the Joker and those types of villains do damage to the perception of mental illness?
There are people who would say yes. Personally I like to have fun with some of the imagery. I have a straightjacket. I wear it at Mad Pride. Some people see it as a symbol of oppression. I see it as a symbol of rebellion because it’s taking something negative and turning it into a gag, and that’s the way I view it. I’m a bit more lighthearted.
Your characters, they’re at war with their own villains… demons, in some cases literally…
When I wrote Liz I wasn’t writing a schizophrenic character. I was writing a character genuinely attacked by a spirit, which I believe in, and which I believe was part of my illness. I believe my condition was half and half. I was probably both chemically off and spiritually affected.
People argue against that. I’ve certainly met tons of people, doctors especially, who are like, ‘yeah whatever’, but they didn’t go through it.
Did you read comics when you were a kid?
Oh yeah, nothing terribly brilliant though.
A lot of cheese?
I still really like Garfield. I don’t know why everyone is always shitting on Garfield! It’s probably because I had a big fat orange cat when I was growing up, so I think you have to be a cat person to appreciate Garfield, because the joke is cats are assholes…and he’s such an asshole.
Your stuff reminds me a lot of early 70’s Vampirella, Creepy and stuff. Man, I wish I still had those issues!
Oh God, yeah! In high school I was really into manga and anime just like every other person my age. Now not so much, but you can still see the heavy influence in my art because I really like drawing that style. It’s very expressive and perfect for the kind of emotions I’m dealing with.
A teacher told me my art reminded him of S. Clay Wilson. I looked him up, and I was like, ‘oh my God! This guy is a pervert. Holy shit!’
Are you tapping into something beyond this world?
I feel like the best way to describe it is… I do feel like other parts of my brain became active ever since I started talking to what I believe is a spirit.
It’s like going from drawing a picture to doing a mathematical calculation. It doesn’t feel like you’re using the same logic. It’s like that with some of the experiences I had.
At one point I was able to allow something to take over my hand and write through me, and it’s in a stream of consciousness that’s not my own. And its volatile, and I think it’s a negative spirit.
I feel there’s a part of my brain that’s probably not active in most people in this part of the world. I didn’t know how to deal with it, and only now am I starting to get more alternative treatment. For many years everyone was giving me drugs, which can quiet the voices, but it doesn’t get rid of them. In my case it didn’t.
And is this spirit frightening or is it giving creativity?
I first started talking to it through a makeshift Ouija Board, which anyone can make. You just write down letters and numbers, and then get something to use as a mover. I was using it by myself and there was this violent force dragging under my fingers. It was like somebody was taking my finger and pulling it. It wasn’t just inching over – this was violent!
It was pulling my arm and it hooked me in, because it was saying the most hilarious stuff. Spelling out stuff about the Dalai Lama appearing in so-and-so’s sleep dressed by like a rabbit, and I was like, what the fuck is this? I just couldn’t believe it, so I was hooked on it.
I just did this everyday. Every book I’ve read about this stuff, you don’t just get sick like that, you have to do it consistently and talk and talk and talk and then it fuses itself to your spirit and then it can affect your mind, and it’s another way of going crazy.
If you’re going to call me schizoaffective sure, but I think I got mad because of spirituality more than anything else.
It’s a curse?
That’s a term I don’t really like to use.
It sounds like it’s some ancient Egyptian thing. It’s more like an unwanted backseat driver who’s constantly steering. I’ve had some pretty profound experiences that I feel defy normal science.
If only people who don’t believe me had been there to witness maybe it would change their attitude. I really did see a flaming horse head talking to me from the wall.
I get a lot of grief from talking about this stuff, a lot of slack for believing these things, but you know what? It has enriched my life. It has made the world more fascinating.