Cultural Narratives, Graphic Novels, Mental Health, Nerd Culture

How a Graphic Novel Helped me Cope with Clutter

There’s nothing like coming home to find the doorway blocked by five bicycles. I’m not a fan of walking sideways like a crab but I’ve done it regularly because I have to if I want to get inside my home. I’m a millennial living in the two bedroom apartment I grew up in. I do this because my beloved job – which I’m lucky to have – is part-time and pays minimum wage. I’ve crunched the numbers and I can’t make rent, pay back my student loan, and eat too.

“But what’s up with the bicycles?” you ask. Well, everyone in my family, myself included, has multiple hobbies and side projects. Repairing and selling old bicycles on Craigslist is one the more lucrative projects, so the bikes are here to stay. The result, when combined with our mountains of reading material and rescued furniture waiting to be repaired, is a state of constant chaos. Living surrounded by a dozen or so bikes, bike parts, repair tools, stacks of magazines, and piles of papers was normal for me until I went away for school. You can’t know that your normal isn’t other people’s normal until you have something to compare it to.

I love possessions as much as the next person. As a nerd I’m acutely aware how much nerd culture is about stuff. You want to show the world what you love so you buy the shirt that features the game/movie/show/comic symbol on it. This year’s merch will let everyone know you were at a particular festival or convention. Fashion speaks and nerd fashion does so loud and clear: This is what I love. This is who I am.

Household possessions are much the same. I like this fact: one look at my room and you know what you’re dealing with. My book shelves tell you things about me. The art on my walls tells you where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to. On my shelves are a few of my favourite things.

Everything in my room says something about me. What does a cluttered house say? Far too much.

In the graphic novel Bad Houses, by Sara Ryan and Carla Speed McNeil, every item piled around the protagonists’ hoarder house holds a memory. Danica struggles to hold onto the life she once had – the time when her husband was alive and when her daughter Anne was a child – and the things that remind her of happier times. Her memories physically invade the house and her hoarding reveals deep emotional pain.

Anne feels like their accumulated possessions are all speaking to her at once, whether she wants to hear them or not. This pains her, making her long for space of her own. When Danica hides some of the hoard in Anne’s room, to create an illusion of order for a house guest, Anne is reduced to tears. I imagine I’d feel the same way if my personal living space were taken from me.

Privacy Meme

Hands up everyone who knows this feel.


The millennial generation knows too well the need for a room of one’s own and the ache of lacking privacy. Many of my friends have lamented over not having any truly private space while living in their family homes. But when your parents are paying the rent, they don’t see problem with walking through your space to see if you left the window open or to retrieve a sock that made its way into your drawer. Logically they have a point, but the feeling of violation is almost physically painful.

The pain of losing privacy is second only to the pain of being surrounded by too much stuff. A heavily cluttered space is exhausting to look at. Too many textures, shapes, things can all come together and overwhelm your eyes. I find I’m anxious if I’m surrounded by too many things or if I have too little room to move. Different people respond to their environments in different ways, but hoarding draws out a visceral reaction.

My physical reasons for being unhappy around clutter are pretty obvious. Reading Bad Houses made me understand the emotional reasons for my clutter-anxiety: the things that clutter the main living spaces of the apartment aren’t mine and neither are the stories they tell. I worry that the stuff will creep into my room and start to influence the self-expressive space I’ve curated for myself. Like Anne, I hear and see more stories than I can manage whenever I’m surrounded by my family’s things. I can only handle so many memories, or so much information, at a time.

I’m not alone in worrying. My Mom was thrilled when I built her a little bookshelf out of old wine boxes. I did this thinking we’d free up space elsewhere, not thinking about how a collection of books reflect on the owner. When her books were on the shelf, she said she felt like her soul was suddenly bared there in the living room – and I knew exactly what she meant. By trying to help her I accidentally stomped on her sense of privacy.

Living with my family is a work-in-progress. It won’t be forever, but while I’m with my folks we’ll have to take turns filling the space we live in. And if all the things get too invasive, I’ll always have a book to hide in.

Bad Houses can be found here.

Bad Movies, Mental Health

I Tried to Watch a Teen Movie

Spoiler alert: This teen movie watching attempt didn’t pan out

By “teen movie” I mean a movie that claims to be about teens, and teen-issues. In general, Hollywood and I remember teenage life very differently. A Mother’s Nightmare takes that skewed perception of the adolescent years to deeply disturbing places, and not because of the movie’s villainous “seductive teen” girl who’s out to murder her sweet, innocent boyfriend.

This is a Lifetime TV movie I’m talking about so many will argue that trying to watch this film was a bad plan. They are correct. The best thing about bad movies is that they give us something to bitch about. But this movie was spectacularly bad for a surprising reason: it is an example of a missed opportunity.

(Trigger warning for the following discussion of slut-shaming, murder, suicide, and “craziness”.)

The movie itself revolves around a slut-shaming portrayal of a teenage girl – she’s “seductive” – as if we didn’t have enough narratives, fictional and cultural, that cast teenaged girls as dangerously promiscuous. I would dearly love it if we could all let go of the Highly Sexual and Evil Woman trope gather dust and decay like the archaic throw-back it is. I live in hope.

The premise of the movie is that Vanessa, a mentally unstable ward of the state, is being foisted on unsuspecting foster parents and a naïve student body. This a slap in the face to both social workers and foster parents – people who do very emotionally demanding work while going unrecognized for it. As Vanessa’s past comes to light, many characters describe her as “crazy”. At best, this use of “crazy” is the sign of a writer with a very weak vocabulary. At worst it’s reductive and shaming.

However, despite all of the above bile the movie does have a genuinely important problem at its core. The teenage boy, Chris, is in an abusive relationship with Vanessa and his friends and family slowly become aware of this fact. Vanessa encourages Chris to do unsafe things he did not do before (heavy underage drinking), monopolizes his time, isolates him from his friends and family, urges him into quite the sport he loved, manipulates him into staying with her when he tries to break up, and spreads poisonous rumours about him to control him. These behaviours are all emotional abusive.

Stories are about conflict and an abusive relationship is a legitimate source of conflict for all involved. And this is an important story because it touches a very real problem that can have disasterous consequences. Abusive and/or manipulative partners can be hard to recognize, and in many cases they do in fact suffer from mental health problems themselves. This blog points out some unhealthy and controlling behaviours and reminds us that suffering from poor mental health is NEVER an excuse to mistreat your significant other – or anyone else for that matter. It is important that we tell stories about unhealthy relationships so that we can learn to recognize healthy ones. A Mother’s Nightmare could have been the start of a conversation.

Instead, all this potential is sadly buried under a mile of misinformation and prejudice about mental illness. The writers of A Mother’s Worst Nightmare spectacularly and catastrophically did not do the bloody research.

Delusional Disorder, the illness that Vanessa is identified as suffering from, is real. Delusions are often a symptom of other mental health issues, but DD is defined as someone adamantly believing in something that is not true. It can be genetic (see Vanessa’s mother having it and passing it on to her daughter) and it can effect romantic relationships. WebMD includes being convinced that someone is in love with you, such as a famous celebrity who has never met you, or being intensely jealous without cause as possible symptoms of DD. Either of those traits could have driven the story well and emphasised the abusive nature of Vanessa’s relationship with Chris. But there is no factual basis for Vanessa’s “obsession with death” or her attempting to force her boyfriends to kill themselves using drugs that she has for some unexplained reason. Making Vanessa a murderer is distastefully melodramatic.

Vanessa shown to be a liar and a manipulator; these things are enough to make her villainous. Being manipulative is a legitimately dangerous trait in anyone, let alone a romantic partner to a recently-heart-broken and depressed teenager. But no. Vanessa is “crazy” because that makes for more drama.

A Mother’s Nightmare could have been a meaningful story about recognizing manipulative behaviour and doing what you can to protect someone you know to be in an abusive relationship. Instead, this movie demonizes the mentally ill character and uses disgusting stereotypes to sensationalize its subject matter beyond recognition. The scary, crazy girls are coming for your sons.

What a waste.