July 2013



Maps to the Other Side: The Adventures of a Bipolar Cartographer by Sascha Altman DuBrul

There's something particularly difficult about writing a review of a deeply personal book, one where the personal becomes political in a matter of sentences almost without any warning, but only to make you get the bigger picture. And Maps to the Other Side: The Adventures of a Bipolar Cartographer by Sascha Altman DuBrul does exactly that, seizing your own thoughts and leaving you with just one option in case you want them back: to close the book. It switches from freight-hopping to the Mexican underground tradition; from activist networks to more offline activities such as growing food in the city's landscapes, permaculture, and saving seeds as necessary reactions and alternatives to Mosanto's and Novartis's corporate monopoly ("When I listen to the news about the latest war, I take comfort that the skills I'm learning will never become outdated. I'll spend the rest of my life clearing the shortsighted mess the corporations created"); from X-raying a personal psychiatric condition labeled as bipolar disorder by conventional medicine to searching for a daily routine designed to keep depression and psychosis at bay; and from painful yet precious lessons taught by friends and a lover's death to a diversity of radical approaches towards mental health delivered by the amazing Icarus Project, the mental health movement DuBrul cofounded.

Recalling the time when he was locked up in a psych ward and forcibly medicated for the first time, at eighteen, DuBrul stipples his bipolar condition from a painfully lucid perspective. And sometimes it seems that he manages to make the best out of his condition, or at least until the mental breakdowns start taking their toll. At first, he considers drugs to be only a temporary solution, one that will be discarded as soon as he gets his life back. But this plan seems to work only until the next mental breakdown comes knocking at the door. It's DuBrul's approval of conventional drugs and their effects, both positive and negative, as a long-term solution to his condition that may seem quite surprising -- or at least, it has definitely surprised me, especially as it comes from a radical activist whom many would expect to reject the current mental health system right from the start. The Icarus Project website says:

As a society we seem to remain still in the early stages of the dialogue where you're either for or against the mental health system. Like, either you swallow the anti-depressants ads on daytime television as modern gospel and start giving your dog Prozac, or you're convinced we're living in Brave New World and all the psych drugs are just part of a big conspiracy to keep us from being self-reliant and realizing our true potential.

But DuBrul chooses the middle ground, staying on the prescribed drugs yet also trying to redefine the mainstream perceptions on this disease by reclaiming its huge potential for genuine beauty, intricacy and creativity. And from this perspective, the Icarus Project was brought into existence -- a radical mental health movement started by DuBrul and Ashley McNamara that tries to come up with viable alternatives (including the redefinition of the commonly labeled mental disease as being a "dangerous gift") to the ways the mainstream health system currently approaches, diagnoses, and treats mental illnesses. When stating that "I feel like a fucking superhero sometimes. I feel like a fucking deadbeat at times too. And I know I'm just human. And yet, I feel like I'm shaping the world around me," DuBrul points to an alternate reality to be used as a tool to mold the daily interactions with people suffering from similar conditions, with realities that cease to be "normal" according to the status quo, with hypersensitivity, madness, and the alienation and loneliness that this condition imply; but cautiously, as this tool is double-edged.

And somewhere along the line, permaculture finds its place too: the current mental health system is as much about control as monocultures are. And in this particular scheme, saving seeds in order to counteract industrial agriculture, reinforce built-in biological diversity and collective memory, and grow our own food can easily be recognized as a deeply green resistance: "a handful of broccoli seeds is more powerful than all those bombs. The bombs destroy cultures, bridge history, keep people fed and healthy, empower us to take control of our lives." Because, let's be realistic on this: there's no way our industrial civilization is going to willingly convert to a sustainable way of life, a way of life where seed-saving and permaculture play a crucial support role instead of fetishes for eco-shopping, eco-traveling, and so on. And in DuBrul's case, permaculture seemed to have functioned also as a therapy, giving a focus to the body so that the mind could wander, mapping mental landscapes with its dangerous gifts and searching for new mad, rebel stories that can replace the ones preached by monocultures, agricultural and otherwise.

Stressing the importance of building community for people diagnosed as mentally ill, DuBrul sketches his own plan to avoid getting too crazy. Committing to taking small steps at a time (balanced diet, hang-out sessions, meds, exercise, getting enough sleep, keeping track of early symptoms of depression and mania), he starts redesigning his own path forward, relying on friends and family and on their constant watch as a safety net weaved together in case something goes terribly wrong. And in precisely this community that thrives beyond the conventional framework and among people bearing the same dangerous gifts, the genuine potential that resides right on the edge between alienation and brightness reveals itself:

The modern world wasn't made for the likes of us. Modern institutions and industrial standardization feel cold and heartless because our spirits are wild. We see the end of the world in flashing billboards and clear-cut forests. We feel the pain of others like it's our own. We can't hold regular jobs or make regular friends. We're told we're sick and need to be medicated for our entire lives, or else horrible things will happen. There is no place for us except in institutions or out on the street. We're outcasts. And we gravitate toward other outcasts.

The Western standards of normality, based as they are on white privilege and fueled by an inadequate education system, are also questioned -- whiteness as a disease whose cure lies in starting to respect wildness and diversity as soon as one perceives them. He proposes leaving aside imagined and imposed cultural roots to see that there is something further: sensitive people who can go beyond boundaries more easily and much faster than others and who do need their own safe spaces to cultivate their skills and create new ways of interacting with each other, not psychiatric hospitals and drug-induced realities. DuBrul walks on a very, very thin line here, and most likely his approach will raise at least some angry eyebrows. Yet he does it deliberately:

But if I ignore the warnings and let myself fly too high, if I go to that place in my mind for too long -- it's hard to come back down. I'm caught on fire. I forget how to sleep. I forget how to take care of my body. The bridge between the conscious rational world which keeps me together and the unconscious irrational world which keeps things interesting opens up and I start losing sight of which is which. The edges all blur -- I start dreaming while I'm awake.

Plenty of cuts from Maps to the Other Side: The Adventures of a Bipolar Cartographer almost hurt, rich as they are in lively recollections of a controversial disorder that once diagnosed is largely believed to put an end to any trace of "normal" life. But the book I've just finished reading begs to differ and it surprisingly does so in a way that's somewhat less radical than the author's biography may trick you into believing:

If we want to be effective we must negotiate a balance with the system. We have to dance with our enemies because we know it's for the best in the long run. We have to be that statue of Jesus with the Mayan idols hidden inside, and be proud of it too. My culture is not getting robbed. My friends and I can find more secret stuff to enjoy that's not for public consumption. If they figure out some way to make money off of it then we'll just think up something new. I don't give a fuck about an old code of the underground scene. I'm interested in change.

Featuring relevant drawings and zine excerpts delivering various experiences and ruminations, documented and written as a counterpoint to the mainstream health care system, Maps to the Other Side: The Adventures of a Bipolar Cartographer delivers no arrogant, almighty solution to go. Instead, it merely offers a more radical alternative and suggestions for dealing with mental conditions that psychiatrists are keen to medicate and normalize. And as its pages fly by, you may find yourself entangled in a deep mixture of emotional and political bits of reality; but somehow, Maps to the Other Side works as a not-so-subtle hint that maybe, just maybe it's the whole world around us that has gone mad and not us.

Maps to the Other Side: The Adventures of a Bipolar Cartographer by Sascha Altman DuBrul
Microcosm Publishing
ISBN: 978-0978866501
192 pages