The Icarus Project celebrates a decade of redefining mental health
"I was 18 years old the first time they locked me up in a psych ward."
So begins "The Bipolar World," an article published in the Bay Guardian's literature section 10 years ago, on September 18, 2002. The writer, Sascha Altman DuBrul, tells the story of his life. He'd been arrested walking on New York subway tracks after the year he first experienced what would later be diagnosed as bipolar disorder.
In the article, DuBrul wrote that the ideas shooting through his head were like a pinball game and he was convinced the radio was talking to him and that the CIA was recording his thoughts via secret neurotransmitters under his skin. But when he was diagnosed and told that he would need to take daily pills for the rest of his life, he wrote, "I wasn't convinced, to say the least, that gulping down a handful of pills every day would make me sane."
"I think it's really about time we start carving some more of the middle ground with stories from outside the mainstream and creating a new language for ourselves that reflects all the complexity and brilliance that we hold inside," the article concludes.
DuBrul was right—the time was ripe.
"Within a couple of days of it being out on the street, I got about 40 emails from strangers," DuBrul told me. "And it wasn't just one or two line emails that were,' hey, great article.' It was people pouring out their stories to me."
One of those people was Oakland artist Jacks McNamara, and the two instantly connected.
"You know the myth of Icarus, right? It's the boy who flies too close to the sun. It's from Greek mythology. So we were two people who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and we were like, instead of seeing ourselves as diseased or disordered, we see ourselves as having dangerous gifts, like having wings," DuBrul said. "And so, we put up a website that said, 'The Icarus Project, navigating the space between brilliance and madness.'"
The Icarus Project began as a website, whose forums quickly filled with discussions as more people shared their stories and connected. Today, The Icarus Project has published three books, including a guide to starting support groups, dozens of which have sprung up around the country. More than 14,000 people have registered on the website.
The Bay Area-born radical mental health project celebrates its 10 year anniversary this year. An art show, concerts, spoken word, film screening, and skill share will take place this coming week. "Icaristas" will do what they do best: share their stories in language that feels right, building connections and community.
"When Sascha and I started it, we'd never seen anything written about bipolar that we could relate to. Everything was sterile and clinical and very mainstream, and didn't really situate these sort of struggles within a larger political context," McNamara recalls.
Now, there are Icarus Project books translated into six languages, and a huge collection of writing and art in what one zine editor, Jonah Bossewitch, calls the Icarus "sphere of influence and inspiration."
"Our lives are made of fleeting moments, and to create documentation — whether in print or online or on canvas — is to make a fleeting moment into something to be shared. The Icarus Project and others who share similar ideas of liberation need to live our lives of beautiful fleeting moments, but also need to create documentation so that we can be heard," said Laura-Marie Taylor, creator of Functionally Ill, an Icarus-inspired mental health zine now in its 13th edition.
"We're in competition with the loud voices of psychiatry, advertising, governments, and other forces that want to tell us who we are. We need to broadcast our stories far and wide in order to counteract the forces that want to tell us who we are," Taylor said.