I recently had the great pleasure of speaking with Jacks Ashley McNamara about writing and creativity, madness and identity, activism and survival. Jacks is a genderqueer writer, artist, activist, and Somatic healer. Jacks is the co-founder, along with Sascha Altman DuBrul, of the Icarus Project, an alternative, peer-run, mutual-aid mental health support network with over 12,000 members worldwide. The Icarus Project recently celebrated its tenth anniversary which happened to coincide with the release of Jacks’ new book of poetry, Inbetweenland, published by Deviant Type Press. Jacks was also the subject of the Ken Paul Rosenthal documentary Crooked Beauty. You may have even read about Jacks in the August 2013 issue of O Magazine as they talked about the history and future of the Radical Mental Health and Recovery Movement.
Many years ago I happened to stumble upon Jacks’ and Sascha’s book Navigating the Space Between the Brilliance and Madness: A Reader and Roadmap of Bipolar Worlds, and that stumbling quite literally saved my life and the life of my kid. (You can download the original version here. With that book and the Icarus website I was introduced to an entirely new way of thinking about mental health and what it means to be “mad” in this crazy world.
When I heard that Jacks was releasing a new book of poetry I couldn’t wait to read it and I wasn’t disappointed. Inbetweenland holds that same power as Dorothy Allison’s The Women Who Hate Me. This book is raw and beautiful, every poem hits hard and deep. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to crawl inside of it and never leave. Inbetweenland is a fierce collection of triumph and surrender, hot sex and identity, death and survival.
From Jacks’ poem The Other Side of IncantationSometimes what is real erupts through the keys in our spine to make music like earthquakes. Sometimes it plants a kiss like a promise smudged in the corners of our souls. Sometimes it leaves a ghost in our bellies and an ache in our eyes. It does not offer instructions. We do not understand that we must practice over and over again. The other side of the incantation is doing the work. It is not enough to climb this mountain once.
Nina: CAn you talk about starting The Icarus Project with Sascha Altman Dubrul?
Jacks: Well basically in the fall of 2002 Sascha wrote this article called The Bipolar World about his experience as an activist, writer, traveler, gardener who kept having these episodes of feeling incredible and then flying too high and crashing and burning, and then getting back up again. He didn’t know how to reconcile the dramatic experiences he had with his mental health with his politics around corporate medicine and psychiatry. While he found that the hospitalizations were horribly traumatic, some of the meds actually really helped and that wasn’t something he could talk about in the sort of punk world he was coming from.
When I read this article—I didn’t know him—I felt like I was reading my life story on a certain level. I ended up sending him this huge email, and we emailed for weeks, and finally met up and were just so shocked that we had such similar stories. And all these people had written to him with similar stories and all of us thought we were the only ones. We decided to start the Icarus Project as a way for people to come together and talk about their experiences. And so we began the project by creating a website. I did all the art and design and built the website. . . poorly. . . and then other people took it over and built it better. It was just one of those times where you do the right thing at the right time. There was a real niche and all these people started coming together. And then we started self-publishing books on radical mental health, and going on tour, and leading workshops, and bringing more people into the national organizing collective and it just mushroomed from there.
Nina: You have a powerful new book of poetry out, Inbetweenland. It touches on queer identity, mental health, sex, love, your mother dying, being a survivor and so much more. What inspired you to write it?
Jacks: Well I wasn’t writing it thinking I was writing a book. I started writing poems because I needed to make some kind of asymmetrical sense out of the disaster and beauty in my life. The oldest poems in the book I wrote in the year after my mom died which was a really horribly traumatic thing in my life and yeah, so I started writing poems… Well, let me backtrack. I have been writing poems forever, but I started writing the poems that ended up in that book the year after she died and then I just kept writing poems.
When I moved back to the Bay Area in 2009 I got really involved in the queer arts scene and started performing my writing a lot. I was also coming out to myself and the world as genderqueer and polyamorous and the intersection of these things produced a lot of writing and eventually somebody asked me if they could publish my writing as a book. I said yes and that’s what really brought everything together as a book project.
Nina: So talking about being queer… one of the things that draws so many people to The Icarus Project is that it looks at how oppression affects mental health. How do you think being queer, and the oppression that queer people face in this world, impacts mental health?
Jacks: I think it depends on different peoples’ experiences. Thinking from my experience as someone who was coming out in the ’90s in Virginia and Maryland… there were absolutely zero visible role models of anyone queer that I could relate to in any way. So I had no idea of how the hell you grow up to be a queer adult. I also dealt with a lot of very visible homophobia and harassment from my family and people in the world. I felt very unsafe being queer.
I also felt very unsafe presenting as a woman. I got endlessly cat-called until I cut my hair off. So I would say for me the intersection of oppression around gender and sex and around my sexual choices deeply impacted my mental health… Because of all the harassment and the homophobia and the bullshit I had a ton of shame. I internalized a lot of the things I had been told by my family… that I was ugly because I looked like a man; that nobody would ever love me. I mean these were things that were said outright. I think that a lot of queer people, even if the level of homophobia and harassment they deal with isn’t as overt, still internalize a lot of messages that it’s not safe for us to be in this world; that the love we have isn’t safe; that we are ugly or different or unlovable. That hugely affects our mental health, hugely affects our ability to feel like we belong in the human race and whether we have any idea how to grow up and live lives that we actually want to live.
Nina: In your poem So Many Ways to Be Beautiful you have this great line this is a story about believing you have a broken heart and not a mental illness. I just love that line. Can you speak to that a little bit? What it means to you?
Jacks: Yeah, it makes me think of the line that goes around sometimes in alternative mental health where people talk about trauma informed care, and say, what if, instead of asking, “what’s wrong with you?” we asked, “what happened to you?” I think a lot of people’s mental health struggles come out of grief and trauma and broken hearts and that pathologizing the symptoms of distress that people experience is often totally missing the point and the root cause.
Nina: The title of your book, and one of my favorite poems in the book, is called Inbetweenland. What or where is Inbetweenland?
Jacks: Inbetween. (laughs) It isn’t any one place. The idea of Inbetweenland first came to me when I was living in the Hudson Valley in New York and I was spending about 2/3s of my time in the Hudson Valley and 1/3 in New York City and feeling on both very literal levels and figurative levels that I lived between all these different realities. In between the country and the city, in between man and woman, in between class backgrounds, in between consensus reality and mythical realms of reality. I felt like I, and a lot of people I worked with and organized with, were bridge builders between all these different worlds and that we were clearing out some sort of Inbetweenland for ourselves because there wasn’t a place in society that made sense for us. And Inbetweenland in the context of that poem has taken on additional meaning for me as a trauma survivor sort of living in between my body and my routine. Not being entirely here and do I need to stick around here? It’s been a pretty active question for me for a lot of years.
Nina: I heard you say, in a Madness Radio interview, something about the symptoms of bipolar as being a stress response. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Jacks: Yeah sure. There are so many things I can say. I’m not very fond of the term bipolar. If I had to talk about it in poles I would be more likely to talk about it as poly-polar or multipolar, but given our current social discourse I find bipolar useful as an adjective. What I really object to is the idea of bipolar disorder as this life-long disease. And where I see the stress vulnerability idea coming in is that I do believe that I came into this world with a predisposition to be really sensitive, and under certain kinds of stress to become manic or depressed or one of the other states that are commonly identified with bipolar. I mean I have a pretty intense brain.
I’m adopted and when I was 21 my biological dad found me and he’s diagnosed bipolar. I have three other close family members who are diagnosed bipolar, and a more distant family member who is. None of these people raised me and, hmm, we all have this diagnosis. Yeah, I feel like ever since I was a little kid I have been really sensitive and had tendencies to go into altered states.
You know but when I look at myself and when I look at those members of my family I’ve had a lot more traumatic stress than they have and my “symptoms” have expressed a lot more strongly. And I think people have different kinds of stress vulnerabilities. You know some people are exposed to stress and they get heart disease, some people exposed to stress get panic attacks. If I’m exposed to certain kinds of stress I stop needing sleep much, have forty million ideas, over-pack my schedule and start talking to God. I don’t necessarily think that I have a disorder, certainly not a biological brain disorder, but I do think I have a stress vulnerability.
Nina: Do you see a link between creativity and madness?
Jacks: I mean I don’t think it’s a question with a constant answer, but I definitely know that most of the people that I know who are the most creative struggle with altered states and have windows of time where they can access nonlinear ways of thinking or other realms of reality that help with their creative work. I also think that the intensity of feeling that is experienced by folks that get labeled as mad lends itself to an intensity of expression… And I want to be careful not to romanticize emotional distress and suffering. There’s so much of what I’ve been through that would be labeled as madness experiences that I would happily give back if I could. I would trade them. I don’t want to be a tortured artist, but I do think there is a link between extreme states and creativity for sure.
For more of Jacks’ poetry and visual art visit their website at: http://www.ashley-mcnamara.net/