Mad Farmer Sascha #71 - Madness and Manic Depression

Madness and Manic Depression - Carving out a Life

“My mind is like a switchboard - with crossed and tangled lines.
I don’t know what’s going on - it’s the operators job not mine.”
                -Poly Styrene   X-Ray Spex  1977

    Just to lay down the backdrop here: last issue I wrote a pretty painful eulogy to our friend Sera Bilizikian who took her own life by jumping off a bridge into the Susquehanna River this past January. I talked a lot about my own experience as someone who’s been struggling with manic depression for a bunch of years and how I’ve had to come to grips with the fact that I have a pretty crippling chemical imbalance in my brain that makes me dangerously unstable if I don’t take really good care of myself. I talked about my last hospitalization in a psych ward which forced me to alter my lifestyle significantly, not the least aspect being that I now take psych drugs everyday and plan to for a long time until I figure out some better plan. At the end of the column I put a call out to folks who wanted to get in touch and dialog about mental health in our community, especially around the issue of drugs, and talk about ways we can build alternative support networks for people going through hard times inside their heads.
    It’s pretty incredible actually but I’ve gotten dozens of letters, way more than I could answer, and the experience has really left me feeling excited about helping to be a part of initiating a conversation in our community that has remained taboo for so long. The letters have ranged from folks talking through comics about their struggles with alcoholism and madness to folks in prison, kids talking about their folks trying to force Prozac on them and how happy they are for not doing it.
    While I was in the middle of writing this column I happened upon the new issue of Adbusters magazine at one of our local bookstores. For those not in the know, Adbusters is published out of Vancouver, Canada and was a huge inspiration to a lot of us billboard altering, radical media activists in the 90s. Their right on critique of consumer culture and corporate globalization mixed with a strong environmental slant and really slick graphics was a refreshing to those of us used to getting the majority of our revolutionary propaganda through cut and paste black and white newsprint. In recent years the magazine has gotten a lot more glossy and annoying in that wanky ‘postmodern’ way that uses lots of elitist language and can be really impractical and alienating to almost everybody, but I still think it’s pretty cool and sometimes they have a thought provoking article or two. 
    Anyway, I actually bought the latest issue because it was dedicated to ‘Mad Pride’ and I figured: “Hey, I’m pretty mad and proud!” And I read it. And I was pretty underimpressed. What they’re essentially saying, and this is not a new critique by any means, is that what we as a society view as ‘mental illness’ is actually just a by-product of capitalism
    The disturbing part to me is that on some level I know they’re right. My most vivid memory of being locked up in the psych ward when I was 18 was how the psychiatrists would come onto the ward everyday in their fancy suits and write us prescriptions with these huge expensive gold and silver Cross pens that said ‘Prozac’ and ‘Xanax’ on the sides. I’d sit there drooling on myself from all the meds while they’d seemingly arbitrarily add new pills to my ‘cocktail’ everyday (that really is the psych jargon for stuffing people full of drugs.) It would literally be a situation where they’d give me a drug that would have the side effect of making me drool so they’d add another drug to counteract the side effects of the first drug but that one would make me shake, so they’d keep me on the first two drugs and add a third one to counteract the effects of the second one which would end up making my pupils be all dilated so I couldn’t go outside in the light, so they’d try a forth drug. I’d be taking these huge handfuls of pills and walking around like a zombie.
    The doctors get kick downs the more drugs they peddle, not exactly a recipe for responsible drug prescriptions. In the last ten years, almost as long ago as my first lock up, the rate of antidepressant use has increased 800 percent (I learned that from Adbusters.) The government is obviously in bed with the drug companies who control the medical reports which come out about the side effects and long term use of the drugs. There are big gaping holes in the field of psychiatry, like for example how they don’t really know what to call lots of things so they just call them ‘schophrenia’, which very well might be more of a social construct than something based in hard fact. Meanwhile, the world is a fucking mess full of war and mass poverty and impending ecological disasters, and all the drugs in the world aren’t going to save us from it. It’s easy to see how people in my community come to a conclusion that psych drugs
    But there’s a big missing piece from the argument
    How do I reconcile my political beliefs that the drug companies are evil with the objective experience that the drugs are helping me keep my shit together and stay alive?  While anti-depressants are way way overprescribed, that doesn’t negate the fact that they can be a very useful tool and have the power to safe a lot of lives. (My friend made the analogy of penicillin the other day and it’s a really good one - anti-biotics are way over prescribed in our culture, but they sure come in handy when they’re really needed.) Big questions.
    In any event, here’s my response
    So I had big plans for this column but I’m cutting things down to the deadline wire, so forgive the rush. Here’s what’s been on my mind: I’ve been reading two amazing books lately: The first one is called Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison and is a study (by a psychiatrist who herself is manic depressive) about the relationship between our particular breed of mental illness and the creation of brilliant art. She talks about the work of many famous classical writers, artists, and musicians who suffered horribly from ‘madness’ but how their ability to produce such amazing work was totally tied to the fact that they had the ‘disease’ of manic-depression, and brings up some provocative questions about the role of madness in culture.
    What I think is so important about the book is how, rather than denying the existence of the horrible sides of manic depression and the need to treat it chemically, she allows room for talking about treatment while documenting extensively the incredible work that has been produced by artists slipping between states of mania and depression.   
    Through her and extensive quotes and examples from folks like Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot, Hermann Hesse and Vincent Van Gogh, she creates a space to talk about manic-depression as something more than a ‘disease’ without falling into the trap of simplistically reducing it (like the Adbusters folks) to a social construct - a by-product of capitalism (which folks like me who actually suffer from mental illness unfortunately know is a load of fucking bullshit.) But that paradox of something so deadly and painful actually being something beneficial to society, something integral to culture and beauty, that’s the crux of Jamison’s book and that’s why it’s so cool.
    “Although manic-depressive illness has long been assumed to be genetic in origin, and its strong tendency to run in some families but not in others has been observed for well over a thousand years, only the recent radical advances in molecular biology have provided the techniques to enable highly sophisticated searches for the genes involved. Similarly, an almost unbelievable increase in the rate of study of brain structure and function has resulted in a level of biological knowledge about manic-depressive illness - this most humanly expressed, psychologically complicated, and moody of all diseases - that is without parallel in psychiatry. The ethical issues arising from such knowledge, and from the possibility that such a devastating illness can confer individual and societal advantage, are staggering: Would one want to rid of this illness if one could? Sterilization of patients with hereditary psychosis, most directly applicable to those with manic-depressive illness, was once practiced in parts of the United States, and large numbers of individuals with manic-depressive illness were systematically killed in German concentration camps. Even today many provinces in China enforce mandatory sterilization and abortion policies for those with hereditary mental illness. What will be the role of prenatal diagnosis and abortion once the manic-depressive genes are found? What are the implications for society of future gene therapies and the possible early prevention of manic-depressive illness?” (P.8)
    One of the most interesting chapters to me was entitled ‘This Net Thrown Upon the Heavens’ and was about the modern use of medicine to relieve the symptoms of manic-depression and the dilemma faced by many artists of how to keep their creative edge while keeping themselves from self-destructing. It’s something I think about a lot because its become pretty clear to me that I become a lot more creative when I draw out my manic side, and I have to be really careful how high I let myself fly before my wings start to burn.
    “Artistic creativity and inspiration involve, indeed require, a dipping into prerational or irrational sources while maintaining ongoing contact with reality and ‘life at the surface.’”
    And I think about that a lot, how the trick for me these days seems to be to figure out how to stay grounded while still being in touch with the part of me that’s totally crazy and on fire. (the ‘prerational’ part of me as Jamison so scientifically and academically and unpoetically puts it even though I totally know what she’s talking about). Taking Lithium definitely doesn’t kill it, ask anyone who hangs out with me these days, it just allows me the ability to control it better. (Thankfully. Let me tell you: I was pretty worried those first six months when I was rebounding in a depressive haze from the jail/psych ward/manic fiasco that I was just going to be a vegetable forever.)
    The second is a big heavy textbook called Essential Psychopharmacology: Neuroscientific Basis and Practical Applications by Stephen M. Stahl. It’s not exactly what you would call light reading, but its been very empowering for a kid like me. Check it out: I’ve been feeling a little like one of the androids in Blade Runner these days (am I the only one whose life always seems to come back to metaphors from this amazing early 80s apocalyptic sci-fi movie?). If you recall (I guess I’m assuming all you 21st century punks have seen it but if not I suggest you go out and rent yourself a copy pronto) the androids are these incredibly human-like creatures that have escaped from a neighboring planet where they were working as slaves. Back on earth, being hunted by the law, they are looking for their creator who has designed them so that they only live for four years. Basically, the droids are feeling their mortality and they’re desperately trying to figure out how to live longer: they’re so smart they’ve found their own blueprints and are trying to reprogram themselves for longer life. A big metaphor for people and modern science.
    So here I find myself, 27 years old, grappling with the intense reality that I have a genetic disease of the mind which supposedly only get worse with age, lying in bed at night studying these complex diagrams in a psychopharmacology textbook, very conscious of the fact that my brain is reading about itself, that I’m reading my own blueprints.
    Let me say right now that I don’t have any background in biochemistry or any science really. To study all that stuff takes lots of mathematical knowledge and I’m one of those kids that barely passed Algebra II so I could graduate high school. Some people’s minds are just not very good at math and I’m one of them. I like to think that I make up for it with a really charming personality. But don’t ever ask me to do your taxes. All that aside, if I really want to learn something, I learn it. So right now it’s neuroscience. More specifically: psychopharmacology, or what modern science understands about brain ‘disorders’ and how the different psych drugs work to help them or relieve the symptoms. Very practical for my life because I’ve been on and off psych drugs since I was 18 and I still take three of them (one only for brief periods when I feel myself starting to slip into a psychotic episode [Zyprexa 2.5mgs], one that I’ll probably taper off eventually when I’m ready but for the moment I’m really thankful for [Wellbutrin], but one that they say I’m going to have to take for the rest of my life [Lithium Carbonate].) I find that the more I learn about how the drugs work, the more empowered I feel, the more in control of my life I become.

    This year will be the third annual  D.I.Y. Skillshare Gathering here in the East Bay of California, where folks in our extended community come from all over to take and teach workshops ranging in everything from Building Home Graywater systems to Making Biodiesel  and much more. It’s a pretty amazing event and has spawned similar gatherings all over the country. In the past I’ve taught Urban Permaculture and Seedsaving workshops with my friends Clea and Chris who are fellow radical city farmer folks. This year, if we get our act together, me and my friend Elizabeth (who’s a badass punk rock social worker in San Francisco) are going to be teaching a workshop called something like ‘Demystifying Psych Drugs for Anti-Authoritians.’ I imagine we’ll be putting together some kind of zine to go with it as a reader. I’m hoping that through our public discussion we, as a community, can begin to understand the workings of our brains a little better and carve more of a space for dialog about the role of psych drugs in our community that goes beyond the more simplistic discussions about the evils of psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry.
    Since I’ve come out publicly as someone diagnosed with manic-depressive illness, I now meet people all the time who are going through their struggles being diagnosed with things like obsessive compulsive disorder and schitzo-affective disorder and panic disorder. From the letters I get from (young suburban teenagers to lifers in prison) cause of this column, to the conversations I have with some of the traveler kids who sleep on our couch at the Battcave, to the people in my Oakland community who know now that I’m a good person to confide in if they want to talk about how fucking crazy and suicidal they feel -- all of us are trying to make sense of what it means - sifting out the bullshit from the realities of it, trying to figure out how to take care of ourselves and each other in this damaged and confusing world. And the big struggle for so many of us: how much do we trust the doctors and the drugs when the ethics of our scene are all based around self-reliance and sustainability, doing it ourselves and not getting trapped in the system.
    So it leaves me wondering: as a mental health activist (by default I guess that’s what I’ve become because I’m an activist and I’m crazy and now I’m actively organizing other crazy people so we can empower ourselves) who advocates the use of psych drugs, what role does that put me in regards to the mainstream psychiatric world?, the drug companies?, the other activists who actively oppose the use of psych drugs? What side am I on? Am I going to get a call at some point from Eli Lilly the pharmaceutical giant offering me money to write a book for teenagers about how revolutionary and cool it is to take Zyprexa? I’m scared. All the lines are blurred.
    I’m really looking forward to a couple years from now when I know where I stand more on some of this important shit. When I feel more comfortable with the language in my mouth and I don’t stumble all over myself when I find myself using words like ‘illness’, ‘disease’, and ‘disorder’. Hopefully we will have created a better common language by then. In the meantime, lets figure out how to open up more of a dialog.

Shades of grey

So that’s it.
If you want to learn more about Manic Depression there a place in Chicago called the Depressive and Manic Depressive and if you call them up they’ll send you a free pack of information with a video and everything
In contrast, if you have web access, check out: www.prozacspotlight.org which is the Adbusters site with links to a bunch of radical anti-psych websites. Some interesting stuff, some stuff seeming bullshit, but refreshing non-corporate Nonetheless. I’d be REALLY interested in helping to put together a website/zine full of practical information resources about how to find help for folks struggling to make sense of their mental conditions mixed in with personal testimonies, stories, and art from folks who’ve been dealing with madness and the mental health system. I’ve already gotten some really great stuff in the mail that deserves other people checking it out. Although I’ve never set one up, I’m leaning more towards a website because it can be easily updated, accessed by more people, and I won’t have to figure out how to print a ton of copies of it. What do you think? Would that be a good thing to have around?

ps I’ve gotten a number of really amazing letters from folks locked up in prison who desperately need contact with the outside world and would be so happy to hear from you if you wanted to write them. I don’t’ have time or my shit together enough to respond to all the amazing mail I get, but I would be so happy to pass on addresses of some of these guys if you want to meet some grateful pen-pals. Being locked up is no fun.
pps. I was dancing at the Harum Scarum show at the Gilman Street club as the deadline passed for this issue.. No matter how hard I try sometimes I can’t get my brain to cooperate with me to sit down and write. I’ve had mad writers block lately Apologies to everyone for the choppy and half-finished nature of this column and extra extra apologies to Chris who is an incredibly supportive friend and a gem of a human being and ridiculously patient
ppps. if anyone knows where Sheri Gumption from Michigan happens to be at these days would you tell her to please track me down, I miss her.