About a month ago, a friend and I who share many things, including a bipolar diagnosis, were sharing our stories the way folks do in 2016—over text. She asked something about when I first experienced a manic episode. For me, it started at 16 so I started to type: “It’s a life long struggle.” But autocorrect wouldn’t let me. It made me say: “It’s a life long star.”
You damn right. I am a star. Thank you, Autocorrect!
But I am not the only star in the sky. This good friend and I have “access intimacy”—intimacy based, at least in part, on a common health struggle/star. And I have been lucky enough to share this with other “Icaristas” too.
Co-founded in 2002 by Jacks McNamara and Sascha Altman Dubrul, The Icarus Project is “a support network and education project by and for people who experience the world in ways that are often diagnosed as mental illness. We advance social justice by fostering mutual aid practices that reconnect healing and collective liberation. We transform ourselves through transforming the world around us.”
In 2009 I joined the Bay Area Icarus Project. We had weekly peer support meetings. (Where we laughed a lot.) We brought speakers and organized events around the many interrelating topics of mad pride, neurodiversity, mental health advocacy, and so on. We worked together as a collective for several years, and as volunteer groups often do, we faded. A year later, another group of folks took up the mantle and started having meetings.
The Icarus Project continues to be a growing, dazzling, international constellation of stars.
But this is an intergenerational human rights movement.
Let us never forget “drapetomania.” The “mental illness” that caused slaves to runaway and be free? Scientists have historically colluded with systems of power.
Homosexuality was considered a mental illness, actually codified in the DSM, until 1973. It took activists to reform the system throughout history. It’s gonna take a movement to revolutionize the way we think about and treat mental health.
“Crazy” is not a binary phenomenon. It’s not either/or—you don’t either have the scarlet C or you don’t. I mean, just listen to Gnarls Barkley. Just kidding. Actually, no I’m not, that’s a really good song: “I think you’re crazy just like me.” There is no crazy Jell-O mold formed around your brain in utero. Unless it’s the star-shaped one.
But maybe we’re all stars.
Last Friday I went to a phenomenal event here in Oakland. It was the book release for Outside Mental Health: Voices and Visions of Madness by Will Hall, activist, therapist and producer of Madness Radio. All my old Icarista friends were there! Friday was a reunion of sorts. It was at a collective house. There were talks about mental health, readings from the book, and an incredible musician and founding member of Icarus, Bonfire Madigan Shive. Since I’m a little neuroatypical star, by the end of the night, I was a little overstimulated. As I was waxing perhaps a bit too poetic about sparks, flames, and movement building, one of my friends said: “Your pupils are really dilated honey, you should go home and sleep.”
And she was right. This is why, as an Icarus zine says, Friends Make the Best Medicine.
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But for me, they’re not all I need.
Some may describe corporations as giant octopi reaching their tentacles into their bodies, but for me it is actually true—Eli Lilly is in my bloodstream. I have to make some kind of uneasy peace with this just to accept what allows me to function. But does that mean I am diseased? Does that mean I am genetically different? I don’t believe I was born chemically imbalanced. I may have been born with that potential, but trauma didn’t just trigger it: it locked, loaded and fired the gun. I am a child abuse survivor. That shit reaches into my bones. Of course it’s gonna shake my brain, too.
I’m still not sure if my diagnosis has any use, or only serves to stigmatize. At the same time, I know the realm of my emotional and mental experience is different from most people’s. I accepted the meds mostly because doctors with a lot of power told me to take them. At sixteen, forced me to take them in the hip, with a needle, held by orderlies and bound to a bed. But I continued to swallow them because I was so terrified about the shadows of my childhood that I wanted to be sedated, wanted to make sure I kept forgetting, and at least meds didn’t give me a raging hangover. I also hoped that someday my critique of the bio-medical model of “mental illness” would translate into the practice of me being med-free.
It’s true that some saddled with a diagnosis of a “major mental illness” can, through meditation, nutrition, acupuncture, exercise and routine, overcome their dependency on psycho-active drugs and truly recover, mind, body and soul. For those who have succeeded in drastically reducing or eliminating their need for medication, I have profound respect and admiration. For me, meds do the job. They do it quicker and dirtier, and with potentially devastating long-term results, but they do the job. The blade forged in my mind’s fire cuts me, but it also unbinds me. Medication dulls this blade, and that really is its double edge. I have reluctantly accepted, after all my struggles (supernovas and black holes), that simply put, the meds keep me alive and functioning.
I don’t do everything the med-free self-care warriors do, but I do a lot, because I know medication is only one piece of my wellness. It’s a tool, an instrument, and a pretty blunt one at that. So I move my body, try to eat well. I go to therapy. I get plenty of sleep, I get body work done. I actively cultivate a rich support network of friends. I pray. I meditate. And fun stuff! In case you’re wondering, I work. Quite a bit, and at a demanding job. This is all part of my wellness, too. I have to be creative and social and productive and spiritual. It’s what keeps me humming. Also, I limit my alcohol intake and don’t do any more drugs than the three pink ones and one little white one I take every night.
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The Icarus Project has a pro-choice policy when it comes to medication. They’ve published a powerful zine called the Harm Reduction Guide to Coming Off of Psych Meds. Its central principle is that for those who deal with altered states of consciousness (otherwise known as mania, depression, or psychosis), the harm can come from both these states themselves and the drugs used to temper them. The question always becomes: what will do me the least harm, since both the trauma-rattled bent of my brain and the drugs can be damaging.
Robert Whitaker, author of Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America presents many disturbing trends, including the fact that the number of working-age adults on disability due to mental illness has nearly quadrupled since 1987 with the introduction of Prozac.
I might resign myself to the intricate ambivalence of requiring medication, but I cannot escape the way society marks me as damaged, regardless of what I do to treat it. Without the mentally “imbalanced,” there would be no movement in the ocean of humanity. Martin Luther King said: “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” Psychiatry’s defenders say they are trying to rid the world of suffering. But I can’t measure my powerful feelings in milligrams or genetic codes. Pills and friends keep them at bay, but they stay alive in my body, dormant, perhaps, but waiting for their next expression. Whether that eruption is creative or destructive is up to me and each person blessed and cursed with mental “dis-orders.” It should not be up to the so-called experts to shape the fire in my mind, to keep it spilling past its borders, to keep it from sparking others and igniting the landscape in dangerous and useful ways. It’s up to me to learn to balance my elements to prevent fire or flood.
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I have a poem about my experiences being hospitalized and the pain of dysphoric mania. I performed this poem at an Icarus event called Mad Love and something switched inside me: the poem’s delivery had been despairing before. But at Mad Love when I described the way my thoughts soared into madness I felt like a superhero! Yeah, maybe genes play a role. Or maybe it’s all environmental. Or both. But just like “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it”—mad pride echoes a similar idea. In fact, it’s the same damn chant. To be marked as mad in this society is a kind of queerness. To be off, marginal, away from the norm. So who gives a shit where we come from or how we got this way?
We’ve got mad gifts. “Dangerous gifts.” We’ve got mad beauty. And mad self love.
*from an Icarus Project zine of the same name
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I was at an Icarus event called ‘mad love’ in NY where someone read a poem. Am I getting your event confused with that?