Powerful, Honest, Heartbreaking, Uplifting: Rachael Smith’s Wired Up Wrong

by Richard Bruton

It’s hard to write about depression, about anxiety. Even harder to write about it as something you experience daily. But to do all that and produce something that fully addresses these difficult issues with honesty, bravery, and a fabulous turn of humor…well, that’s truly impressive.

Rachael Smith has done all that in her latest book, Wired Up Wrong. It’s a wonderful, powerful book that ultimately serves as a beacon of hope. As she says: you can do this, you don’t have to give in, it will get better. This is one of my favorite books of 2017 and it’s a pleasure to share it with you here.

This book is a personal record of living with depression, and while some may find it helpful, it is not a “self-help” book. I am not a doctor and people are all different.

Go see your doctor. Everything is going to be ok. I believe in you. You are not alone. Ok? Ok.—Rachael Smith, from her introduction.

Rachael Smith’s work has been a fixture of quality British comics for the past five years. In that time she’s made a number of sublime graphic novels and comics, including Scooby Doo gang-styled band adventure The Way We Write, the hilariously sweary I Am Fire, her ever so cute online kitten strip Flimsy, the positivity espousing webcomic One Good Thing, or her début graphic novel House Party, that deals with the strange wilderness of the time immediately post-college.

More recently, she’s had two graphic novels published by the boutique publisher Avery Hill. The Rabbit saw Smith beautifully combines a rich fantasy adventure with the heartbreak surrounding a pair of obviously broken children. And 2016’s Artificial Flowers, told a hilarious tale of art, self-expression and moving into adulthood.

But Wired Up Wrong is something else. It’s Smith’s most personal work, published through a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign. It’s a return to the autobiographical works Smith has previously dipped into, but this takes it to a whole different and personal level.

In the book, Smith opens up about her long-standing problems with mental health, her anxiety, depression, lack of confidence, and feelings of worthlessness. She does so with honesty and bravery, never shying away from the worst of her feelings, whether it’s the crippling self-doubt, her constant stress and anxiety, the urge to self-harm, or just the day-to-day struggle to function.

To help visualize and understand her issues, Smith’s created her own version of “the black dog”, an imaginary cartoon dog, Barky. Her nemesis comes in two distinct forms, a large, cute and cuddly Barky, and the smaller, nastier looking version. Yet as Smith explains so perfectly, big cuddly Barky is by far the more dangerous one. It’s a perfect distillation of how those with depression can feel, with the crushing weight of the condition feeling at times somehow comforting. It’s something those lucky enough to never experience anything similar just can’t fully comprehend. Yet Smith expertly, beautifully, nails it here.

Smith’s supporting cast includes Adam (Cadwell, Smith’s boyfriend, and fellow comicker) and Rufus (her cat, not a comic maker as far as we know) who feature throughout. As with all else, Smith’s honesty when dealing with her relationship is both endearing and slightly frightening at times. Could we be as honest, in print, forever? I doubt it.

Throughout the book, Smith uses a simple 4-panel layout and limits each strip, usually to just a single page, occasionally two, or three. But this creates a sense of punchy delivery, and the lightness of Smith’s cartooning, the excellent use of color, her ability to mix humor in amongst even the darkest of moments, makes this a wonderful read. Throughout, Smith is unrelentingly, spectacularly candid about her problems. And having the humor in there serves a dual purpose; it entertains but also makes the emotional moments hit so much harder.

In Wired Up Wrong, Smith’s created something powerful that will stand as a testament both to her abilities as a cartoonist and as a source of inspiration, encouragement, and solace to those of us who’ve ever seen our own black dog.

The deluxe version, made possible through the success of the Kickstarter campaign, includes an extra, longer story, of Smith’s first experiences with harassment at 15. It’s inclusion following the #metoo movement, is intended to offer both her personal tale and give solace to others. As such, despite being somewhat at odds with the rest of the book, both in length and theme, it’s a worthy and well-told addition.

I’m telling it now in the hopes that it may make others feel less alone, and to try and lift some of the things that have sat in the corners of my mind for the last 17 years.

The final word goes to Smith with these final four pages from Wired Up Wrong.

No matter how bad your own mental health issues, there is hope. For you, for me, for Rachael.

It can get better, trust in that. It will be a hard road, it will be a long road.

But you can get through it, because you can be strong enough.

You can find Rachael Smith’s work, including Wired Up Wrong, at her website. Her graphic novels; The Rabbit and Artificial Flowers are available from Avery Hill.