This post was written by both s.e. & Anna.
People with various forms of mental health conditions have been talking back to stereotypes and stigma for a long time, but this Mad People's History and these mad people's words tend to be overlooked by mainstream society and pop culture. Occasionally glimmers of our actual experience will work their way through to small presses and independent bookstores, and at other times bits of reality will creep their way into mainstream movies or television, but for the most part, stories are told about us by others, the same way kids will tell scary stories around a campfire. Be afraid of the dark, the crazy man in the woods will get you.
However, more of us are banding together in order to talk back. We're forming blog carnivals and group blogs to talk about our experiences both inside and outside the mental health system. We're writing graphic novels and web comics that talk about our lives. We're making films and taking comedy shows on the road and writing books. We're forming societies, supporting each other through our difficulties, and celebrating our successes. We're getting proud.
We're asserting our identities in a world that often wants us to shut up, and in a world where it can be very dangerous, as discussed earlier this week, to be out and mentally ill, let alone out and proud. We are working in solidarity with each other as a mad community. United, we challenge the society that wants to keep us divided.
In Toronto, one of the ways that pride has brought people together is through the Mad Students Society. Started over five years ago, the MSS has helped various students who have experienced the mental health system find acceptance and support, support they felt they weren't getting from "sane" doctors or "sane" professors. For Alisa, who joined the Society after being hospitalized, she found a community of supportive people who saw her as person rather than as a diagnosis. For her, an important part of finding the community has been finding ways of talking about being "mad." "It's given me language with which to talk about my experience that's an alternative to the medical model. I've found it really useful to have a language that fits with my politics rather than just the language everyone uses because it's the loudest language out there."
For Elizabeth, another member of the MSS, finding other crazy students helped her fight against the pressure she was under to drop out of school until she could "stay sane" for four years. "I had been in and out of school quite a bit, really isolated, feeling really guilty about the struggles I was having because I felt it was my fault, and everyone kept telling me it was my fault and I should give up until I was 'better.' It was helpful to meet a whole bunch of people who were doing it, who were living life even while being mad people. It made school much easier to have other people to talk to about things like accommodations, the attitudes of professors, the attitudes of the helpers we might be seeing who weren't supportive, to know I wasn't the only one experiencing that."
Both Elizabeth and Alisa talked of how stereotypes about crazy people affected their lives. Alisa spoke passionately about mentalist language (others call it psychophobic language, others lump it in with ableist language) and how her family causally talks about someone being "psycho" or "crazy," especially people who commit violent crimes, ignoring the fact that she's crazy and that this language includes her. Elizabeth hates the stereotype that crazy people can't make decisions for themselves because they're irresponsible, and that they need caretakers in order to function. This continues to make academia challenging, as universities require documentation of disability, declarations of engaging in treatment as evidence of "progress," and expectations that people return to school only after they "get well"—ideas and attitudes that Elizabeth and other mad students oppose.
A third member of the MSS is Sarafin, an artist doing a webcomic based on her experiences with schizoaffective disorder and spiritual illness. While the genesis of Asylum Squad dates back to high school, she started drawing the comic again while she was in the hospital. "The stories are lifted from my own experiences, but there are also examples of what psychosis is like in general. I've noticed there are very few positive representations of people with these disorders, so I decided to try and create something that showed the pain, and showed how it can ruin lives and make people awkward, but also present these people as intelligent human beings with idiosyncrasies. I've gotten a lot of really positive feedback on it."
Commonality and community, whether in organized societies like the MSS or in small groups of friends, online and off, can be found in many corners of the world. Sometimes, the ability to have a safe space to be crazy, to be among people who know what your life is like, to not have to perform or pretend, can be an incredibly empowering thing. To be in a space where madness is not wrong, where you do not have to worry about who is going to say the next thing that will make you cringe, the next thing that will remind you that you are not normal, and do not belong.
And sometimes, that is the place where you practice. Where you say, quietly, "I am crazy" so that you can say that loud and proud somewhere else.
"I wish people understood mad culture. The more I think about it the more beauty I see in it. It's a community that really does have its own culture that other people don't always recognize. It's one where people aren't put away or turned away no matter what they're going through, and it's really radical. If that was the stereotype about mad people—radical, accepting accommodating people, that I'd support." -- Elizabeth
* The title of this article comes from the poem of the same name by the late Laura Hershey.
Remember, you weren't the one
Who made you ashamed,
But you are the one
Who can make you proud.
Practice until you get proud, and once you are proud,
Keep practicing so you won't forget.
You get proud
Thank you for reading this series.
Talking About Mental Health Elsewhere:
- Webcomic: Asylum Squad by Sarafin
- Webcomic: I Do Not Have An Eating Disorder by Miss Pixnmix (note for serious discussions of disordered eating) (contains non-sexualised nudity)
- Resource: Psychiatric Survivors Archives
- Blog Post: Karen Healey: The Big Idea: Karen Healey
- Carnival of Mental Health: Occasional Wallflower hosted the August edition
- Article: Sequential: Canadian Comics News & Culture: Let's Go Crazy: An Interview With Sarafin (Includes images of suicide)
- Article: H. Eric Bender, Praveen R. Kambam and Vasilis K. Pozios in the New York Times: Putting the Caped Crusader on the Couch