When I was finally diagnosed with a couple interrelated chronic illnesses last year, a lot of things that had never made sense before finally did.
There’s a reason why some days I’m so tired that I can’t make it out of bed. There’s a reason why I could never commute to work and always have to sit down on crowded subway floors because I’m in so much pain. There’s a reason why the 9 to 5 has never worked for me. And none of it is because I’m lazy or weak, as I had always believed.
Online, I begun to parse through the experiences of others with “invisible illnesses” like my own — and things began to make even more sense. I learned about medical gaslighting and how the best help doesn’t tend to come from doctors, but from those with similar conditions. I also discovered a vibrant, thoughtful community of writers and artists with chronic illnesses and disabilities, publishing their work in a variety of independent magazines, journals, social media accounts, and blogs. Unlike most mainstream spaces for chronic illness, their work isn’t about advice or empowerment. Instead, I discovered frank, artistic reflections on the reality of living life with illness.
One such title is SICK, an annual magazine now onto its fourth issue, and edited by Olivia Spring with slick design by Kaiya Waerea. “We work in and with our slowness,” reads its about text. “Pausing and resting when we need to. We believe, listen to, and support each other. We reject productivity as means of value, and celebrate our sick & disabled bodies.” In SICK, I found writing that encouraged me to be kinder to myself and my own energy dips, as well as an encouraging sense that it’s okay to listen to your body and find creative space dictated by its rhythms.
Sickness has been on our collective minds for over two years now. As the world of work and productivity attempts to regain its “normal” speed, I personally try to hold some of the lessons of lockdown close to me: The importance of slowing down, listening to our bodies, and prioritizing well-being over profit. With all this in mind, I spoke with SICK’s editor Olivia over email to hear more about her latest issue and what it means to make with care in mind.
Tell me about the new issue. I always think of a fourth issue of an indie title as an important milestone: It means it’s settling into a groove, there’s a community that’s built around it, it’s probably going to keep going and growing, etc. What does a fourth issue mean to you personally?
Issue 4 definitely feels like a milestone, and it’s the most at ease I’ve felt making an issue so far. Personally, I’m feeling so much more comfortable and confident in the process, while also knowing and being excited by the fact that there is always so much more to learn, and each issue teaches me so much.
I always make notes during each submission window and editorial process of things to change or adapt for the next issue, which feels good because I know the publication is growing and it’s exciting to always know there are new possibilities for the mag. In the past, I’ve gotten so fired up when it’s time to open pre-orders, because I get stressed out by the idea that I’m selling a product that doesn’t actually exist yet, and I imagine all the things that could go wrong. This year, I just rolled out of bed and spent a couple hours on pre-order set-up and promotion, then went for a swim and hung out with family. In past years, I would have stayed inside refreshing social media and emails all day. So it definitely feels good to be comfortable in the process at this point, and to also know that things can go wrong, mistakes will be made, and I will just deal with that when it happens rather than waste my time imagining catastrophes.
It’s also at a point where I do feel that we have a strong community and consistent readers. I notice the same names appearing in orders every year, and our pre-orders are pretty consistent, as well as store sales. It means a lot to know we have readers who come back to buy every issue, because it means the publication means something to them, and that’s so important to me.
I’m encouraged by the way that titles like yours help create structures for creative production that are in tune with you and your contributors’ bodies and sicknesses. Something I think about a lot in relation to my own conditions is how chronic illness and disability make it impossible to follow the demands of the traditional working week. Beyond creating flexible deadlines, how does the production and making of SICK itself foster a work environment that’s attuned to a variety of body rhythms and needs?
Having an annual publication is an interesting pattern, because I’m only working with other people for a few months out of the year.
The rest of it is mostly me doing stuff on my own, or working with Kaiya, our designer, on little things. So most of the time, it really just consists of me making decisions about working on SICK and wanting the decisions I make to be reflective of what I want the publication to stand for.
For example, if I’m struggling to keep up with submissions as quickly as I would like to, or if I can’t get edits back to someone by when I had planned, I try not to ever push myself if I’m not feeling up to it, because who am I doing that for? Not for myself, because my body is telling me I need rest, and not contributors, because they get it and would want me to take care of myself, too. I think what’s really crucial to this way of thinking, for me, is that I am only ever working with other sick people, and even if we have different illnesses or disabilities, we all believe in, and prioritize, caring for ourselves.
I don’t have a schedule or set days where I work on the mag, because I never know how I am going to feel. I don’t know how long things are going to take and generally don’t try to predict (unless we are working on the issue, which I always make rough timelines that usually changes along the way). I try and listen to my body every day, and I just work when I can. Rarely does this all fall in your typical 9-5 timeframe; for me, my most productive hours are often 3-8pm, moving between my desk and my bed.
I am only ever working with other sick people, and even if we have different illnesses or disabilities, we all believe in, and prioritize, caring for ourselves.
When it comes to working with contributors and wanting them to feel supported, I think communication is key. Rather than asking for a draft by a certain date, we will agree on a date or week that will be an ‘aim,’ which lets them know that they don’t need to push themselves to meet this deadline. Rather than just saying our deadlines are flexible, I want contributors to feel comfortable in communicating their needs with me. It’s not like we have no deadlines ever — we have to go to print at some point. Being clear about a general timeframe, as well as how we can or can’t adapt to or change certain things, has worked well so far.
Following up from this, I’d be curious to hear about how the way you structure SICK might have fed into the boundaries you set up yourself when working (for example, responding to emails and interview requests like my own)?
This is a bit trickier for me, because I struggle to see SICK as work, even though it clearly is. I care about it so deeply and am so motivated and excited by it, sometimes it’s hard to step away from it because it’s like asking me to stop doing my favourite hobby.
When I’m doing something I’m passionate about, I feel like sometimes I have blinders on, and I will work through pain and fatigue without fully realizing it until after. Only recently have I finally started saying no to requests that I just don’t have the capacity for, or it’s just not the right time. For example, I find recording podcasts particularly difficult and draining, so I’m more selective in what I say yes to now that I’ve noticed this pattern.
Your request to speak on the phone for this interview is something I probably would have said yes to a year or two ago, rather than suggesting an e-mail correspondence instead, because I’ve learned what things are easier for me. It feels good to know these things about myself and feel confident enough to communicate them, particularly because I’ve spent so much life conforming to standards of non-disabled people. Knowing you are chronically ill, I felt more comfortable saying that, because I assumed you would know where I’m coming from. When I’m communicating with someone who is presumably non-disabled, I hope that a response as simple as saying a few days is not enough time for a media request from a disabled person will make them re-think their own work structure or expectations.
I do have a bit of an obsession with checking my email, which I’m pretty sure I developed in high school as I was anxiously awaiting university acceptance letters. I feel like now I see the Mail app as a portal to a world of opportunity, and my life could change after any refresh.
I don’t hold myself to any standards in regards to replying to emails because I want to resist the idea that we should all be reachable and available all the time.
I don’t hold myself to any standards in regards to replying to emails because I want to resist the idea that we should all be reachable and available all the time. I try not to apologize if it takes me a few days to reply to something, because me responding in my own time isn’t actually something to be sorry for, even though we seem to think it is.
I admire that you have created a space that gives those with disabilities an encouraging place for their writing and art. One of the things that I’ve struggled with with my own illness is how flare ups affect my ability to be creative. Creativity and writing is not only how I financially stay afloat, but it’s also so bound with my sense of self, so when I can’t do it, it really affects my mental health. What is the relationship between creativity and sickness like for you, and how do you hope SICK might affect that relationship for you and your contributors?
Not having the ability to do something you love and/or rely on because your body refuses it is one of the most frustrating things I have experienced.
After I graduated with a degree in journalism and before I started SICK, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to even call myself a journalist because I wasn’t having enough published. I remember thinking, Can I still have ‘journalist’ in my twitter bio if I haven’t published anything all year? It was really frustrating, and being published started to feel like something I had to do rather than genuinely wanted to.
Once I started SICK, I felt so fulfilled creatively from it that nothing else mattered that much anymore. Because I can manage it alongside my illness and I’m my own boss, it erases so much guilt and pressure to produce.
Soon after issue 01 was published, I signed with a literary agent to work on a memoir, and that opened up another outlet for me to still be creative, but not in such a demanding way. I’ve been working on my book for over two years, and having a long-term project makes me no longer question whether I am ‘really’ a writer or not. While in the past I would be upset for not having more bylines, now I find so much more purpose in these two projects that I really believe in.
Sometimes I’ll go a month without writing, and I just see it as part of the process. I need to go through periods of not writing sometimes to be able to write other times. I’m also not the type of person to force myself to do things. I’ve tried creating new habits like writing for 15 minutes every day, but when I wake up in pain the last thing I want to do is stare at a blank screen or page and feel that I must force something out of myself. At the same time, I think this can be a really useful habit for writers, and it’s something I like to do when I can — I just don’t force it or prioritize it.
Also, I think it’s important to highlight the fact that this relationship would be different if I was reliant on it for income. If I had to work a standard, paying job, despite the fact that it would severely worsen my illness and quality of life, I probably wouldn’t have the energy to write at all. It’s obviously not a privilege to be too sick to work (in the traditional sense), but it is an immense privilege to have the resources and support to pursue the things I want to do, and can do. Since moving back to the US from the UK two years ago, I received government benefits and free healthcare for the first time in my life, and live in my parent’s house.
I also had support from extended family in launching the magazine — I raised a small (but crucial) amount of £600 from various aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents to get the magazine off the ground. I think it’s important to be transparent about these things, and I try to be very transparent with how SICK is run financially.
The visual language of the magazine is very powerful and striking — and not the typical aesthetic associated with writing for and about chronic illness, which in the mainstream, tends to be a lot more about empowerment and eye-catching branding (I’m thinking about community forums and self-help guides). Your covers, and design, feel more about leaning into the reality of being sick — with twisting bodily forms and abstract, evocative colors. Can you tell me about your overall visual strategy?
I had a very clear vision for the magazine before the first issue, and had been collecting images and magazine pages that I liked.
Aside from disability, I felt like the style of what I wanted was something I had never come across; the closest thing design-wise that I loved was Girls Club zine, which sadly doesn’t seem to exist anymore. I also really love the old illustrated Vogue covers and always have some of them on my mood boards.
I knew I didn’t want a stereotypical representation of disability, because SICK is about challenging misconceptions and stereotypes. The word sick, too, has more than one meaning and is often used to mean ‘cool,’ so I thought it would be interesting to have it visually draw people in, and that sick people might recognize it immediately as something illness-related, but non-disabled people might just think it looks cool.
I want to represent a range of bodies on the cover, with the feelings of hardships and difficulties reflected in non-explicit ways. I also see SICK as a celebration of disability, so I want that to be reflected in the colors and layouts. It’s supposed to be comforting, and beautiful, and an object to be cherished.