Kaye Blegvad gets it, and she wants you to know it does get better. The Brooklyn-based illustrator just completed her first book, Dog Years, which depicts a young girl growing up while training a black dog — a metaphor for depression. The work began as a simple slideshow of drawings, but after receiving an abundance of applause and thank-you-for-understandings, the project continued to snowball. Now, Blegvad's Dog Years is available for purchase online, and she even designed a mural featured outside NYC's Tictail Market.
The artist wrote Dog Years in hopes that her experiences and learnings may help a handful of individuals. Depression and anxiety are often considered the common cold of mental illnesses, so inevitably, Blegvad's story already touched many. Illustrating a simple interpretation of depression, the artist creates not only a safe space to talk about it all, but also a tool that helps others to understand its nature.
So, is it possible to minimize the isolating effects of mental illness through artistic expression? Read ahead to learn what Blegvad thinks.
Lonny: How did Dog Years come to fruition?
Kaye Blegvad: I originally created the works for a series of talks being held with a society of illustrators. For this specific talk, we were focusing on survival. I was thinking through the topic and wondering how I want to approach it, and what aspect of my life I wanted to talk about. I saw it as an opportunity to be a little more serious. I haven’t massively discussed the subject in public or in my work, so my initial thought was, "Well this is scary!"
Absolutely. Where did you find the courage to share?
KB: A lot of that courage comes from where I am in my process right now and how I’m doing with it. I was coming out of a hard time and the depression lifted — I think that's when you can really can gain perspective. From the other side, you can see so clearly how it lies to you. Depression tells you that you’re the only one that feels this way. It manipulates you into thinking there's no point in talking about it, because it won’t help.
But, when it lifts, you’re like, "What was I thinking?!" I felt like I had just clawed out of it, and I wanted to remember the revelation — the realization that depression only tricks you into thinking this is forever, that this is what your life is like, this is the real you. It has a very convincing and unpleasant argument. But, in the end, it's never right. I wanted to hold onto the clarity I find when it all lifts a little bit.
How did you land upon the metaphor of the black dog?
KB: Depression's nature can be mean, stupid, and childish. So, the story is told through a metaphor in order to accurately convey its behavior. The metaphor of the black dog representing darkness is an old Roman idiom. I took that, and then told a story about owning the dog and learning to train it, work with it, and understand it. There are moments where it's really scary and violent, but if you figure out the best way to talk it down and correct it, you can become friends.
What did you hope to achieve through writing the story and sharing it with an audience?
KB: I don’t think I had terribly grand ambitions at first. The first time I shared it, it was a slideshow presentation to 100 people. I thought, "Maybe this will be a presentation I give other people." I hope that it might — even if on a small scale — remind the reader of the way out, and that it is possible to find a way out!
I also like that the story is a metaphor for any struggle. For me it's very much about depression, but it can be insecurity, body dysmorphia, or OCD. I think that's why it resonated with so many people. After the presentation, a lot of people said they were really touched by it. They asked me to write it down so that they could reread it, and that meant a lot to me.
What has been the most fulfilling part of this process?
KB: The thing that's been amazing, and a totally new experience, is the way people reach out me about Dog Years. I've received hundreds emails from people saying it helped them understand someone close to them, or understand their own depression. The story is a loose metaphor, so there's room for filling in the blank.
I certainly don’t think of myself as a therapist or someone who knows how to do this, but I do know that being open and honest has been really special. Some messages have been heartbreaking, and it's a huge honor to receive those messages.
Do you think that storytelling and art have the ability to de-stigmatize mental illness?
KB: Whether it's generational or cultural, there is a shift happening. I feel lucky that I’m in a circle of creative people who have related experiences or are fairly open minded. It's been a while since I last felt like it's something I need to hide — I remember what it felt like to pretend like everything is fine or to be embarrassed about taking anti-depressants, and I do see a new level of willingness to ask for help or accept therapy. Maybe my perspective is unique because I'm surrounded by such an open community. I hope, on a larger scale, expression and art are making room in other communities to for more discussions.
There's another side of the stigma too, though. There's always a moment with a new friend or in a new relationship, in which you wonder when is the right time to talk about whatever you struggle with. I think that's the part — the internal stigma — that can be harder to shed.
Is social media opening doors for more discussions around mental illness?
KB: The issue with social media is that everyone is posting about their good days. If we're able to be a little bit more honest or follow people who are more open, then maybe we can dispel the illusion that everything is easy for everyone besides ourselves.
On the other hand, I owe most of my career and the work that I get to social media, because it offers the opportunity to connect with people you might not meet otherwise. And, while on the subject of connecting, I think people can improve if they can connect. I don’t know to what extent they can improve, but it certainly helps.
For depression, there's a lot of long-term work and internal reflection to do. I feel helped by artwork and sharing my experiences, but it's harder to do those things when you're really depressed because the world is completely zoomed out and you don't even care. So, the answer is yes and no. If you can get lost in something and forget how miserable you felt, that's a valuable step in finding the little ways through, to help you do the long-term work. Certainly art and poetry help me do that. There is something there, and it's easier now more than ever to find a moment of escape.
What advice would you give to anyone learning to cope with their own struggles, and trying to find light or creativity on the other side of it all?
KB: Be kinder to yourself. If you have 10 good days, and one bad day, that single day can make it feel like all those good days were for nothing. If you can be a little more forgiving of yourself and the moments when you're not doing as well as you'd like, it helps massively in getting to a regular, even place.
If I have a bad day, I can spiral so much about the fact that I’m having a bad day that I'll land in another one. But, if I can take those harder moments and remind myself it's ok, rather than pushing myself to get over it, I can rebound. Be generous with knowing yourself and what you need, and acknowledge your successes. That in itself is pretty huge.
Find Kaye Blegved's Dog Years and mural at New York's Tictail Market, or purchase a copy here.
For more on psychology and design, check out The Psychology Of What's Inside Your Home.