Letting Insanity Speak - By Alix LeClair - The Rebirth of Campus Icarus at NYUSubmitted by Icarus Project on Mon, 02/27/2012 - 11:33pm
Letting Insanity Speak
By Alix LeClair
When I was in third grade, I suddenly needed to create my own language. While the other kids played kickball in the sunshine during recess, I craved solitude in the small expanse of dark woods. For months, I obsessively wrought an elaborate system of obscure symbols, words, and sounds. I was always acutely sensitive to language’s inability to convey my strange sensations of existing. Even though I was so young, I intuited that my mad, singular devotion to my secret language was very “bad” and “abnormal” and I had to hide it from the entire world. But I grew quite lonely. I finally shared my self with one girl from class and waited for the consequences. Her haunting, judgmental, shocked reaction was far more tormenting than my frantic solitude. I tore my esoteric writing to shreds, and exhausted the next decade of my life desperately attempting to appear normal.
I failed miserably. All of Dartmouth College – the small, Ivy League institution of traditional values – stared in horror as I was finallyhauled away in a flurry of ambulances and policemen to the nearest mental hospital. The beautiful, creative energy that allowed me to rewrite the paradigm of Dartmouth’s broken, oppressive world devolved into sprawling scribbles on college property, a terrifying paranoia, and frank psychosis. I carried adderall in my coat pockets and ate it like orange candy. I scared people. I knocked on the college president’s door late at night, begging for help from the evil institutions that were against me. The most powerful man on campus and his wife stood in their stately pajamas and quietly listened to me rant about how the dean was reading my emails, my writing was going to save the ugly world, and my conviction that God is a Woman. I felt enlightened. I had a million words dangling in front of my eyes, swarming in my brain.
At the mental hospital, the incomprehensible entirety of my madness was soon chopped down to a single word: “Mania.”As a writer, this was especially egregious. I was told that my brain was fundamentally broken and all of my profound thoughts were untrue insanities that must not be incorporated into my personal narrative in any meaningful way. I had to take both a mood stabilizer and an antipsychotic for the rest of my life or else I would succumb to suicide or a hopelessly psychotic life in an insane asylum. It did not matter that the pills made me into a fat, sleeping, wordless, projectile-vomiting zombie of side effects. I had “Bipolar I Disorder.” No, there were no exceptions.
I found myself surrounded by the dogma of biopsychiatry. It was absolutely everywhere – the mental hospitals, my endless google searches, my outpatient psychiatrist, my family, and especially the two-dozen mainstream books about bipolar disorder my mother purchased. I was deeply divided. Often, I angrily rejected biopsychiatry’s reductionism and thought the doctors and thepills were agents of social control that refused to understand me wholly. Yet over time, I simultaneously internalized the language and logic of faulty neurotransmitters and DSM-IV-TRsymptomology into my self-conception. As a troubled “neurochemical self,” I personally reflected a pervasive shift occurring in American culture at large; “The sense of ourselves as ‘psychological’ individuals that developed across the twentieth century-beings inhabited by a deep internal space shaped by biography and experience, the source of our individuality and the locus of our discontents-is being supplemented or displaced by what I have termed ‘somatic individuality.’” (Rose, 54) But at the time, I had no language that explained the jarring reality of my experience with “bipolar disorder.” I still felt like a psychological individual. My mania didn’t feel like it was only a broken brain that lithium and Risperdal would magically mend. It was a hollow, fatalistic answer that meant I’d never have to grapple with mychoice to abuse my adderall prescription, the inspiration of my poetry classes, the excruciating academic demands of Dartmouth, my parents divorce when I was six, and a million other facets of my identity. Thomas Szasz and Foucault were not there to convince me that my radical critiques were more than sheer rebellion or paranoia. I did not have Nikolas Rose’s anthropological exposé on the pervasive culture of “Neurochemical Selves” to help narrate why and how I was undergoing a “neurochemical reshaping of personhood.” (Rose, 59) I felt so isolated – like I was back in the third grade juggling hollow, didactic readings in the classroom alongside my personal, inspired scribbles that had no place in society. I carried like a mute burden my crude, fragmented, personal language about madness.But I spoke only the common language of biopsychiatry. It was all I knew, and I sensed it was all I was allowed to say.
I sank into a terrible depression. The entire universe seemed to whisper only one word: Death. I was back in my parent’s house in the suburbs, holed up for months in my bedroom with just Casper, the nonjudgmental Shetland sheepdog, and my laptop. My mother ceased being my mother, and instead became a makeshift nurse who diligently gave me my daily handful of pills and watched me swallow them and brought me take-out to feed the voracious appetite of the antipsychotics. Then one day, my long-lost philosophy major friend from Dartmouth sent me a random facebook message: “theicarusproject.net check it out.” Surrounded by darkness, the website I stumbled upon gave me so much hope. Here were individuals who had gone through the fire of manic depression and had came out stronger, more articulate, more enlightened. Its creators, Jacks Ashley McNamara and Sascha Altman DuBrul, had published a beautiful, poetic, and inspirational amalgamation of their personal interpretations of “bipolar disorder.” It was entitled “Navigating the Space Between Brilliance and Madness: A Reader & Roadmap of Bipolar Worlds.” Ashley had been exactly where I was, lost, at that seemingly indeterminable moment: “Yet as much as I resisted their [biopsychiatry’s] words, they were all I could find, and over and over again these limited, awkward words seemed like the barest blueprints to my soul…Obviously, if these words in big books in the library seemed to clumsily get at the flight patterns underlying my existence, there had to be other people with similar patterns.” (McNamara, “Anatomy of Flight” 5) I didn’t feel quite as isolated any more. I had stumbled upon these people who had experience, and wisdom, and were often just as confused as I was.
The Icarus Project was the first time I encountered language that transcended the pro-psychiatry/anti-psychiatry dichotomy that I, alongside the rest of society, was still stuck in. Sascha illuminates the desperate need for this progress with both wit and intelligence: “Like either you swallow the antidepressant ads on television as modern day gospel and start giving your dog Prozac, or you’re convinced we’re living in Brave New World and all the psych drugs are just part of a big conspiracy theory to keep us from being self-reliant and realizing our true potential.” (DuBrul, Navigating the Space, 14) Breaking down this type of binary thinking has been one of the most difficult and most important aspects of my never-ending “recovery.”
Misinterpreting life as solely one extreme or another allowed me to ignore, or even harm, the messy gray areas that constitute reality. Navigating the Space opened my eyes to the possibility of finding a greater truth for my manic-depression. I slowly started to become manic-Alix-depression, but I had a long way to go. I still do.
I realized I could not do it alone. I also needed to take tangible steps towards recovery and making meaning. I transferred to Gallatin to shed my identity as “the crazy girl” that followed me around at Dartmouth like a multi-colored apparition. But I was learning to navigate the gray area of madness, so I dutifully registered with the Moses Center for Disabilities. Bradley Lewis – a psychiatrist-turned-professor whose cultural critiques of psychiatry I had already read and admired – was my assigned advisor. When I first met him, I think I immediately recounted my entire psychiatric history for an hour straight. It was the most prominent thing in my life at that time. He mostly listened to me that day, but I sensed both from the man and his teeming bookshelf that I had a world to learn from Bradley Lewis about insanity.
Taking Mad Science/Mad Pride at Gallatin reoriented and deepened my understanding of this elusive force called “madness.” I found philosophers, crazy authors, cultural anthropologists, doctors, literature, beauty, and community. I found the rich language I had never been able to locate. Encountering these alternative perspectives was integral to transcending the binaries of pro-psychiatry/anti-psychiatry and depression/mania that still governed my existence. I’m not saying the binary is gone, but it is certainly starting to dissolve. At least I recognize that it exists, now.
Bradley Lewis’s comprehensive book, Narrative Psychiatry: How Stories Can Shape Clinical Practice, demonstrated the plethora of ways mental illness could be interpreted and treated. I already knew about the various paradigms of psychotherapy from traditional psychology classes, independent readings, Wikipedia, and the dozens of doctors and therapists I’ve confronted. But I had never really comprehended how the way a story is narrated has the power to utterly transform an individual’s reality. Lewis writes, “The approaches people choose matter greatly. Indeed, the approaches people take shape their identity and their future…There is no one path that people must pursue.” (Lewis, 151) I began to replace my own unique story with Mrs. Dutta’s fictional story about a difficult adjustment from India to America. Our literal circumstances could not be more disparate. Nevertheless, we both struggled to make meaning out of our suffering. I think this is more universal than a broken brain, an Oedipal Complex, or cognitive distortions – narrative psychiatry seeks to help a person find meaning, but does not declare what that meaning should be. When I was presented with merely biopsychiatry, I spent two years oscillating between accepting that meaning and not accepting that meaning. I was certainly narrating my mental illness, in an obsessive way that left me frantically static. But if I wanted to heal and recover, I needed to start rewriting my narrative. Narrative Psychiatry presented me with that toolbox of alternative psychotherapies; “Each new approach foregrounds aspects of the story that were left out by the previous approach. Each allows us to make sense of Mrs. Dutta’s troubles, each provides metaphors for selecting key elements of attention, and each provides guidance for the future. Each could be used by Mrs. Dutta to help restore her troubles, and each provides the fundamental plot structure of a new narrative identity.” (Lewis, 145)
I envisioned finally being stripped naked of the manic-depressive hospital gown that seemed sewn to my skin. I suddenly had the choice to clothe myself in Carl Rogers’s warm and fuzzy Humanistic Therapy, or Freud’s musty leather jacket of psychoanalysis, or the jet-black synthetic parka of biopsychiatry. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, biopsychiatry’s therapeutic counterpart, had always been too tight and plain and boxy. Spiritual therapy seemed a tad too hippie and manic, but hey, I’m a bipolar girl from Ithaca. Expressive therapy was a snug, constant presence like a necessary pair of rainbow socks or the diamond necklace I never take off. Writing as therapy helps and feels right. But living solely in socks and necklaces– in my obscure world of words and poems – would be lonely and I’d be quite naked and I would most likely end up back at the mental hospital in the bipolar gown feeling like the word “manic” was tattooed on my forehead. Narrative Psychiatry lends itself to an eclectic, mix-and-match approach that is constantly evolving. I desperately needed that. And since I have bipolar disorder, I think things morph and change a lot faster for me. It can be dangerous, but I think I’ll end up with many rings like an old wise tree bearing pomegranates for the recently diagnosed. Some bipolar individuals like the simple stability of taking the same mood stabilizer for the next sixty years, but I’m not one of them. I change constantly. Narrative Psychiatry made sense of how I feel biopsychiatry’s treatment of bipolar individuals is ugly and fundamentally wrong, yet I still need a psychiatrist. I realize that I don’t have to feel cracked in half because I must take Prozac religiously in the fall, love Thomas Szasz, hate mood stabilizers, and am crazy because of both my mother and the way my biological brain overreacts if the seasons are changing or it’s finals week.
The most egregious facet of biopsychiatry was that it disempowered the patient. A strong force within the “Mad Pride” and Narrative Psychiatry movement is for patient advocacy, choice, autonomy, and control. The “doctor knows best” attitude remains patronizing even with the best intentions. I interpret forced medication and involuntary hospitalizations as clear violations of my civil liberties. And I am not alone. In A Mad Fight, Bradley Lewis has a lot of optimism despite various resistance. The movement’s “fight to reduce individualization, psychiatrization, and sanist approaches to psychic life is arduous, and at times a little ‘mad.’ But the stakes are high and the struggle must continue…Soon the battle will be one about which we all know and in which we can all participate.” (Lewis, 350) It’s so beautiful that the term “sanist” is now a word, however marginally it is used in its infancy. Websites such as mindfreedom.org and The Icarus Project are also gaining momentum, but it’s a tough struggle. Biopsychiatry has dogmatic pseudoscience, the omnipresent pharmaceutical industry, and increasing rates of bipolar diagnoses. But flowers still do blossom through the cracks in the concrete sidewalk. I cried with joy and sorrow when my great friend from New Hampshire State Hospital was featured on the front page of mindfreedom.org, asking for monetary support for firm legal representation and receiving so much more. Despite over a year in the state hospital, a dismal schizophrenic diagnosis, being removed from her loving family, and forced to take medication Daniella had composed a volume of poetry while incarcerated. On her blog, Daniella wrote of the whisper of the trees and of flowers and bumblebees and clung so desperately to the light.
It is obvious there is still a lot of progress to be made. There is still so much corruption, oppression, and stigma in our society. Alternatives to the individualizing medical or therapeutic model are few and far between. In a city as vast as New York, the Mad Pride movement has absolutely no grounding. Stories and ideas in books and websites are integral to the mad pride movement. But I see these words as placeholders. Language has so much power – but it’s up to people to act and unite and form a community of support. Because we read about Firewalkers or The Icarus Project, we assume that it exists and that it’s real and they meet on Tuesdays in Tompkins Square Park. But the supportive words of others are not enough for my narrative anymore. I need to join the chorus of protest that is rising up against modern psychiatry. I admit that I am absolutely terrified. In my Mad Pride class I resolved to “come out” as being diagnosed with bipolar I by the end of the semester. And I meant out loud – not shrouded behind my writing about it. It was a class that was studying mad pride, we were talking about the familiar mad gift of bipolar disorder, it was the last class, I regularly appear to be quite strange,and I had even told a few individuals of my bout of insanity already. Still, I was terrified. I stuttered and blurted out “bipolar I disorder” and a quote and said I related to Jacks. I was very sincere, but I tried very hard to distance myself from my spoken words – even a lovely and accepting Mad Pride class still seemed too judgmentalfor me to be true to the typedlanguage of my insane identity. I think fear and stigma is what has keptso many mental health survivors isolated from each other. When we are united, it’s often through writing and ideology. But a social movement requiresaction and demonstration and speech and communication and support. I do not want to be content with readingFirewalkers,I want to become my own firewalker. I proclaim: Campus Icarus will rise from the ashes of the ocean, and the beautifully mad struggle will fly again.
I was eight and I had to create a cryptic language to speak of my madness. It was an impossible imaginary language of symbols, metaphor, and ugly sounds. When I inevitably scared a staring girl away, I silenced myself. I thought for years that I was deeply flawed and broken. When I was eighteen, I cracked. I resonated solely within the hollow language of psychiatry for three years. I lost my voice. I tore that true, spoken language of madness to pieces long ago but I’m beginning to hear it whispering. I can see it my words. I heard its potency when I chanted of joy and terror in solitary confinement for three straight days until the Haldol came. I would rustle awake, ass sore, and start again. That voice shall be heard and understood and enumerated within the limited language of society. My primordial wails will become real words. I would like somebody to talk true with.
Casey, Nell. Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression. HarperCollins, 2001.
Lewis, Bradley. Narrative Psychiatry: How Stories Can Shape Clinical Practice. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.
Lewis, Bradley. “A Mad Fight: Psychiatry and Disability Activism.” The Disabilities Studies Reader, ed. Davis, L. Routledge, 2006
McNamara, Ashley &DuBrul, Saschal. Navigating the Space Between Brilliance and Madness.The Icarus Project.
Rose, Nikolas. “Neurochemical Selves” Society. November/December 2003