Introduction Maps to the Other Side

Making Maps to the Other Side
Look into my eyes and I’ll tell you a story about this kid who got lost wandering
the train tracks in outer space, made his way back by leaving a trail of candy
wrappers and love letters and one day he woke up and was right back where
he started. “I had the strangest dream, Auntie Em. I was wandering the streets
mad and kissed beautiful women and walked through war zones and swam in
waterfalls and created a new language with my friends and felt the entire city
breathing in my fucked up lungs. I wrote a book about it in the future so I could go
back and change the past and then I met myself in the mirror and only recognized
what was happening when he looked me square in the eyes and told me it was time
to write the next chapter.”

Welcome to the inside of my mind
The stories and essays in this book are a collection of personal maps through
my jagged lands of brilliance and madness. They’re mostly adventure
stories—unapologetically wild and free and full of love for the underdogs, the
marginalized and mad ones. They are personal stories—about the things that
I love: traveling free, growing food, saving seeds and being a part of radical
social and political movements. They are also stories about madness and manic depression—
visionary and grandiose and sometimes messy. I was 18 years old
the first time I got locked up in the psych ward. Once I got out and put the
pieces back together I was determined to live my dreams loud and proud. After
I ended up in the psych system a couple more times I had the vision and
inspiration to find others like me and build community to change the whole
culture of mental health and illness.

Those of us who’ve been through the rough times and almost not
made it out—whether through failed suicides, near-death accidents, or psychotic
breakdowns that land us in white padded rooms—we come out the other side with
knowledge that can only be learned from living close to death. We understand
things that other people don’t about the tenuousness and preciousness of life,
and we have the choice to make meaning from the horror we carry around with
us. We find strands of wisdom waiting for us in the depths of our nightmares.
We come out the other side with scars that stay with us through our lifetimes.
And the scars become part of the maps we use to guide us along our paths.

If I want to get through this mad life I’ve realized I have to make
tangible maps for myself. I make them in my journals, I write them in the
stories I share with friends, I use words and metaphors and parables, and
sometimes very concrete reminders that help me stay on the path. Remember
to breath into your belly. Remember to sleep for 8 hours tonight. Remember you
are part of a movement much larger than yourself. Over the years I’ve learned
to chart my dips and peaks, learned to cultivate the grounding I need to come
back to center, learned to pick myself up out of the depths and rope myself back
in when I’m flying too high. I leave clues for myself in the darkness. Some of
them are obvious and clear as day and some of them are written in code, only
decipherable when I’m in the head states that need to hear them.

The contours of my internal terrain are complex and serrated, carved
from a life of adventure and pain and deep determination to make sense of it
all. To build bridges with others like me so we feel less alienated and alone.
I have scars from climbing over barbed wire fences between the borders of
depression and mania and getting my heart broken and patching it back together
with pieces from the sea and the land and the sky. My inner landscape is full
of canyons and rivers and makeshift dams. Pleasure and trauma cut grooves
into my soil like new streams during flash floods. I build stone walls to control
my emotions and inevitably they grow old and obsolete, like monuments to old
fears, leaving me with puzzles of how to dismantle them. My internal landscape
is sometimes like an unstable government with shifting borders—young, nervous
men with guns waiting along chain-link fences and bandits waiting to rob me in
the shadows. I wait till nightfall to make the long journey through the desert of
my mind. In this story I’m telling you I’m the illegal aliens and the border patrol.
I police myself the way I was taught.

• • •

Let’s get this clear—even though I use the word “bipolar” in the title of this
book, I don’t believe in the biomedical model of mental illness. I don’t think
I have a “disease” or a “disorder.” I think bio-psychiatry is just one of many
stories we can choose to tell ourselves and there is nothing sacred or solid about
it. The modern psychiatric labels locate the problem within individuals, and in
trying to fix us can be more about maintaining the current economic system
than about helping us understand ourselves. The disease model is the story that
currently dominates and erases so many other important stories. I believe in the
power of people’s stories, and in the power of language, metaphor, and collective
narratives. I have come to believe that one of the keys to our larger political
struggles lies in our ability to own and rewrite our personal stories.
So with that in mind, here’s what I want you to know before we go on this journey
I was born a sensitive kid and raised by parents who hated each other and
fought over me like two superpowers would fight over a tiny island in the ocean.
By the time I was three and my mom left my dad, everything about my life was
split in half, like separate worlds with a huge border in between. Growing up I
was shuttled back and forth between them but I never had a place that felt like
home or a place inside myself that I could trust.

One of my earliest memories involves screaming at the top of my
lungs and slamming my head against a wall over and over again till I collapsed
in pain on the floor in the hallway outside my dad’s apartment. I was probably 3
years old. I was so full of rage and I had no idea how to channel it. It was like
I had a war inside of my little body and I would periodically erupt into volcanic

From about age 8 until 13, I watched my father die slowly and painfully
in front of my eyes, hooked up to machines and withering away in physical and
emotional agony. My father was a brilliant, visionary man, and I loved him
deeply. The trauma of watching him die like that left me with an incredibly
broken heart and a kind of psychic pain so great it could cut holes in the fabric
of the reality around me. No one taught me how to mourn in any way that made
sense. I carried his angry ghost, along with the parental cold war I inherited,
everywhere I went.

When I was a teenager I was so grateful to find the punks and the
anarchists because I don’t know who else would have been able to understand
me or hold my rage and frustration at all the injustices I felt underneath my
skin. I was raised by people with a leftist political consciousness who taught me
it was my responsibility to fight oppression and work for peace, so my anger got
directed at people in power and big corporations, not at everyone else around
me. I was lucky to find a community of freaks and rebels like me, people who
weren’t afraid to share their strong emotions and channel their intensity into
creativity and visions of a new world.

I poured my 20s into creative political projects and living as full of
a life as possible. I had a hard time in school, and despite all the social and
familial pressure, dropping out of college was the best decision I ever could have
made at 19. I rode freight trains and hitch-hiked across the country multiple
times. I lived in Mexico and Central America with rebel communities fighting
the takeover of their lands and cultures. I learned how to work with my body
and I learned how to grow food on community farms. I built seed libraries and
urban gardens with my friends. I fought in the streets with tens of thousands of
others to protect the global commons. And I kept a detailed journal of my travels
and adventures. My coping mechanism in those years was that I’d pretend that
everyone I knew was reading my words as I wrote them—that my life was
important—and I was a character in an epic love story about the fate of the

This was a few years before the internet existed as a popular tool
of communication, before the rise of social networking sites and blogs. Back
in those days I wrote zines (short for magazines and pronounced the same
way)—self-published, photocopied stories that were circulated by other travelers
through our underground community. Most of the stories at the beginning of
this book were originally written for my friends. Like collective love letters, they
were my way of figuring out what I cared about and why, and were my desperate
attempt to not feel alone and despondent in a world run by bandits and bullies.
Knowing there were others out there who could relate to my thoughts was the
most precious of lifelines. It was also a way of leaving a trail for myself, a record
of my journey so I could go back and make some sense of it later on, have some
witnesses to the inside of my thoughts and the wild sights seen through my

• • •

When I dramatically ended up in the psych ward a couple times again in my mid-
20s, and then my lover and travel partner Sera committed suicide by jumping
off a bridge, I started writing stories about it. I had a quarterly column in a punk
magazine called Slug and Lettuce . Printed on cheap newsprint and laid out in
tiny 8pt font, Slug and Lettuce was distributed to punks as far away as Romania,
the Philippines, and Brazil. It also went all over the prisons in the U.S. It was
an institution in my community and it was an honor to be one of the regular
featured voices. My column was supposed to be a “gardening column,” but as it
happened, I started writing about madness and mental health. I started getting
a lot of mail. There were so many people in the punk community struggling
with mental health issues and not having comfortable language to describe what
they were going through. Then I wrote a cover story for the San Francisco Bay
Guardian Lit Magazine called The Bipolar World and I really got a lot of mail.
I also learned an important lesson which has served me well over the years—
when you are brave—or crazy—enough to bare your soul to strangers, inevitably
a bunch of them will feel compelled to bare their souls back to you. One of
those strangers was Jacks Ashley McNamara, a 22 year old queer art student
whose personal stories of madness rivaled mine in intensity and brilliant
outlandishness. The night we met in person we stayed up till the sun was
rising, sharing everything about our lives and manically deciding to start a
website called The Icarus Project. Named after the boy in Greek mythology
who is given wings and flies too close to the sun, we saw the myth of Icarus
as capturing the vision we had of our own experiences; rather than seeing
ourselves as “mentally ill,” we saw ourselves as having “dangerous gifts,” like
having wings made out of wax and feathers, that could get us into a lot of trouble
but allowed us to fly! We decided to create a place for people like us who had
been in the psych system or just didn’t fit into society and wanted to create a
new one.

Quickly, my maps started to change. The internet, and the Icarus
Project discussion forums in particular, ended up having a big impact on my
conception of myself in relation to community. Suddenly a lot more people were
reading and responding to my writings than I could have imagined. Jacks and I
were crossing paths with so many others with similar ideas, and ours became
two in a chorus of voices calling for change in the mental health system—we
wanted to rewrite the whole story of how we talked about ourselves and how
others talked about us. Jacks and I self-published Navigating the Space Between
Brilliance and Madness: A Reader and Roadmap of Bipolar Worlds. It was filled
with beautiful art and the voices of people in our growing community.
As the Icarus Project expanded its scope, more folks began gathering
face to face, and sharing the ideas with ever-larger numbers of people. We
facilitated workshops all over the country. We got a decent-sized grant and
partnered with a well-respected organization that gave us an office in Manhattan.
Jacks and I started a collective farm with a crew of our friends in the Hudson
Valley of New York and raised goats and grew vegetables. I would come into the
city every week and work on the Icarus Project from our office. We discovered
a model that some wise people had created for making personal and practical
maps to share with friends and loved ones in the event of crisis, and the Icarus
online community started embracing the vision of creating “Wellness Maps” or
“Mad Maps.” We started writing and experimenting with these personal maps,
documents of how to take better care of one another, how to identify when
one of us was having a hard time, and being clear about the tangible steps for
what to do in the event of a crisis. We had a vision of creating a new model
of community where those who struggle with extreme states of consciousness
could be embraced. Through developing our skills and reckoning with our
shared experiences we could create vibrant community support networks.
All the beautifully written maps and visions of resilient community
didn’t keep me from ending up back in the story I tried to leave behind. When
I was 33, I dramatically ended up in a psych hospital after years of thinking I
would never again be in a locked ward as a patient. It was so ironic—a month
earlier I had been lecturing to a room full of psychiatrists at the same hospital.
When the police brought me there in hand cuffs, the same psychiatrists filled
out my paperwork and ran the daily meetings for my unit. Once again my
world came crashing down around me. It became clear that my internal heroic
narrative, the story that helped me climb depression’s walls and escape through
holes in psychic fences, the one that had made me feel like I was living in a grand
love story about the fate of the world…it wasn’t going to help anymore. It had
outlived its usefulness in the current incarnation. I needed a new relationship
with it.

So I dropped everything—all my projects and responsibilities and a
bunch of my relationships (many of which had been falling apart anyway in the
months leading up to my breakdown), and I went to live in a yoga ashram. It was
an unlikely move for an old punk and anarchist—but probably the best decision
I could have made. I developed a regular meditation practice for the first time
in my life. I had the experience of living in a spiritual community that taught
me important lessons about the power of group practice and worship. I learned
how to talk about God and grace and spirit—things left out of my secular
upbringing, but not unfamiliar considering my many brushes with altered states
of consciousness over the years. I got my yoga teacher’s certification and a lot
of experience teaching yoga classes. And then, by the time I was healthy and
strong, I grew so sick of being around people who weren’t using their critical
thinking skills that I decided to go back to college.

After the ashram I moved back to the Bay Area and got work as a
gardener. At 37 I finished my bachelor’s degree. In the course of my studies
I thought about and articulated the lessons I’d learned from my years traveling
and organizing. I studied the history of political and social movements that came
before us and the healing modalities that nearly died out in the 80s, buried
under the rise of bio-psychiatry and neo-liberalism. I got wrapped up in the rise
of the Occupy movement and realized the importance of having mentors and
being a mentor myself. The Icarus Project celebrated its 10th anniversary and I
reveled in living so long, watching a bunch of my friends die, grow up and have
kids, and do totally amazing things with their lives. I got inspired to develop
a vision for collective map making that I’m still working on which involves
popular education, spiritual practice, and centering social justice.

• • •

So these are stories and essays I wrote for my friends and community over
almost two decades. I write these stories for myself as much as anybody
else. Sometimes they are my escape hatches. Sometimes they are safety nets.
Sometimes they are reminders of promises to myself or trails I left to pass on
or pick up later. I think of these words like the golden thread of Theseus, the
guy in Greek mythology that had to make his way through the labyrinth and left
a trail so he could find his way in the darkness. These stories are my golden
thread through epically crazy times. They hold ghosts of dead friends to keep
them alive in our collective memory. They hold metaphors and maps we can
bring with us into the future. They are my outlandishly flaming, heroic narrative
that spectacularly crashes into itself and has to come up with a better, more self-aware
and mature story.

I wove these words together to reach into the void and touch you, dear
reader, in the hopes that they will wake up something inside of you that feels
familiar and old and in need of companionship and inspiration. I want more
of us to be empowered to tell our personal stories of brilliance and madness
and reweave the cultural fabric of what gets labeled mental health and mental
illness. My greatest wish is that these maps will inspire you to make maps
of your own, and that you share them with the ones you hold dear. May our
collective stories rethread the tired, old, lonely narratives and build a better
future for us and the ones after us.

Mad love in mad times

Sascha Altman DuBrul

You can buy the book at:

Comments are closed.