Lydia Suffield
September 22, 2015 2:04 pm

“Can you tell me what it looks like?” asks my therapist, while I trace the pencil over the blank sheet of paper. “Maybe if you give it a name?”

She’s talking about anxiety, about OCD — the thing that lives inside my brain, that my therapist is encouraging me to see as something separate from myself. It’s something that’s technically a part of me, but that seemed so determined to mess up my life that it might as well have been any kind of outside enemy.

Eventually, I settled on describing it as “metal” — nothing to do with the music genre and more to do with the fact that it felt completely immovable. It didn’t contribute hugely to my treatment, but it did give me something that felt more concrete to fight against, rather than feeling I was just fighting against myself.

Mental illness is often referred to as “a monster in the mind” — now, artist Toby Allen has taken that imagery one step further, with a project entitled Real Monsters. He produces visual drawings that represent various mental health disorders, a project that began when, struggling with his own anxiety disorder, he created a monster in order to have a visual representation of his illness.

As well as giving his anxiety an image, he also created a short summary of the creature he’d invented, outlining its key weapons and weaknesses, in the style of a storybook monster. When he received support and encouragement from his friends, he extended the project to include other destructive mental illnesses.

Now, Toby, a freelance illustrator, has developed his portraits of the illnesses into the Real Monsters project, in which he thoroughly researches an illness before transforming it into a creature using his artistic skills and writing a summary of the monster’s most effective weapons — as well as detailing the best methods to use to defend oneself. He plans to turn the Real Monsters project into a book in 2016, and currently has many more designs planned for various mental health disorders.

It’s tough to explain how difficult it can be to conceptualize mental illness, to completely understand the condition that you’re battling against. By its very name, mental illness is something that is created in your own mind, it’s a part of your brain and that idea can make treatment and therapy (which is already complicated enough) even more difficult.

Having a visual representation — an actual, concrete image of the thing you are fighting — can help to give a boost to people who perhaps have been feeling lost when it comes to how to interpret their illness. The illustration of the illness as a different species, something separate, can be a reminder that just because the illness is a part of you doesn’t mean it defines you.

The idea of using fairytale or story imagery to help people deal with illnesses isn’t entirely new; there’s evidence in stories as far back as Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen (which you might recognize — it was the basis for a little film called Frozen) that could be interpreted as the representations of various illnesses that were unlikely to have been understood at the time. Fairytale imagery goes back through the years; it’s why so many children love fantasy stories, where kids mentally battle against the monsters which may be figments of the author’s imagination, but can help a young child to believe that they, too, may be able to tackle their own everyday fears. The Real Monsters Project may help people suffering from mental illness to feel the same way.

But a key aspect of the Real Monsters Project is that it can give those who don’t suffer from mental illness a more accurate picture of the plight of those who do. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. No matter how empathetic someone is, it can be difficult enough for people suffering from mental illness to articulate what it’s like to feel anxious or depressed, let alone for a non-sufferer to understand. Toby’s pictures can say, far more quickly and succinctly, what can be so hard to put into words — the sheer strength of the illness and how impossible it can feel to fight against.

We live in a world that is gradually developing more and more of an understanding of mental illness, both the symptoms and the causes. But when it’s difficult to describe what it’s like to live with a mental illness, day in, day out, that’s when pictures like Toby Allen’s make a difference. They can give the people who don’t suffer from these illnesses an idea of what life is like for those who do. They can give the people who live with these illnesses every day a visual representation of what they battle each day, a sense of power against the illness and most importantly, a reminder that they’re not alone.

I’d like to thank Toby for being generous enough to give us permission to use these images of his work! If you want to check out Toby’s artwork, you can find him on Tumblr at ZestyDoesThings.

(Images via Toby Allen, used with the artist’s permission.)

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