This afternoon I attended a workshop as part of Camp Betty called ‘The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party’.
The workshop was designed to ‘provide a safe space for non-neurotypical people to discuss the impact of madness/non-neurotypicality on our lives and to share coping techniques, stories, contacts, culture, connections and other information in a non-threatening environment’.
It was surprising how much I enjoyed it. To be honest, these days I get pretty involved in trying to resemble neurotypicality as closely as possible because I know how complex in an un-enjoyable way life gets when being atypical flares up. Being ill (this is how I choose to define my experiences of depression/intense melancholy and hypomania, anxiety and dissociative episodes) is bad enough. Being ill in a social/cultural environment that demands I be well at all times or face ostracism is doubly difficult.
So yeah, I’m quite invested in being and appearing ‘typical’ or ‘well’ and part of that investment can lead to a denial of the non-neurotypical ‘community’ (I’ll explain why I put that in inverted commas in a minute) around me. I often eschew close friendships with other mad people because I fear connecting with something I’m trying to rid myself of; that I’ll start accommodating it. I’m not saying this is a healthy approach, but I just want to make it clear why I was surprised at my enjoyment.
I found it so refreshing to hear others speak freely about their experiences, and to do so in an autonomous space. It somehow meant so much more to me to see people who had similar experiences or frustrations or just some foot in the camp of non-neurotypicality, nodding their heads or laughing at things you might find funny having wandered terrain with even just a few powerfully similar landmarks.
None of us were alike, really, and there was actually comfort and great engagement in that diversity. I was glad to be witness to the reality that we all had different ideas about pathologisation, medication, autonomy v non-autonomy, how mental interestingness relates to wider cultural, historical and economic constructs and so on. The narratives we shared were divergent but in some way, unifying.
But this word ‘community’ troubles me if applied to non neuro-typical people because it hasn’t been my experience that there is one. I could have been living under a rock, but before today my only real connections with other non-neurotypical people had been with family or through the random selection of a pre-existing friend who I knew through a different social portal.
Further to that, I’ve had no sense of any community or collectivism around non-neurotypicality/madness/mental illness existing outside of the medical institutions some of us choose to access. That’s the only place I’ve had any exposure to a sense of a ‘group’ of people coming together – often people experience this sense through group therapy (others not – you can be lonely in a crowd!). Also, while there are large campaigning organisations such as Beyond Blue and Sane Australia, they often handle madness in a distinctly medicalised way. Usually they have a top-down process with celebrity patrons, rather than springing from practical and philosophical grassroots foundations.
But this afternoon, at the end of the workshop, the discussion turned to collectivisation. I guess people felt there was an itch they wanted to scratch, and a sheet of paper was passed around in the spirit of getting something started – a mailing list, perhaps, a facebook page. Something. Hexy, one of the facilitators, mentioned that she had tried to get meetings like this going in the past but had lacked the space to do it in regularly – a problem that will hopefully be resolved super soon.
Perhaps collective organising is about picking the right time, about the zeitgeist forming in a certain way in a certain place and there being enough inertia to carry the thing into something solid. I firmly believe it can also be about making sure you ration energy, avoid activist burnout, give people with enough spoons the jobs that need those spoons.
All I know is, I’ve seen some fucking amazing collective action happen in Sydney in the last 18 months. The formation of the Still Fierce Collective and the subsequent progress made by the people in it has been astounding. Organised, efficient, charismatic, and with a broad talent base to draw on, SF is a collective that is going places in terms of what it can do and the wins it is making. They’ve successfully formed a collective that has punch and drive and will really be one to watch in terms of future influence.
At the moment, there’s no real grassroots collective for madness/non-neurotypicality/mental illness/mental interestingness. There’s lots of blogging going on, and individuals speaking up, and there are forums where discussion takes place. But real people meeting in real time and declaring objectives, or even just building a sense of solidified community (taking into account the abilities of the people involved to access that community at the time) – I feel like that’s pretty unheard of.
I’m pretty excited at the prospect of what small steps could create. I feel like the time is right for a mad collective. I feel like, if given a little elbow grease and a good push or two and plenty of humility and listening, it could actually crystalise. The diversity of the people present today was even more reassuring – if a group as varying as that could somehow come together to create common goals, it would be singularly powerful.
There’s so much that needs to be done around non-neurotypicality, and the first thing is carve out more space for us where we’re with our own people, where we speak a common-ish language. That, if anything, is a good place to start.
I hope everyone at the workshop today felt those same stirrings. I’m going to bed tonight quietly excited.