Today is World Mental Health day, a day for education, awareness and advocacy, and that’s where Howie Noel’s story comes in. There are more than 30,000 members living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder on PatientsLikeMe, and it’s for people like these, people like him, that Noel wrote his semi-autobiographic illustrated memoir, Float. We recently sat down with him to talk about his book and how it came to be.
When art imitates life
Float is told from the perspective of three characters who act as symbols for Noel’s personality. The book follows the story of main character, David, and his experience living with generalized anxiety disorder. David has lost jobs and lovers, but the one constant in his life has always been Anxiety, and when his wife leaves him, he asks Anxiety to take over.
Noel, a comic illustrator based in New Jersey, wrote and illustrated the book and draws material from his own experience living with generalized anxiety disorder. “In Float, anxiety begins as an inner voice that offers advice. That advice is not helpful but it’s comforting because it’s coming from my mind. Unfortunately, a lot of anxiety’s ideas are harmful and dangerous.” Noel says that throughout the book, one of the main struggles is to fight the urge to give in to anxiety’s most harmful suggestions. “Dealing with anxiety, you have to recognize that these thoughts are bad ideas and often irrational. Anxiety deals in fear and uses your mind as a weapon. You have to stay strong and fight back using your willpower.”
So, how does an illustrator with anxiety draw it as a character? We’ve often seen the condition depicted as a dark scribble or a monster, but Noel took a different approach. Anxiety is played by an alluring and charismatic rock star who is fighting for David’s undivided attention. “Anxiety wants to be the only friend you have,” Noel says of the character, “It’s an abusive and dangerous relationship because anxiety really wants me to be alone.”
Reflecting through words
The process of creating Float was more than just work, Noel says. “While working on Float I discovered a lot about my history with anxiety,” he said. “Creating the book urged me to reflect on moments in my past where anxiety caused me pain. It helped me discover how I let it control me and how I’d give in when I should’ve been fighting back.” Noel shared one of his earliest memories of experiencing anxiety, one that he didn’t even realized was anxiety-related until undertaking this endeavor. “One of the things that stands out most to me is discovering that my first anxiety attack occurred in first grade. I was being tested for the gifted class and according to the test-giver I started hyperventilating. As a result, I couldn’t finish the test. Looking back, I now realize this was an anxiety attack caused by the fear of the test and the time limit I was under. Unfortunately, the test-giver wasn’t able to recognize what was happening and, since then, we’ve all learned more about mental health and generalized anxiety disorder.”
Pairing language with music
For this creative project, Noel collaborated with friend and musician Victor Guest, who recorded a sound track to accompany the book. “With Float, I wanted to create a true art project that would give the viewer a special experience,” Noel said. “I’ve been friends with Victor for a long time and I’ve always been a fan of his music. I knew that he could help bring Float’s message to a new level by using music to express its story. It’s a way to help further spread the message about a battle with anxiety.”
Understanding life with anxiety
While Noel wrote this book for himself and those living with anxiety, he also wrote it for those who aren’t, who have no understanding of life with the condition and the challenges that come with it. His vibrant illustrations and descriptions offer some insight into what people with generalized anxiety disorder experience daily. “Many sadly believe that people who suffer from it are weak when, in fact, it’s the opposite. It takes true strength to continue on once you learn you can’t trust your own thoughts.”
Noel will be debuting the book at New York Comic Con and plans to release it on World Mental Health Day, October 10th. By speaking publicly about his diagnosis, he hopes to raise awareness and fight back against the stigma so often attached with the condition. “We have to talk about it and share lessons. We need to acknowledge that anxiety doesn’t have to drown us. We can float.”
To find out more about Howie Noel and Float, check out his interactive website, where you can also find links to social media to connect with Howie Noel directly.
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