The tiny town of White River Junction, Vermont, is home to two big institutions: the White River Junction VA Medical Center and the Center for Cartoon Studies.
Historically, the veterans and cartoonists haven’t had much to do with each other. But a few years ago, James Sturm, the director of the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS), decided that they should start.
During his time at the VA, Sturm discovered that comics are a powerful medium for working with post-traumatic stress disorder, in particular.
“PTSD is the inability to integrate past and present, which has a devastating effect on the future,” Sturm said. But comics help people literally visualize time, so they can help veterans break down complex histories into manageable chunks.
“Each panel is a discrete unit of time,” he elaborates. “And when you put 8, 9, 10 panels on a page, you’re integrating the past, present, and future into a ... whole.”
Last fall, Sturm gathered a group of cartooning students and veterans and encouraged them to collaborate on a volume of oral histories.
“When I Returned” is the resulting book, and it visually demonstrates the disorienting experience of PTSD, as well as the ways the past and the present collide in every moment.
In the opening story, cartoonist Jeff Lok shows us in six simple panels how PTSD works:
Although cartoonist and veteran Mike Rodriguez hasn’t been diagnosed with PTSD, he also lives with the daily reminders of his time in Iraq.
His story is in the book, too:
In his comic, which he drew himself, images of Fallujah are the constant backdrop to his everyday life in New Hampshire. They linger in the background as he socializes, works as a librarian, and draws at his drafting table.
Every panel communicates the disorientation of moving from a military to a civilian life.
The heart of the book is “Kevin’s Story,” a deeply intimate account of a man’s sexual assault and recovery.
Kevin’s trauma occurred off the battlefield, after he returned from Germany to small-town New Hampshire. On New Year’s Eve 1981, he was raped by a group of strangers in a snowy field. He went home, burned his clothes, and kept his story a secret for the next three decades.
For these men, comics were a powerful part of their healing processes.
Kevin's therapist was using a technique called prolonged exposure therapy, in which he tells his story over and over again to become desensitized to it. And even though he’d told it to her dozens of times, until he sat down with comic students J.D. Lunt and Kelly Swann, he’d never told anybody else.
“I was watching them and looking at their eyes and wondering how they were going to tell [my] story,” he remembered. “I get really worried about what people are going to think and what they’re going to say. But the feedback and response has been unreal. Nobody looks down on me, nobody thinks any different about me, people are saying how proud they are that I shared my story.”
It’s a profound relief for him that his story is out there and he can’t go back into hiding. “It gets lighter and easier all the time,” he says.
Chaplain and cartoonist Kurt F. Shaffert is volunteering at the White River Junction VA and practicing what he calls process cartooning, a system he developed during his eight years working at the Connecticut VA.
During his 15-minute visits with patients, he uses stick figures to help them access what's on their mind quickly and effectively. He finds that when he asks veterans to narrate stick figures, they can “express the inexpressible.”
Comics, Shaffert believes, are the language we need when we talk about war experiences because they’re physical and visual and funny and tragic and profound all at the same time.
“Extraordinary experiences require extraordinary language,” he said.
“Anybody who’s experienced PTSD has experienced things that are outside of everyday experience. ... In order to be able to process events that are traumatic, you need to find ... a form of communication that deals with the immature, the impolite, the gross, the grotesque, the obnoxious, the obscene."
Although researchers haven’t yet studied the effectiveness of comics for treating PTSD, it’s similar to other methods like art therapy and narrative therapy, which are already being used successfully with veterans.
Clinicians and staff members at the White River Junction VA are enthusiastic about this project and excited about future collaborations and the healing potential of cartooning. They hope other VA centers will start using comics for good, too.
Maybe starting to heal can be as simple as drawing a stick figure in a hospital room on an ordinary white piece of paper.