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Navigating paths to personal and social transformation — A conversation with Agustina Vidal

81-uAuQAUkLThe Icarus Project is a mutual aid community, support network and media project for people who experience the world in ways that are often diagnosed as mental illness. It began over 10 years ago as the wild idea of Sascha Altman DuBrul and Jacks McNamara and has blossomed into an online community of thousands with in-person groups scattered throughout the world. Icarus views emotional sensitivities, voice hearing and visions, not as mental illness that must be cured, but rather as dangerous gifts that can be managed in ways that help individuals thrive. Icarus is unique in that it is entirely made up of people with lived experiences of madness who help each other and their communities to navigate emotional distress by looking at things like oppression and trauma and their effects on emotional health.

Over the years Icarus has put out several books, zines and handouts including “Navigating the Space Between Brilliance and Madness” (now in its 10th printing), “The Harm Reduction Guide to Coming Off Psychiatric Medications,” and “Friends Make the Best Medicine” — all of which can be downloaded for free from their website. The Icarus Project recently came out with the first in a series of interactive guides called “Mad Maps,” which can be purchased in print or downloaded for free. Originally inspired by the idea of Advanced Directives (legal documents to share with doctors and friends in the event of being hospitalized), “Mad Maps” were intended to help individuals identify and map their own personal emotional paths, but over time evolved to include the idea of transformative liberation of the community and society as a whole. Icarus believes in the simple idea that in order to have emotionally healthy individuals we must have healthy communities.

I recently sat down with “Mad Maps” coordinator Agustina Vidal to talk about this project.

What exactly is “Mad Maps?”

“Mad Maps” are documents that those of us who identify as mad create to help remind ourselves of our goals, what wellness is to us, and also what it means to be unwell, so we can chart paths to get back to emotional health when we are struggling. In other words, when we are feeling lost in our sometimes tricky emotional landscape, “Mad Maps” can help us get back to ourselves. It takes us step by step through the process of creating our own physical wellness documents that we can refer to when we are feeling emotionally lost. “Mad Maps” also help us identify and document ways in which those around us can best support us when we are struggling. In addition, through “Mad Maps” we trace societal forces like oppression and intergenerational trauma and how they impact our past, present and future journey.

“Mad Maps” is about personal transformation as well as collective liberation. That’s the mission of the Icarus Project to transform ourselves by transforming the world. We can’t be healthy if we have a system that is forcing people into sickness by means of oppression and trauma.

Can you describe how someone would use these guides?

There are four different “Mad Maps” guides. The first one is “Madness and Oppression,” the second one is “Intergenerational Trauma,” the third is “Our Own Personal Maps,” and the fourth one is “Collective Liberation.” So, for example, in the first book, “Madness and Oppression,” which was just released, we have an explanation of how to use the guide, short descriptions for each section within the book, and then a series of check-boxes to help the user really identify the things that apply to them. The guides also contain blank pages where the user can write down their own notes and ideas.

We developed the check-box questions by asking our community what was important to them. What kind of oppression was affecting them? How did they cope with that? And when they gave us back the answers, we assembled the central themes. Then we returned to the community, and we said, “This is what your community wants to know, do you have any tips for them?” We compiled their answers and put them into these guides. It’s kind of like a workbook. For example, it says, “How can people support you?” and then you get 20 different check boxes with all the things that people with these experiences have found that help them, so you can draw inspiration and see what works for you. And if something doesn’t appeal to you, you can choose something else. In that sense it’s like a choose your own adventure book because you navigate the journey and see where it takes you until you find your own individual path.

How are “Mad Maps” different from other self-help workbooks?

I think the first important difference is that “Mad Maps” resources are made by people with lived experience of, what many would call, mental illness. When you come to our “Mad Maps” you’re trying resources that have actually worked for people like you. It’s a way of connecting with your peers and it’s not a treatment, it’s not an institutional treatment. There’s not an authority or professional telling you how you should do it. It’s people like you, your peers, your mad ones, all struggling and fighting together helping us to be better. And the second difference is that we take a very deep look at the way that the system affects someone’s mental health. We do not think that mental illness resides solely in the brain. We believe that the circumstance around us impact us a lot. It’s very hard to be happy if you have somebody yelling racial slurs at you every morning. You cannot be happy if, when you go out, you face catcalling or street harassment. Things like that really impact the way that you see yourself in connection with society and how you can relate to each other.

So until we’re free from these oppressions then we’re not going to be able to say that we as a community are emotionally healthy.

How did the “Mad Maps” guides come together?

Many, many years ago Seven, who was a member of the Icarus Project, coined the term “Mad Maps.” The people in the Icarus Project community started helping and supporting each other and as they did this they began charting their journeys, and this is what came to be known as “Mad Maps.” Most of this mutual aid support took place on the Icarus Project message boards. When I came to the Icarus Project a couple years ago I realized that the only way you could access such important knowledge was to navigate thousands and thousands of forum posts. So basically there was all of this really important information that was completely inaccessible unless you were already in the community and knew where it was and how to get there. The idea of the book was to take that as inspiration to create a tool that everybody could download from the Internet. Something that could work for everyone and would be accessible and easy to do whether someone is alone at their computer or with friends in the community, “Mad Maps” can be used in many ways.

I didn’t take anything specifically from the message boards because some of the conversations were many years old and I didn’t feel that I had the permission to take other people’s words and put them out there outside the forums. What I used as inspiration were the conversations that people were having, the things that they were touching on. And then I reached out to our current community with surveys and questionnaires to talk about these conversations again, so I could get proper permission to use their words.

Can you talk a little bit about the next three guides that will be coming out?

The “Intergenerational Trauma” guide is a book that will trace the legacies of abuse that we’re born into. We all have intergenerational trauma. The most common one is gender imbalance. We are all born into a world where people are assigned a gender at birth that matches their reproductive organs. If we do not perform the gender that we have been assigned we are discriminated against, persecuted and criminalized and if we do perform it we have these messages, such as women are the weak sex and woman are at the service of men. At least from that point of view we all have at least some intergenerational trauma. There’s also the trauma of war that so many people have lived through and colonization, racism. Anti-blackness is rooted in the very deep trauma of slavery which is transmitted from generation to generation. Not only can this deeply impact the emotional health of individuals, but also society which keeps transmitting these anti-black feelings again and again. We need to look at this and find a way to stop these cycles. We need to get to the root of why we behave and think and are treated the way we are so that we can discover other ways of being. The “Intergenerational Trauma” guide helps people identify and work through the specific traumas that they face.

The third one, “Our Own Personal Maps,” explores the landscapes of our own terrains. It explores how we see ourselves, what language do we use for ourselves, how do we label our emotions. The mental health systems gives us language that is not our own, so your personal map is a call to recover our own narratives, to recover language and the self determination to tell our stories and the tools that work for each individual, specifically when someone might be in different states of consciousness or going through different situations in life. This guide looks at us as individuals.

The fourth guide, “Collective Liberation,” is a collection of all of these conversations that we’ve been having. It will help transform them into starting dialogues and collecting tools and skills. It will help us to transform the things that are so damaged in our communities.