You wake up in a strange room on the other side of the world, with artifacts of your life and clues and reminders of why you’re here. There’s a small box connecting you to thousands of people in a way that eerily would sound like science fiction if you tried to explain it to someone 20 years ago. Now it feels like a psychic lifeline.
Since the night Jacks and I started The Icarus Project back in 2002, we’ve been talking about changing the language and culture of what gets called “mental illness.” If we can change the metaphors inside our minds, come up with better language, it’s a key piece of uprooting the systems of oppression that keep us trapped in old stories.
Right now I’m in Buenos Aires, Argentina and my brain is thinking in a mix of broken Spanish and fluid English and it’s so hard to stumble through conversations understanding maybe 50, maybe 80 percent of what people are saying, and then I’m just replying with jagged edges of sentences. There are all those statistics about immigrants in the US and how they have a much higher percentage of “mental illness” and it makes so much sense: the poverty is just one piece of the puzzle. It’s the communication: the lack of ability to engage with the larger society. The feeling of being an outsider, locked out of the collective conversation. I get a humbling taste of it when I cross a border outside my comfort zone.
As I type these words I’m lying on a bed in a hostel in the oldest neighborhood in the city. High ceilings, still sweating with the air conditioning, it’s the middle of summer, about one in the morning, and I’m surrounded by pieces of paper with text in English and Spanish.
My ability to communicate in Spanish is actually fairly decent. What I lack in vocabulary I make up for in enthusiasm and hand gestures and paying close attention. One on one I’m fine, but tomorrow is the first time in my life that I’m going to attempt to facilitate a conversation about The Icarus Project and Mad Maps completely in Spanish. Thankfully my friend and Icarista comrade Agustina Vidal is here to back me up. We spent hours tonight transcribing sentences and correcting my pronunciation and planning the format for tomorrow. Someone asked me on Facebook today if I was here studying Spanish and I said yes (I didn’t mention the month long Icarus Project tour.)
Next to me on the bed is a copy of my old story Walking the Edge of Insanity that my new friend and Chilean co-conspirator Happy Lee Del Canto Sabag translated into Spanish. I’ve been reading it and looking up all the vocabulary I don’t know and saying the sentences out loud. I’ve told my story a million times in English but unfortunately that doesn’t mean I’m going to be able to tell it well in Spanish tomorrow. If I can remember the first couple lines hopefully I can wing it from there.
I was 18 years old the first time they locked me up in a psych ward. The police found me walking on the subway tracks in New York City and I was convinced the world was about to end and I was being broadcast live on primetime TV on all the channels.
Tenía 18 años la primera vez que me encerraron en el psiquiátrico. La policía me encontró caminando por los rieles del metro de la ciudad de Nueva York y estaba convencido de que el mundo estaba a punto de terminar y que me estaban pasando en vivo, en hora pico, por todos los canales de TV.
Anyway, it’s late. I feel so blessed that my life just keeps getting more and more interesting.