Understanding Mental Illness

I had every intention of writing an amazing and cohesive article on mental health and addiction but ironically I have been too mentally ill to do so. This is a last minute attempt to put some thoughts and ideas out there for folks to think about and discuss in their own communities. This is a personal piece and I have not attempted to cover the whole spectrum of mental illnesses, only what I have experienced, questions that have been raised and how I have dealt with it.

In a recent attempt to ease my turmoil I went camping with a few friends, one of whom is fighting for her life against terminal cancer. There I was, physically healthy but fighting to not take my own life. It made me despise myself and got me to thinking about how the abstract nature of mental illness and addiction is tremendously problematic and alienating for those of us trying to deal with serious mental illness or addiction outside of the current system of western medicine and the pharmaceutical industry.

One of the most common criticisms anarchists have against the psychiatric industry is the labels that are used and the boxes that people are put into. I have been diagnosed bipolar in addition to several other labels ranging from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), to an addict. I have not chosen one label in particular to identify with as my own. Although I have spent most of my life fighting the labels I have begun to draw a certain value in reading and talking with people about their experiences of mental illness and addiction. It makes me feel much less alone in my struggle, gives me ideas about ways of coping that I hadn’t thought of, and it provides hope that yes, maybe I will make it through this bullshit.

Nowadays it pisses me off when people completely dismiss the labels because it invalidates the existence of mental illnesses and leaves me with no words to express my struggle. Something I just got through reading that really explored this idea was Navigating the Space Between Brilliance and Madness: A Reader and Roadmap of Bipolar Worlds assembled by The Icarus Project. I didnt agree with all of it or relate to every page but in general I believe that putting it out there despite the stigmatization that exists is awesome. It’s so important for people who have friends in their community that suffer from bipolar or any other mental illness to educate themselves about it in order to better understand what the meaning behind the label is.

Without understanding there is no compassion and no hope of building community support or of creating radical alternatives to the sterile hospitals we have now. Reading the Icarus Project helped me feel like less of a loser, see connections between myself and others who experience life in a similar way, and it really guided me in deciding whether to try medication or not. I just couldn’t get past judging myself as a sell—out, a traitor to my ideals—think of all the punk points I’ll lose if I don’t just get over it and do it myself!

Pharmaceuticals and the evil companies making bank off of them are the other target of criticism from the radical community. I whole-heartedly share in these criticisms but I do not believe in black and white thinking. Anything can be a tool or a tactic in the appropriate situation or time. There was this one passage in the aforementioned book by Icarus that really struck me and made me reevaluate my feelings and put aside my pride:

“I have an uncle who was one of the founders of the radical anti-psychiatry movement in the 1960’s, along with R.D. Lang and other folks. Among their many efforts, they started a safe-house in New Hampshire called Birch House for people who were undergoing mental breakdowns, the idea was that they would do everything they could—yoga, nutrition, herbs, meditation, and on and on—except use psychiatric intervention—to help people get through a serious breakdown and come back to reality. So I asked him if he thought it worked. He thought for a while, and then he said, well, it worked for some people, but we never had a single bipolar patient make it through without taking medication. We had schizophrenics and depressives and all other kinds of people, but all the bipolar people ended up needing medication. We would try being with them for weeks and they just didn’t get better without drugs.”

I also considered my bipolar uncle who has a tendency to cause serious harm to other people when he doesn’t take his medication. I’m not a scientist but I do have an understanding of the complexity of the brain and the fragility of the chemistry that happens between those fragile synapse firings. I have fought with my brain for about fourteen years now and I am fucking tired of it. Regardless of circumstances I have for the past fourteen years dealt with breakdowns and suicidal depression on a loop about every eight months or so. I’m currently on the tail end of the most recent.

One of the ways that I’ve dealt with regulating my moods is by self-medicating. I began self-medicating when I was 11 and continue to do so to this day. I smoke cigarettes when I’m really anxious and depressed, drink beer to escape and laugh, smoke weed to relax and to fall asleep, and for over a year I was completely dependent on speed. Now I fight every day to stay clean.

There is an obvious trend of stigmatization around drugs and drug users. These moral judgments serve only to further alienate, silence, and contribute feelings of shame for people suffering from addiction. The current “war on drugs” reinforces the societal stigma by legally demonizing drugs and drug use. I view addiction as a mental health issue—not a crime or an action in need of judgment. The majority of people who use drugs to cope with life and develop addictions have either a history of abuse or trauma or an untreated mental health condition.

Plainly, addiction is a case of self-medication. I bring this up because I have known dozens of people in my life that were labeled addicts or alcoholics when in reality they were using substances to cover up a deeper problem. Addiction is about compulsion. The compulsion to escape the pain and stress of life or the ghosts of the past. You can be addicted to anything—food, sex, work, but drugs do far more damage than most other addictions and spiral out of control more often. Once a person is dependent on drugs as a coping strategy everything else in life is secondary—even your own health and well-being. Once you’re addicted to drugs you become subservient to your compulsion. Compulsive thinking is a thought process based on fear and the intense desire to escape that fear.

Anyhow, I have recently in my life decided that I no longer wanted to be addicted to drugs. This leaves me in a peculiar position. If I choose to throw away the coping mechanism that has worked best and most consistently for me in my life what do I replace it with? In order to overcome addiction it is integral to learn healthier ways of coping with intense feelings so that the compulsion to cover up or run away from them becomes alleviated. I’m self-medicating for a reason and if I stop something’s got to give. If I don’t have some sort of plan or alternative to get me through chances are I’m going to end up in the hospital.

A really important piece to this for me has been finding spaces and people that are safe to talk to openly about this shit without fear of judgment. Despite the supposed openness of the radical community, issues of addiction and mental health are really unapproachable. If people spent half as much time supporting people suffering from mental illness as they did criticizing the pyschiatric industry perhaps we’d have an alternative to it. It’s an issue no one seems to want to address and those of us who suffer do so in silence. Having a support network is essential. If you see someone in your community suffering reach out to them—it could make a serious impact to jus
t invite them on a hike or to a show.

I am trying everything imaginable; pharmaceuticals, herbs, acupuncture, yoga, focusing on projects, spending time with friends, riding my bike, camping, drinking tea, sleeping, eating healthier, learning to accept and love myself despite my shortfalls, and still everyday is a ton of bricks on my heart.

Frustration after frustration is what I have found on this journey. What can you do when you need help? It sucks to feel like a drag. I often feel like I’m weighing down my friends and sucking up resources when all I want to do is crawl into a hole and die. We need to have more dialogue around these issues so people feel comfortable talking and listening to issues around mental health and addiction. Radical support groups or networks are one great idea. Merely talking about it amongst friends and in our communities is a huge step. Hell, it’s not glamourous but it’s real.

I want to put a call out for people to submit articles, ideas, stories, advice, pictures, or whatever they see as relevant to mental illness and addiction for a zine project I’m going to begin working on. Schizophrenia, self-mutilation, disassociative disorders, bipolar, depression, alcoholics, addicts—everyone is welcome to contribute. How has it affected your life? What do you envision as a healthier way of dealing with these issues? We need to begin creating alternatives to locking us up or sticking us in cult-like religious recovery groups. Let’s get started.

Send submissions to:


809 Aileen St.

Oakland, CA 94608