Off Their Meds 

Modern psychiatrists prescribe pills for hundreds of "biological" disorders. The radical mental health movement isn't so sure

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"With an hour-long therapy session, you can record it and you can go back and listen to it and make your own notes, and you can reflect on that," she says. "A year of meds didn't supply me with any results at all, so I don't think it's plausible as an emergency stop button."

Another aspect in Nichols' recovery has been a part-time job coaching teenage cheerleaders. She fosters a sense of community with them, urging them to talk about the kinds of symptoms that derailed her own adolescence -- eating disorders, depression, suicide, even hypoglycemia, from which she now suffers. "Just knowing how common these things are in their age group -- I try to keep on top of what's going on."

"I have trillions of reasons to smile nowadays," says the blonde and lightly tanned 25-year-old. "And I had the same reasons before -- I just didn't know it."

Nichols deals with her body image every day, and her education is ongoing. After a childhood spent hoarding Twix bars and Pringles for pleasure, and a McDonald's-obsessed adolescence, she wakes up every morning with a clean slate: She knows she has to eat her vegetables, but if she wants to eat a grilled cheese sandwich or chocolate bar, it's okay. She doesn't force herself to do exercise for exercise's sake, but she's an active cheerleading coach, choreographing routines for the team and taking dance classes. It's all part of taking responsibility for her actions.


CALLING DOWN THE SUN

"It seems to me, from a lot of the folks I know, that it really requires a lot of patience, a lot of tenacity," says Ashley McNamara, talking about her latest attempts to live medication-free. "It requires crashing and burning for a lot of people. And it requires experimenting with a whole bunch of different methods." She's currently on 100 mg of Lamictal a day, a very small amount of medication for someone diagnosed as bipolar I. And she's been off lithium completely since April, when she started working with a homeopath to treat a debilitating rash that covered three-quarters of her body.

She wasn't planning to try and go off her meds, not for another few years. But when a Western medical doctor told her that she had an incurable skin disease with no known cause and no known cure, and there was nothing they could do but inject her with steroids and cross their fingers, she sought help elsewhere. And what both she and her homeopath discovered in their individual research was that exposure to lithium can trigger psoriasis. And so, after a week of lithium-free living and homeopathy, her rash went into complete remission. But she was having huge mood swings, she remembers.

"It was like having all the most volatile, thin-skinned parts of myself return at the same time," she says. "And I almost didn't stay with it. But I just had this intuitive feeling that my body wanted to get rid of this toxic crap." McNamara called her homeopath twice a day, who talked her through a lot of it. Finally, with a different homeopathic compound, her moods started to stabilize.

In late July, McNamara flew to New York to see her partner DuBrul, who now heads up the main office of the Icarus Project there. And though many things about the trip were frightening to her -- flying, the fast pace of New York, seeing her family in Virginia -- she kept her cool, taking just the Lamictal and not resorting to her emergency stash of antipsychotics to sleep. She spent time with the project's East Coast members, many of whom she'd never met before. In addition to McNamara and DuBrul, there are five or six people on the staff, some of whom are volunteers, some part-time employees. All but one are bipolar; the other one is schizoaffected, which is a condition that displays elements of mania, depression, or schizophrenia. Most came to the project through reading Navigating the Space Between Brilliance and Madness.

Up till now, Icarus has been in a financial partnership with FJC, a New York-based nonprofit. But while McNamara was there, the decision was made to transition Icarus into being a workers' collective. They spent time figuring out policies and procedures, figuring out how to make decisions horizontally rather than from the top down.

The next step for the project is to start regional groups, specifically college support groups. The members are putting together a handbook for the pilot groups, available in the fall and containing practical info, McNamara says, such as how to get started and how to get people talking once they're assembled. One of the most important components of the handbook will be information on self-care and, specifically, instructions on how to create and use an advance directive, a sort of living living will created when a person is of reasonably sound mind. People can spell out medication specifics -- what they'll consent to take and what they won't -- and what hospitals they will or won't go to. They and a witness sign it, and they give it to members of their support team.

"It's really, in some ways, a self-determination thing," McNamara says, "taking the power out of the hands of the authorities and putting it into the hands of the person who is trying to learn to take care of themselves, and encouraging all of us to be aware of our patterns and really think about what we can do to keep ourselves healthy, instead of waiting for things to go wrong and then doing damage control." Everyone who joins an Icarus Project group will be required to fill out some form of advance directive, because, McNamara says, "one of the things we're really working on is figuring out how to build an organization that is really healthy for people who have extreme mental health struggles to work in."

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