Trigger Warning: This essay will discuss depression, feelings of desire to die, and suicidal ideation.
For much of my adult life, in varying degrees of intensity, I have felt like dying. Pinpointing the exact place and time that these feelings started seems like a futile exercise. Still, I can confidently say that, when it started, I was being bullied in school, I had recently had a significant loss in my family, and based on the national statistics, I was uncharacteristically young. I remember standing in the family mud room, putting on overalls and muck boots, and asking a pretty simple question. “Would anyone really miss me if I was gone?” The answer, as I trudged down the dirt road from my home to the farmstead where I was required to do regular chores before the school bus came was always the same. “Probably. Who would end up doing all of this work?” That was the beginning, but it wasn’t the end.
I’m in a better place now. I haven’t always been in that place over the course of the pandemic, but that’s the way things go. Depression is a disease that has an ebb and flow. Finding the services, resources, techniques, medicines, and people that will help you stay on track is a difficult journey in the best of times, and, realistically, the last 2.5 years have not been the “best of times.” When you’re struggling, treading water can feel like a major accomplishment, and even the people in your life with the best of intentions can end up doing more damage than they realize.
This is the situation where we find Clara, the main character in Mirion Malle’s This is How I Disappear. A poet working as a part-time marketing assistant for a book publisher, Clara constantly struggles with thoughts of dying. In an introductory scene, Clara sits on the couch with a seal-faced therapist who stares blankly at her while she recounts her first memories of wanting to die, and, in the same breath, Clara equivocates about the seriousness of her thoughts while the therapist stares at her like a department store mannequin. She recounts an episode of disassociation that led to her current episode of major depression, and her figure, drawn in pitch black with enormous cat eyes, looks out at the reader and says, “maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to die.”
On the following page, we see Clara laughing with a pair of her friends telling them that she’s dumped her therapist for not being helpful; both tell her that they’re “worried” about her, and they offer “helpful tips” for getting to the front of the line for mental health, while it’s clear that neither of them has ever accessed mental healthcare. I bring up this moment because it exemplifies two of Mirion Malle’s major strengths as a storyteller. Malle has this tendency to allow the pressure of the narrative of This is How I Disappear to build and build slowly. As a reader, you’re the unwitting frog in the proverbial pot of slowly heating water, until everything suddenly becomes far too much to handle all at once — you’re metaphorically boiling alive. The scene where Clara describes in detail her mental health struggles to a person who is supposed to help her and support her and does nothing is the first of many examples of scenes in this vein. In contrast, there are other times where, as a reader, you have the jarring sense that your marbles have just been rattled around in the glass bowl of your head, and things are dangerously close to cracking. Call it whiplash, or just a clever page turn; Malle understands how to turn up and down the dials at the precise moments to achieve narrative tension.
Despite her desperate circumstances, Clara does a pretty remarkable job of helping others. She acts as the designated driver for her friends to a party outside of the city and helps a friend of a friend come out of a panic attack. That girl, Amélie, goes on to seek out Clara whenever she is having a rough time mentally, further draining Clara’s own fragile resources. She prioritizes the work of others, she skips lunch to work on projects for her exploitative and demeaning boss, and she neglects her own self-care and creative process. You wouldn’t be wrong to read a political leaning behind these plot points; Malle is, of course, the author of The League of Super Feminists, also published by Drawn & Quarterly.
These impulses start to catch up with Clara over the course of the book. Her depression worsens, and the techniques which normally work to help her make it through the day just don’t seem to do the trick anymore. She begins to have panic attacks of her own which become more frequent over time, and her friends disappear when she doesn’t have the energy to come out to a party for Halloween. All of this is relatively understated; Clara never has any major crises, just one long and intensifying downward spiral that others have difficulty seeing or understanding. Clara is likewise stymied; how can you explain an emptiness that fills everything?
Malle’s cartooning in This is How I Disappear is subtle; her linework is buoyant and detailed, and, unlike her previous book The League of Super Feminists which dealt mostly with block colors and simple illustrations, Malle has worked hard to make a “thinky” comic read intuitively. The resulting 208 pages are a wonder. The pain in Clara’s face, her exhaustion as the book continues, the little changes in her posture — all of it stacks up over time and makes it easy for the reader to see the cumulative effect that Clara’s depression has had on her physical health. When things reach their nadir, Clara’s face disappears completely. We also see the apprehension and misunderstanding in the faces of her friends; the body language of people at parties and the intricately illustrated office setting of her publishing office. Her line in this work is excellent, as is her panel design, which is often fractured, emphasizing her strained mental state; both show her solid intuition as a cartoonist.
Late in the book, Clara’s good friend Rose invites herself over to Clara’s with food and then absconds with her to a friend’s and surprises her with a surprise party. This final scene finally allows Malle to unravel the narrative thread that she has been hinting at throughout the comic, and reveals one of the major contributors to Clara’s depression. It’s a remarkably poignant and harrowing scene, but it allows Clara the chance to finally “get the poison out” and scream her rage into the world while someone who actually cares (and cares to listen) is in the room. It’s a small bit of catharsis, and, for a narrative that feels like it’s sinking into a tarpit, it’s a release that is both needed and welcome.
In one of Clara’s poems, she writes, “Will I finally thaw out / in the spring?” It’s the classic question, and it’s a question I’ve asked myself — will I ever be able to come back to life? Will I ever be done with this? Will I ever be able to be who I was, or even a part of who I was before I started breaking into a million pieces? In This is How I Disappear Mirion Malle has constructed a poignant and heartfelt story that reveals the experience of living with depression, and the hope of stepping out of it.