Just Say No

Conventional wisdom says psychiatric drugs save lives, but for some San Franciscans the pills are a prescription for disaster

Michelle picked it up and read it immediately, straight through.

"I said, 'This is an organization that I feel an affinity with,'" she remembers. "I can't be the only one who doesn't want to take medication. I can't be the only one who wants to educate the community and the world, so that when I say I'm bipolar, people don't think I'm a complete nutcase."

It's called the Icarus Project, alluding to the tendency of many bipolar people to fly too close to the proverbial sun. DuBrul and McNamara moved to New York two years ago, and from there they've helped groups across the country start local chapters. It's a diverse community. Some people take meds and others don't, many just participate in the online forums, and others come out to support groups or events.

Psychologist Alexander Bingham believes the brain's own healing capacity far outweighs that of psychiatric medications.
Paolo Vescia
Psychologist Alexander Bingham believes the brain's own healing capacity far outweighs that of psychiatric medications.
Brooklynne Michelle is bipolar and has been living psych-medfree for more than five years.
Paolo Vescia
Brooklynne Michelle is bipolar and has been living psych-medfree for more than five years.

After finishing the reader, Michelle wrote out her life story, sent it to Icarus via e-mail, and asked if they needed help. They did, and suddenly she was the new local director.

The Matrix incident on BART three years ago was the last time Michelle 5150-ed herself. Last September when she turned 25, she threw herself a "woo-hoo!" party to celebrate the milestone her former therapist said she'd likely never reach. She works part-time at an ice cream parlor, doing creative work on the side. Her Icarus work is her charity, she says — her way of giving people the hope she's found for herself.

"I would love it if I found out that somebody heard my story and decided to go off meds and their life was better because of it," Michelle says. "But I'm not out to get everybody to stop medications."

Michelle cautions that those under 18 have to obey their parents and doctors. She advises adults that the only good reason to get off meds is if the pills make life harder rather than easier. Like Bingham, she urges people who do choose to go off meds to wean slowly, to have loved ones or professionals watching the transition, and to not rule out getting back on meds if things go downhill.

Michelle's greatest hope is for mental disabilities to become more socially acceptable. She says that could ease the intense feelings of self-loathing that people like her struggle with, perhaps reducing their tendency to commit violent acts against themselves or others.

The $6 donations were optional on March 9 at El Rio, the hip Mission Street club. It was a benefit for the re-emerging San Francisco Icarus Project.

Michelle hadn't slept the night before. She'd been working since 7 a.m., and the only thing she'd eaten all day was a king-size Snickers. She dashed around, setting up a literature table, talking logistics with the doorman, consulting with co-organizer Eddy Falconer about how best to introduce his film, which was about to screen in the packed back room.

"This is one of those days I'm glad I'm manic, otherwise I don't know how I'd have gotten through it," she said mid-scurry, laughing.

On stage behind the microphone, she struggled to keep up with her own thoughts. ("Welcome to the movie screening of IbĂ©ria, an Eddy by ... I mean a movie by Eddy, not an Eddy by movie!") She shared her personal story, and rattled off a list of things Icarus hopes to do soon — a bipolar art show, speaker panels, workshops about medication reduction and holistic living. Someone in the audience shouted, "Don't say you want to do it, say you're going to do it!" Not missing a beat, Michelle replied to the cheering crowd, "We're going to do it, we are!" The benefit raised $500.

The hour-long movie began and Michelle finally settled in. She'd been looking forward to seeing this for a long time. It's an experimental pastiche that Falconer assembled over years of his own struggle with bipolar, intermittently on and off a litany of medications. It's a collection of scenes, some serious and some farcical, many of which seem tenuously, if at all, connected to the central thread about a delusional emperor. To the non-bipolar mind, it's entertaining but makes little conventional sense. When it ended, the lights went up to more cheers.

"That movie made me feel sane," Michelle whispered.

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