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Landing with Icarus: Navigating Madness on Campus
I remember vividly the day I met my first psychiatrist. I was 14. Slowly, I climbed the stairs to the second floor of a doctors' complex in the quiet suburbs of Boston. A middle-aged woman welcomed me into her office, walls lined with framed degrees and certificates extolling her credentials. She was going to help me find a way to deal with the raging voices that had been telling me to seek control of my life by abusing my body, to quell the debilitating sadness and lethargy that kept me sunken in my bed nearly every day. The fact that my best friend was dying of bone cancer came up, but had little to do with her treatment plan. Eventually she came up the answer: Seroquel.
Over the following eight years I was subjected to an onslaught of chemical cocktails corresponding to a long list of diagnoses cast upon me — Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Clinical Depression, Anorexia Nervosa, Body Dysmorphic Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Bipolar Disorder...the doctors couldn't make up their minds. Or I was just one really "disordered" young lady.
The whirlwind of labels originated in my self-destructive attempts to deal with typical middle school agonies, a history of pre-adolescent depressive indicators, and the exacerbation of it all by the tragic deaths of my best friend and my cousin in a two weeks period. The meds - - anti-depressants, anti-anxieties, and anti-psychotics — numbed me, but did not stop me from repeatedly crashing and burning.
I remember high school as a confusing course in contradictions. I was extremely productive and highly respected, but also obsessively over-achieving and relentlessly self-critical. I cut myself off from everyone, retreating into total isolation. I also was a prominent leader on campus and cultivated intimate friendships. I often had full-blown panic attacks during class. I soared; I crumbled. I experienced utter dissociation and hyper-awareness.
I don't know how much of my emotional and psychic struggles stemmed from the supposed "diseases" or the corresponding chemical treatments. Probably, as with so many "either/or" questions, the answer is "both/and." Nature and nurture, chance and choice — all of it contributed concordantly to how my life unfolded and what I have experienced.
After high school, I began as an undergraduate at Smith College. Despite the tranquil setting of Northampton, MA, the warm and embracing all-women's community, my wellness took a sharp downward turn. I found myself spiraling in a vortex of self-abusive behaviors: barely eating or sleeping, over-exercising and over-working, and abusing a slew of substances. After three semesters, I chose (unlike many of my struggling peers, whose college's have wrongly forced them) to take a medical leave.
I ended up at an "inn" in the greater Boston area for nearly six months. The residential rehabilitation program, flaws and all, provided me with a nurturing nest for which I will be ever grateful. Living with 10 other women, I learned the essential role community has in a healing process. It proved an invaluable experience to connect with others who fought the same battles — with our heads and bodies, with societal and familial expectations, and even with the arbitrary rules at rehab (against which we routinely rebelled).
I needed to safely and fully fall apart in order to slowly, carefully recompose myself and construct a life worth living. My renewed self and life craved the energy and possibilities in New York City, and I transferred to Gallatin, NYU's School for Individualized Study, where I completed my B.A. this year.
Just a few weeks after my arrival at NYU in the fall of 2007, I found Icarus. I was drawn to it when captivated by the intriguing flyers for a student-centered gathering at Gallatin. The Icarus Project (TIP), founded in 2002, strives to envision a new culture and language that resonates with actual experiences of "mental illness" challenges the conventional framework that dictates whether you are "normal" or "disordered" (http://theicarusproject.net). Personally, I have little interest in being classified as either. But I only fully realized this when I encountered others who shared this unconventional stance.
A bundle of excitement and nerves, I attended my first Icarus meeting in the Gallatin lounge, unknowingly stepping into a world in which I would become deeply entrenched academically, socially, politically, and professionally over the following two years. The warm and welcoming community I met in that space — an exquisitely odd yet cohesive amalgamation of people — instantly eased my fears. My sense of alienation among peers who did not speak of such shunned and shame-filled experiences likewise dissipated.
Until my peers at NYU began adapting the TIP mission to the campus setting in 2005, the project consisted of local mutual support groups organized throughout the country and a hugely popular web forum community. Being part of the Campus Icarus crew at NYU, I was involved in expanding the dialogue around student mental health, providing peer support alternatives to school counseling center services, developing activist campaigns, creating art, and engaging in nontraditional academic exploration of "psy"-subjects." This has not been an easy undertaking. The school's counseling center resisted exclusively peer-based support group meetings, due to liability concerns. In a climate of continual student turnover, it is challenging to build a strong following and solid leadership base. Not to mention how thin students are spread these days between academic, extracurricular, social, familial, financial, and many other responsibilities.
Eight months after I found TIP, and eight years after I first entered the psych world, I found myself racing down Broome Street with a box of programs and a grocery bag filled with desserts. I was in a panic. This was the first Icarus event I spearheaded. Weeks of planning would come to their climax that night — a party, performance, and discussion celebrating the release of Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction, an anthology of female artists who use their art to explore their experiences of madness, abuse, depression, and the impulse toward self-destruction.
For me personally, this wildly successful event marked a cornerstone in the evolution of Gallatin's Campus Icarus group. But I realize, with excitement, that all the time, energy, patience, and compromise put into the conception of Gallatin's Campus Icarus was only a jumping off point. Now the Campus Icarus evolution - - from a vision to an implantation to a successful, steady presence — is being reenacted elsewhere. My hope is for this sustainable model to inspire students everywhere to conceive and coordinate their own versions of Campus Icarus groups.
For More Infomation: If you would like to request a "seed packet" of materials with tips, guidance, and resources for starting a Campus Icarus group at your school, email: campus AT theicarusproject DOT net.
Annie Robinson is the Education/Outreach Coordinator for The Icarus Project, and currently lives in Manhattan. She graduated this year from NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where she designed a concentration incorporating narrative theory, philosophies and politics of health, creative therapies, and social activism. Robinson is also a labor doula, supporting and empowering women throughout their birth experience.