Vicki Novinsky (known online as Miss Diagnoses) knows what it’s like to live with multiple chronic illnesses — including Lyme disease, which went misdiagnosed for years. Like many others in the chronic illness community, it took a lot of advocacy for Novinsky to get the right diagnosis and start treatments that helped with symptoms like chronic pain, fatigue and brain fog.
Novinsky turned her chronic illness journey into cartoons that are laugh-until-you-cry relatable. If you’re a fellow chronic illness warrior, Novinsky’s cartoons like “Fifty Shades of Brain Fog” or “Shit Doctors Say” will probably speak directly to some of your own experiences.
The Mighty wanted to learn more about Novinsky’s work, including why humor is so important, how she uses adaptive tools to do her art and her message to other creative chronic illness warriors. Here’s what she told us:
Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for content and clarity.
Tell me a little bit more about your story. How did you get into art and cartoons?
I’ve been a compulsive doodler for as long as I can remember. When I was in school, I used to cover my notebooks with scribbled caricatures of people and animals. I doodle the most when I’m nervous or fidgety — for example, if I’m on hold with my health insurance company, I can fill half a notebook.
I’ve taken some art classes in the past, but most of them were traditional fine art classes focused on realistic drawing, which I was never very good at. I didn’t take any classes in cartooning. It was just something I did for fun and I never thought of myself as a “real” cartoonist. I used to make hand-drawn birthday cards for friends and partners based on our shared jokes. People would tell me, “You should do something with that,” but I didn’t really know what, exactly.
When I started my blog, I originally intended to do illustrated essays. I did that for a while and then I got into doing series of cartoons on a single topic, like brain fog or things people say to people with chronic illnesses. It was somehow easier to say what I wanted to say using pictures rather than words.
What are your top cartoons and why?
This is a tough question because my favorite cartoons haven’t been created yet! Everything looks much better when it’s still an idea in my head.
I think some of my best ones are from my “Fifty Shades of Brain Fog” series, because brain fog seems to be a part of so many illnesses. I made one cartoon in which someone tries to give the character directions and they get all jumbled up in her head. Getting lost is a big part of having brain fog for me. I usually have to ask at least three people for directions whenever I go anywhere new.
Another one of my better efforts is my “Spoonie Rent-a-Family for the Holidays.” It seems topical since we’re getting close to the holiday season. I never had family support for my illness and so many people I know don’t have it either, especially for invisible illnesses like chronic Lyme and ME/CFS.
For the last two Valentine’s Days, I’ve done “Valentines for Spoonies” posts with several valentines in each post. I’m not sure if I’m going to do it again this year, but I really had a lot of fun coming up with the lines. I was really happy because some people said they showed them to their significant others!
Why is art so important to your chronic illness advocacy?
Taking something awful like chronic illness and using it to make art is therapeutic, but for me, it’s more about the humor than the art. If I can laugh about something it makes it seem less wretched and gets me out of my depressive thought spirals. It gives me a temporary escape from the pain of the situation and allows me to relax for a bit. If I can make other people laugh I feel like I’m giving them a way to temporarily escape their pain and also hopefully helping them feel less alone. I love it when people relate to my cartoons because I feel a sense of camaraderie, a sense that we’re all fighting together.
Humor (especially sarcastic humor) is a great tool for raising awareness. You can make a point but you’re doing it in a way that’s more subtle than just saying something directly. Using humor has worked well for me in raising awareness among healthy people.
You mentioned you use assistive technology when you work. How do you adapt to continue working?
Long before I got Lyme disease, I got repetitive strain injury from a job I had (carpal tunnel, cubital tunnel, radial tunnel and tendinitis). I got it from mouse overuse. Using a regular mouse can be so bad for your arms. I have a touchpad mouse but I don’t use it much. When I write, I use voice recognition software. If I’m on my desktop I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking and if I’m texting or messaging I dictate into the phone rather than type. For drawing, I use an iPad and an Apple pencil. I still get tendinitis flareups from that, but it’s a million times better than using a mouse. My next project is to see if I can get a tablet that attaches to my computer.
Another thing that helps keep me out of pain is keeping my spine supported when I draw. Hunching over makes my neck and back pain worse because it makes my chest muscles tighten up. I have a gazillion back support pillows, but the best thing for me has been to sit in a chair on top of a crescent-shaped yoga pillow. It forces me to stay upright, and then I get tired from staying upright and that forces me to take a lot of breaks (it’s really hard for me to make myself take breaks — I set timers but I tend to ignore them).
Where do you hope to take your work in the future?
I want to keep learning about cartooning and improving my work, and I also would like to get back into writing. My big dreams are to write an illustrated memoir and do a whole book of cartoons. I have a lot more cartoons I want to do before I get to that point.
If you’re a creative person and you want to make artwork about your illness, I say go for it. It can be so helpful for you and for others. Put aside any fears about whether your work is good enough and forget any negative messages you’ve gotten from teachers or professors. The chronic illness community can be very accepting and nonjudgmental.