On 10 Years of The Icarus Project

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On a hot September day Sascha and I traveled back to something both mythical and real. I took him to visit a giant old oak tree with articulate arms, poised in mid-dance under an even more giant sky. I had painted this tree years ago for an Icarus publication; it's the final image in a graphic sequence where a flock of birds lifts off the telephone wires, disappear as stars, and land back in the branches of this particular oak tree. The upper right panel of the graphic states in big capital letters “You Are Not Alone.” As we sat on the bench underneath the tree plotting out potential goals for the next 10 years of Icarus, a flock of doves alighted on the exact same branch as in the painting, just as we were discussion ways to gather all of our people and all of the people who have not yet been part of Icarus on to the website and into our community. Our jaws dropped with shock and magic–the exact same kind of synchronicity that began the project 10 years ago.

Since we started the Icarus Project a decade ago so much has changed. From two lonely kids sitting in a redwood dreaming up big dreams, the project has grown into thousands of people across the US and the globe who connect on online and face to face. The project's tagline, Navigating the Space between Brilliance and Madness, has resonated with so many people both as an idea and a practice we share together everyday. The 10 year anniversary events have highlighted all the different areas that Icarus has engaged over the years, from a retrospective art show full of stunning images to nights of performance, story sharing, and groups envisioning everything from an Icarus Mentor network to new publications for youth and teens. During our anniversary month, the 2nd edition of the Harm Reduction Guide to Coming off Psychiatric Drugs was released, someone started translating our zine on creating community mental health support into Croatian, and other Icarus materials were translated into German.

But when I reflect on the last 10 years of the project, it's not the list of accomplishments that stick with me. It's all the people we have touched and the ways we have been touched ourselves. When we started this project I felt so alone with the “fragile fire in my brain,” as I called it in our reader, Navigating the Space.  Now I have more “crazy” friends across the country than I ever could've imagined. People with whom I can discuss all the complicated stuff: from "psychotic" visions to psych drugs, from the effects of neoliberalism on the mental health system to the effectiveness of acupuncture. We try to keep each other well but when someone hits a crisis we are there for each other with food and books and even hospital visits, when it comes to that. Most of all, we are there with each other in all the questions of what this means and how we stay alive, how we imagine ourselves growing into the future as individuals and as a community.

Sascha and I are as close friends as we've ever been. Somehow we have come out of all the chaos and all the challenges with a deeply enduring love for each other. And the last 10 years have been full of challenges. By definition, a project that is “by and for people with the dangerous gifts that our society commonly labeled as mental illness” is not the most stable of enterprises. When we are fabulous we are so fabulous, but when things get hard they get really hard. Icarus organizers and local groups have tended to ebb and flow, having months or years of shining and months or years of burnout and conflict. Over the years we've come up against our own social location as white people who come from a background of economic privilege and the ways that it has allowed us access to resources that have sometimes been crucial in supporting Icarus, but has also allowed us to not see or center the leadership and struggle of people of color and/or people of other class backgrounds. We have also come up against the many limits of the nonprofit industrial complex in seeing our project grow and shrink from a volunteer network of deeply committed people to a funded organization with paid staff and back.

One of the more complicated and frustrating things about Icarus is that people usually find us when they're in crisis and often leave when they are well.  One of our visions for the future to address this problem is an Icarus Mentor network, which would put older or more experienced members in touch with newer and potentially less stable members to offer guidance and build relationship. We’re still not sure exactly how this will work but there’s an exciting conversation about it that you can find here. We’re also working on an updated website offering social networking capabilities and exploring the potential to use web conferencing software to have video chat meetings for people from different groups. These could include Icaristas who have become healers, youth, POC folks, and any other combination of Icarus members who want to hang out and talk to each other. We hope that the website can continue be a gathering place for more and more people who identify with the Icarus vision. Like all the doves roosting on that tree, we hope you will land for a bit and spend some time with us in the coming years.