Tag Archive | madness

Madness – It takes a village

There is a story i often tell, about a dear friend and long time member, Kristen, who went a bit crazy here (Twin Oaks) some years back.  It was not a scary kind of crazy, like my friend who punched me in the face while i was driving with him to get some food.  This was a more of an Alice in Wonderland affair, where she wandered around the community, spoke German and French a lot (which she had studied years before) and was relieved of her commune work responsibilities while she was on this adventure (kid care, managerships, and other work areas).village

Kristen had been institutionalized against her will when she was 23 years old in Kansas, and it was awful.  Imagine a prison-like situation with forced medication and unsympathetic medical people.  Even in her Alice mindset, she knew she was not going to go back to the hospital; nothing was as clear as this fact.  So we carried her.  Collectively: care teams were formed, child care was organized, her various work areas were covered  by other communards.Computer-Hospital-picture2

Of course this is what Hillary Clinton means when she says “it takes a village”. [Permit me to quickly point out that Clinton does not have a village, she has instead a detachment of secret service officers, which is not the same thing at all.]  You want to be able to take care of the people you love in the way they want to be.  If Granny gets sick, you want her in her room, with the people who love her all around and her needs getting met.

But there is this terrible problem.  Most people dont have a village, Granny has to go to the hospital or the nursing home, because i got stuff to do.  There is school or work or what ever it was i filling my days with before Granny or my crazy friend needed any help.  Most people just don’t have the flexibility of the village.

Kristen came down from her mania, and slowly took back up her responsibilities.  And half a year after her landing, we collectively selected her as a planner and the president of the corporation – our highest executive position (planner that is).pine

The story comes to mind because a general contractor friend of mine went crazy a couple years back.  He did not have a village, and he went to the hospital for a brief stay.  But after he landed, the company which he worked for did not want him to come back.  They feared that in his manic state, he might endanger the company and they thought they could manage the sales and marketing without him.

They were wrong, and now they are going out of business.  I am convinced that my friend could have saved the company if he had been given control again; he had already managed it successfully for many years.  [He disagrees and thinks the market is unusually difficult now and they might well have gone under if he had been at the helm].

But the point is, without the village and without the trust and support that the village creates, the fear of bad things happening if you reside too close to crazy people can engender exactly those bad things.  Sometimes in tragic ways.

And if you are not lucky enough to live in community and are interested in a community of people exploring alternative ways to deal with mental health issues, check out The Icarus Project 

“a radical mental health support network, online community, and alternative media project by and for people struggling with extreme emotional distress that often gets labeled as mental illness. We envision a new culture and language that resonates with our actual experiences rather than trying to fit our lives into a conventional framework. We believe these experiences are dangerous gifts needing cultivation and care, rather than diseases or disorders. By joining together as individuals and as a community, the intertwined threads of madness, creativity, and collaboration can inspire hope and transformation in an oppressive and damaged world. Participation in The Icarus Project helps us overcome alienation and tap into the true potential that lies between brilliance and madness.”

An angel pushed me down the stairs

One of our members is on the edge of crazy. I cant discuss the
details, because it is too personal and too private right now.  But
madness in community is a rich topic and I want to explore how my
unusual home deals with odd and sometime problematic behaviors of our
extraordinary members.

sometimes everything falls apart

We are not a therapeutic community.  And yet we have significant
therapeutic affect on some fairly  strange people who live here.  We
have a fair few people who talk and sing to themselves, others are
sociophobic and work mostly at hours when no one else is awake.  We
integrate them fairly effortlessly.  We relatively gracefully handle
the cook who breaks down crying dramatically in the dining hall when
it is at peak capacity.  We have members with anger issues,
depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, alcoholism, neurosis and a
host of other issues.  And we deal, adapt, comfort, embrace, enable,
disable and distance ourselves.  It is not like we are collectively
immune to the effects of mental health struggles, but for a whole big
range of odd we are more accepting and tolerant than the mainstream.
A dear friend of mine with multiple personality syndrome spoke
recently about his work with past domestic terrorist organization and
how he identifies as a dog.  Members take this in stride.

What we worry about institutionally is how we deal with someone who is
functioning outside our comfort zone.  The challenging work is trying
to figure out how those zones are defined and how (or if) we can
stretch temporarily.

One quick way to fall out of our comfort zone is not taking
responsibility for your part of the problem and instead blaming others
for things which go wrong.  This will crash relationships and
ultimately your standing with the community.  You can also erode your
connection to the community by blowing off your work shifts and
especially kitchen cleaning shifts [basically the only mandatory work
in the community is cleaning dishes once every week to 10 days, you
will assigned a “K shift” by the labor assigner – unless you have a
medical or other exemption from it.]  If you can work demonstrably
less than quota and lie on your labor sheets, or not lie on them and
this will build resentment towards you.

can we help you back from the edge?

So how do we do a good job of handling a mental health break down?
When we are on top of it, we pull people off their K shifts and other
obligations, we build up care teams around them and we send in the
folks from our mental health team.  Why it is certainly not required,
many members who serve on the mental health team have first hand
experience with these struggles.  Empathetic compassion turns out to
be a highly desirable  characteristic of a mental health crisis
adviser and care giver.

Being on a crazy (or just struggling) persons care team is often an
challenging question for me.  If it is someone I am emotionally
attached to, I almost always join up, and often play a coordinating
role in the function of the care team.  But if the person struggling
is someone I know but we are not close, I often think of joining.  I
feel like these are services we should be providing collectively, we
have the resources to do it and taking care of our own who are
struggling is one of the important things which sets us apart from
mainstream culture.  My experience with people who are struggling in
the mainstream is they often are committed to mental institutions,
even temporarily, because there is no one (or not enough people) who
can get off work to support them.

the master of surreal and illustrated madness

I remember distinctly the mental health team asked me to advocate for
a member who had hidden a pet cat in their room (in violation of our
agreements) and was in a sexual identity crisis.  I remember before I
was asked, I felt like it would probably be best for the community if
this person moved on.  But when I was asked in, my perspective had to
shift.  Like the public defender who represents people who have
committed the crimes they are accused and then gets them off via a
technicality, I was quite confident that if I did what I was being
asked to do, this problematic member would quite likely be able to
stay in the community.  Which was exactly what my “client” was asking
me to do as their advocate.  They mostly followed my advice, accepted
my edits to their public statements, dragged out the evaluation
process as long as possible as I suggested.  And this person lives
here today. They are much healthier and they contribute quite a bit to
the community and they are still exploring their complex sexual
identity.  This is from inside a place of having convinced us that
they can fit, their initial manias and uncooperative behaviors are
passed and while they are still quite unusual in their manner, they
are fully accepted and viewed as responsible communards.


For me the acid test is that if we can see that someone is likely not
going to be able to stay here because their needs for care are beyond
our capacity, that we dont simply give up on them.  That we deal with
them compassionately, and make the efforts to permit them to stay, if
there is anyway we can figure that out.  And one of the things which
plays into our ability to deliver on compassion and acceptance, is how
long the member has been here and what their work ethic is.  When
someone who has been here for a long time and has supported the
community a lot falls into a mental health break down, we will go far
to land them safely and back here.  For newer members, we can show
less compassion and flexibility.

And of course there are many stories from these incidents.  One member
was being criticized for taking to many sick hours and just as they
were getting better, they feel down a set of stairs, hurt their leg
and were unable to work again.  When interviewed about the accident
they said “An angel pushed me down the stairs,” Which was the
beginning of their unraveling with us.

it is not about bad luck

And as good as I think we are, we still have along way to go and make
many mistakes.  We have had members kill themselves, while in crisis
and in our care.  This is devastating to the community.  Alternatively, if we have someone commit suicide without us being aware that they were in trouble (as Allen did) then the community pulls together in a powerful and important way.

[This post has been edited in response to some correcting comments which appear below.  Because of these deletions, this comment below no longer refer to this post.]