Back, Sack & Crack (& Brain): A Rather Graphic Novel About Living With Embarrassing Health Problems by Robert Wells
Format: Original Graphic Novel
Illustrated by: Robert Wells
Length: 224 pages
We came across this in Forbidden Planet while we were browsing nerdy things this summer in London, and I was excited to see what it was all about. In this graphic novel, Robert Wells details his long-term struggle with various health issues, namely stomach problems and chronic, intermittently crippling, groin and back pain. He writes about how these symptoms first presented themselves, his difficulty in trying to get a diagnosis, and how these problems have affected his everyday life for the past twenty years.
I have Crohn’s disease, and as with most people with any kind of chronic intestinal issues, it took quite a few years to get a proper diagnosis. I spent over five years in and out of doctors’ offices, each time being told I just had irritable bowel syndrome before being immediately dismissed. None of the drugs prescribed seemed to help at all, and it was a very frustrating and frightening time in my life. I wasn’t always sick, but there was no way to predict when I would be and seemingly no way to treat it.
So a lot of what he describes in this graphic novel really hit home for me – the fear of not knowing what’s wrong with you, the frustration of struggling to get to the doctor’s office while sick for an appointment that amounts to nothing, the anxiety of getting on public transportation with no access to a washroom, the initial shame of having an embarrassing disorder (irritable bowel, I mean really?), having to miss out on social events with vague excuses.
When you’re sick with an unknown illness over a long period, it can feel very lonesome. It feels like there’s no one else who understands what you’re going though, so when someone does show interest, it can be difficult not to unload on them hours upon hours of details – this doctor ignored me, the next two said I had this, one finally prescribed me this drug, it didn’t work so then I went on this, we then tried a different dosage, meanwhile I was trying this on my own – and on and on. There’s something in you that really wants to get across the full frustration of what’s happened. He’s been quite ill for a huge part of his life, so that’s a lot to unload, and this comic unfortunately falls into that trap a little too much. It is a memoir of his sickness, and sometimes I think he prioritized minute details over entertainment, although it does feel like that was a conscious decision. I imagine this was very therapeutic to write and draw.
A running theme in this is his doctors telling him the problem is in his head, and while he clearly hasn’t imagined all of these issues, he does come to the realization by the end that the stress of worrying could be making his symptoms worse. Reading that was a nice reminder to myself. Stress can really affect Crohn’s, and I have the uncanny ability to see everything that could possibly go wrong at any moment. I worry about getting sick, which in turn can make things worse, which then makes me more anxious, and it becomes a self-destructive cycle. While we were in Australia last month, I did try to be mindful about how much I worry about my illness and remind myself that I can’t control everything. I feel like it really helped, actually.
There’s no cure for Crohn’s, but I’m on drugs now that control it fairly well at the moment, and I have a wonderfully patient and understanding girlfriend, so I’m in a much better place. I have off days, and I still struggle with some drug side-effects and lingering anxiety, but Crohn’s can get quite nasty for people, so I consider myself lucky.
I really enjoyed this. I’m not sure how it would read to someone who couldn’t relate to what he’s going through, but he does do a great job of conveying what it feels like to live with chronic pain and an embarrassing illness. And props to him for having the confidence to write this. He really doesn’t hold back, particularly when drawing himself nude. I mean, give yourself at least a bit of a break, man. No one would know.