“THE OPPOSITE OF BEING DEPRESSED” an interview with Sascha Altman DuBrul

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“THE OPPOSITE OF BEING DEPRESSED”an interview with Sascha Altman DuBrulby Al Burian (Berlin, Germany. Late June, 2011)Sascha Altman Dubrul AKA Sascha Scatter is an anarchist, a bi-polar activist, and co-founder of the radical mental health organization the Icarus Project. He was also a founding member of the New York punk band Choking Victim. During Sascha’s recent visit to Berlin, we took a long walk around the airfield at historic Tempelhof airport, and I tried out my new portable recorder on him.A: (turning on recorder) I think it’s working. Cool. But we’re both so soft-spoken, it’s just going to just be a mumble.S: I can be soft-spoken, but I can be really loud too. You should have seen me yesterday with all those Germans. They were so, uh… It was really hard to get them to react. There were about fifty people in the room, and I literally got up out of my chair, stood in the middle of the room, and was waving my arms around, making these huge hand gestures. “Do you all understand me? Say YES!” (laughs) People were very uncomfortable. A: Well, Germans are pretty reserved.S: But I got a lot of positive feedback afterwards! (laughs)A: Sounds like playing a show. In Germany, the audience just stands there and doesn’t react, but then afterwards everyone has a really intelligent commentary.S: Yeah, that’s even more infuriating, actually. Because it’s a concert, where you’re supposed to be losing your shit.A: Right, whereas you were…  well, what were you doing, exactly?S: I was facilitating a workshop on radical peer-based mental health support. What I was trying to do is create a space for people to think about issues that normally are really uncomfortable for people to talk about, even among themselves, let alone in a big group of people. This is kind of the stuff I’ve been doing for years: getting a room full of leftists, anarchists, radicals, punks– whatever– together, and saying, hey, look: as you might have noticed, people in our community often have a really hard time with their mental health, and don’t know what to do when someone’s in a crisis. The language we use to talk about mental health stifles us. So I present some new words and ideas to talk about. And the other part that’s really important is, I tell a personal story about myself. I don’t just make it theoretical. I actually reveal things, talk about getting locked up in a psych hospital, talk about what it was like to be really alienated and suicidal. You know, things that it’s normally uncomfortable for people to talk about.A: Did it seem to you like social circumstances in Germany are different? Were people concerned with the same issues that they are in the US?S: Well, one very striking difference between the US and Germany that I’ve been seeing is, in the US, psychoanalysis really fell out of fashion in the Eighties. It’s very hard, unless you have money, to actually go see a therapist. It’s a luxury. Whereas here, that didn’t happen in the same way. The reason it happened in the States is that the pharmaceutical companies are so powerful there that they just crushed it… But, as far as your question: are people in Germany concerned with the same things? Are the issues the same? The answer is, yeah. Sure. Feeling alienated and lonely, wanting people to understand them, not knowing how to take care of someone in a crisis, needing support, wanting more resources, wanting better language to talk about these things. It was all the same stuff.A: The social context isn’t that different, I guess.S: One thing that is intriguing to me about the culture where we come from in the US, which can’t really be separated from the economics, is the whole ideology behind bio-psychiatry, the idea that our problems reside within our brains, and that there’s brain chemistry—A: That our brains are like car engines that just need more oil.S: Right. It’s incredibly ahistorical. Which I think is something that... I think we come from a very ahistorical land.A: It’s very American to reinvent yourself.S: Yeah, but it’s spreading– obviously– it’s spreading all over the world. Part of me was very conscious of that; I knew, when I was coming to Berlin, that I was coming to this city with an enormous amount of history. And that I was going to be doing a workshop in a community that was very conscious of that history. So that was interesting. I feel like I’m doing this work from the belly of the beast, you know? That model of bio-psychiatry is really coming out of the US.A: You said it was the Eighties where it shifted. Is there a—S: There’s a year.A: Is there an entity?S: The best way to trace it is, 1980 was the year that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders was published. The DSM, which is the Bible of modern psychiatry. That’s the book that has all the diagnoses in it. And it was also the year that Ronald Reagan was elected president. It really corresponds to the rise of neo-liberalism, and the idea of breaking down social institutions and the welfare state. And it was a reaction to the 1960s and 70s: there were actually all these alternative ideas about what was meant by mental health and wellness. Psychiatry as a discipline was really discredited in the 1970s. There was a famous experiment where people would check themselves into psych hospitals who didn’t have any symptoms of what would be considered schizophrenia, and they would all get diagnosed as schizophrenic. There was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest– there was a real culture of anti-psychiatry. In the 1970’s there was actually a rising political movement that was pressuring the US government to create community supported and controlled mental health facilities. Because the available mental health facilities were these big, old hospitals that were archaic; no one wanted to end up in them. And there was a lot of support for it: there was a movement for what people called de-institutionalization. What ended up happening was, in 1980, Reagan just let everybody out, without putting any funding into community mental health projects. All that stuff fell apart, there was a kind of bait and switch thing, and all of a sudden there were all these crazy homeless people out on the streets, and there were no support services for them.          That’s history that’s easy to find. The part that’s not as well documented, and that’s really more interesting, is all the alternative services that were creeping up in the 60’s and 70s, and all the different ideas about how people could handle their mental health crises. The most famous one is R.D. Lang in England, he had a place called Kingsley Hall, it was a place where people could go where they wouldn’t be medicated or given electroshock or anything like that, and they could just work through their issues. And there were a lot of ideas—you can go back and look through the literature, there was primal scream therapy, and all kinds of other therapies… there was actually a lot of really useful stuff, stuff that was at the intersection of eastern spiritual practices and western psychotherapy. Things like gestalt therapy and psychodrama, various community practices, that really fell out of fashion in the 80’s. Mostly because there was a lot of sketchy stuff that was going on. There were all these charismatic leader figures who would end up sleeping with all the young women.... you know, the usual stuff that happened in the 70’s.          One of the things we’ve done with the Icarus project which is really good is, we’ve created this system, people call them “mad maps” or “wellness maps.” First of all, you figure out what it means to be in a good state of mind– which is a pretty good question– how do I know when I’m up? How does it feel in my body? What kind of stuff am I thinking about? And then, you work that stuff out. Like, if you don’t see me come out of my room, then you’re allowed to knock on the door and ask: “Hey, what’s going on? Have you eaten? Have you slept?” I think it’s a process; for sure, in my early years it would have been very hard for me to talk about stuff like this. One of the things I feel really good about with the culture of the Icarus Project is that we’ve created the space to be able to have those conversations.A: How did you get involved in this kind of work?S: I was raised by really intense people. I was raised by a man who grew up in the 1950’s in Queens, New York– he was a working class Irish Catholic guy who got politicized when he was a teenager and worked for the civil rights movement. He was a radical journalist who went down South in the freedom rides. He was a really angry man. He had an enormous temper. And also, he had a disease called cystic fibrosis, so he was dying from the time I was a little kid. So I got to watch this man who was, you know–my dad. I watched him die slowly and painfully.            And then, my mom, who was equally intense– she was raised a working class Greek Jew in the South Bronx.  She came of age and got politicized working for the John Kennedy campaign. It was that generation. She was more idealistic than my dad, My mom is the classic good liberal. Those are the people that raised me, and probably what had a big influence on me as a kid is that they hated each other. (laughs). I grew up between two different houses…A: They were separated?S: Yeah. My mom left him, in 1977, when I was three. At the height of when lots of women were leaving their husbands. Actually my first memory is from the famous NYC blackout of ’77, when I was two and a half. The lights were off in the little room I lived in. That’s the only memory I have of my parents being together, and I can pinpoint it to that specific moment.        I have a step-mother, too, who was married to my father, who is a Jewish lady that was raised by communists in San Jose, and came of age in the United Farm Workers Union, and was raised around Mexicans. So I come from this very political family…A: Activism is not something you had to seek out.S: No, but my way of rebelling when I was a teenager was, I started hanging out with the anarchists. A: Why was that such a rebellion?S: Because I was raised by people who really believed in electoral politics. And who were culturally pretty straight. My parents were both a little bit older. When the sixties were happening, they were… I mean, they listened to the Beatles. But other than that, they were pretty straight. They were definitely not hippies.         My father actually died the night before my bar mitzvah. So right when I turned thirteen. When I found the anarchists and the punks is when I was fourteen. I caught the last few years of, like, I ended up right in the middle of the Thompkins square riots. As a fourteen year old, I was so into it. (laughs).          I was really into the Sex Pistols, for some reason… well, OK: there was a girl at camp. I kissed a girl at camp, and she had a Misfits T-shirt, she listened to the Sex Pistols. And then, a friend of mine went to Bleeker Bob’s, which is a record store in New York city, and he got two tapes: Operation Ivy Energy, which had just come out, and the day the country died by the Subhumans. We listened to that shit incessantly. I remember listening to the day the country died and thinking, “oh my god, this is real music! The Sex Pistols is just some bullshit, and this is for real!”           When I was sixteen, my mom really wanted to get me out of New York for the summer, because I was getting arrested all the time at demonstrations. I was a pretty angry and rebellious teenager. This is one of the things I always say in the workshops, is that we do the political work that we do because we want to change the world, but underneath that we have our own internal reasons, whatever it is that fuels it. We often have these ghosts that we carry around. And for me, it was the death of my father. I was just so angry and heartbroken.           Punk was a really important part of my life. I was really into the scene in New York, and then I went to Berkeley for the summer to study. And that was the summer when all the riots happened in People’s Park. That was also very formative.A: You were talking earlier today about the need to be part of something bigger than yourself…S: The first time I felt that was being at a punk show on the lower east side. Being in a little squatted basement somewhere, pressed up against all these people, knocking into each other. It was like, “oh my god, this is where I belong.” Meanwhile, my mom was going to Friday night services over at the synagogue. Which was the most boring thing I could imagine.A: Perfect thing to rebel against.S: Well, that’s what’s so ironic, all these years later… I mean, I studied Hebrew last summer.A: You’ve come around to it?A: Well, it’s old. Punk is not so old. That’s one thing that’s so fascinating about being in Berlin. I mean, what it means to be a Jew here compared to being a Jew in New York City. Being a Jew in most places is pretty different; there are more Jews in NYC than there are in Israel. It’s the dominant culture where I come from, in a lot of ways. I didn’t even notice it. I wasn’t raised to think of myself as Jewish. I was raised to think of myself as another white person. Which is the American thing…. I took this class at graduate theological union last year, called “from Spinoza to Seinfeld: the history of secular Judaism.” And one of the things that I learned is, it’s actually American Jews that have played an enormous role in the creation of American white identity, and what it means to be a successful American. So many Jews were so determined to give up their identity because it was so stigmatized. And America offered the ability to do that. But this idea of whiteness: where does it come from? It’s complex.A: Maybe this is too big of a jump, but how did you go from punk shows on the Lower East Side to living in a yoga ashram for a year?S: Man, that is a really big jump. (pause) Do you remember where we first met?A: Sure. Portland. We were both going to Reed College. We hung out a few times and went to a couple of shows. And then you disappeared. But that happened, like, once a week at Reed.S: My senior year of high school, I had all these friends that started shooting up. My girlfriend started shooting dope. I got really scared. My plan was, when I finished high school I was going to ride freight trains around the country and have adventures. Instead, I studied really hard, I got good scores on my SAT’s, and I got into Reed, which is where my step-mother had gone.           My dad wanted me to go to Harvard. He went to city college­– we could talk about class issues, and that would be a whole other aspect of madness. I was raised by this guy who was very strongly identified as working class and hating rich people. Yet he wanted his son to go to Harvard. He wanted something better for me, but he also had very traditional ideas of what that meant.             In retrospect, going to Reed was a terrible idea. I went there and left all my friends behind. These are good times, I think, to articulate what we mean when we say “friends.” That’s the first thing I do when I go into college classrooms, I ask, “how many of you have a facebook account?” Everybody raises their hand. “OK, of all those ‘friends,’ how many people would be there for you in a crisis?” I had friends, but no one who was really close. No one who could see what was really going on with me.            When I was eighteen I was locked up for the first time and diagnosed as bi-polar. I was down in Berkeley visiting some friends, and I was freaking out, so they put me on a plane home to New York and then… then I had this day. It was late summer of 1993. I spent the whole day walking around New York City, and I was convinced that it was my last day on earth. That the world was going to end. See, there’s this thing that happens when you get manic: it’s like the opposite of being depressed. When you’re depressed, nothing has any meaning, but when you’re manic... AB: Everything is loaded with hidden messages and subtexts.S: Right, exactly... So, that day in New York, I got down in the subway tunnel and started walking along the tracks. I walked through two stations before they pulled me off. It was a Friday night at rush hour. I didn’t actually think that I was trying to kill myself, I just thought it was what I was supposed to do.A: Do you take bi-polar medication now?S: I’ve been taking Lithium for the last ten years. People have really different experiences taking these types of drugs, that’s one thing that’s really important to keep in mind. It seems like there’s a lot of people that take lithium and have a really bad reaction to it. On the other hand, it’s the only drug that works for a whole lot of people.          I don’t plan to be on this stuff forever. But I have a pretty intense personality, you know? We get this range of emotions, and lithium blocks some of them. When I go off of my lithium it’s going to be a slow process, and it’s going to be hard.          For years, what I used to say was that I regulated my brain chemistry through a mixture of lithium and marijuana. Because they are like opposites to each other. I could stay stable with the lithium, and then smoking weed is instant mania. Now I’ve learned that I have to be really careful with it. Three years ago, I lost it again. That’s how I ended up in the ashram.A: what happened?S: I lost interest in other people. I felt connected to larger forces.... I can’t let myself go there too much. For sure, if I’m going to get off of lithium, I’m not going to be able to smoke weed!A: In that sense, it isn’t so ahistorical.S: what do you mean?A: the idea that you’ve got some brain chemistry that you need to regulate. Coming up with some chemicals to level you out— people have been using drugs and alcohol for that purpose for a long time, pretty much for as long as there have been people.S: Well, you could draw a parallel between Monsanto trying to regulate seeds, and governments telling people, no no, you can’t use those kinds of drugs, even though you can grow them, you can produce them yourself, you have control of them– you have to do these kinds of drugs, that we have control over.A: Do you know much about the writer David Foster Wallace?S: I know the name, but I haven’t read anything by him. What’s his story?A: He was on this anti-depressant medication called phenelzine for years and years; I guess his entire literary career basically happened on this medication. And then at some point, he was experiencing side effects and wanted to get off of it. The problem was, once he did, nothing else worked for him. He killed himself not long after he stopped taking it.          A lot of people were really shocked by his death. He was “the voice of his generation,” who seemed to have it all: literary acclaim, commercial success, a university teaching job, recently married... the main thing about it was, he was just so damn intelligent. It’s especially unnerving when really smart people decide to kill themselves.S: what’s his writing about?A: A lot of it is about addiction, alienation, depression, and anxiety. Most of his characters seem like they are about to lose their minds. He describes the disorienting effect of living in an information-overloaded society very well. His stuff can be pretty brutal, but the weird thing about it is that it’s also incredibly fun to read. A lot of critics seemed to be too busy fawning over his style to notice the content. He’d write the darkest, most horrific stuff and the cover blurb on the book jacket would say, “Hilarious! Laugh out loud funny!”          I don’t know... he’s a great writer, but... I don’t know if I’d recommend it. I’m personally trying to keep away from him, actually. In a way he represents, to me, the futility of trying to think your way out of it.S: The futility of trying to think your way out of it. I think that’s really key. I thought about that quite a bit yesterday, interacting with all those Germans, who are all clearly so up in their heads. Part of me wanted to just say, “everybody up, out of your chairs! Let’s do some breathing exercises!”           That’s what the yoga ashram taught me. I was depressed as fuck when I showed up in that place. And it was regimented, it was almost militaristic in its regimentation– praying, meditating, doing yoga. You make a three month commitment, and you can go live there. So I put up a tent on the beach. You’d get up at five, at 5:30 you’re sitting in the temple meditating, you do that for half an hour, chant in sanskrit for another half an hour, then you go do two hours of yoga, eat breakfast, and then you work all day.A: Work on what?S: I worked in the garden, I worked in the kitchen. Depending on what your skills are. Just physical labor, stuff that keeps you occupied. The idea is that you’re supposed to think about God all day. It was fascinating to me. I was– like you, it sounds– raised in a very secular environment. But there is something missing from that, you know? And it wasn’t that I need to be bowing down to statues of Ganesha or Vishnu. It was the feeling of being around a bunch of people who actually, really valued feeling that connection to something higher. I could relate to it. Even though I wasn’t raised in a spiritual context, the experiences that I’ve had with mania have been so spiritual, if I had been raised a Christian I would have thought I was Jesus.A: Instead you’re an anarchist.S: I’ve read my history. I learned about the European Enlightenment, made sense of where the philosophies of the sub-culture I came from drew their historical understanding. Marxism is in some ways very Biblical. There are a lot of things about Buddhist philosophy that are pretty punk. All of these things eventually overlap. I don’t think there’s any future in de-spiritualized communities, or cultures. You can look at the Left in the United States, and how much better the religious right is at organizing, because they have God on their side. Compare that to my mom in her apartment in Manhattan, reading the Nation magazine.             For myself, it came from having what I didn’t realize at the time were spiritual experiences– in the punk scene, with the anarchists. The ashram was so weird, but it was so good for me too. I had been living there for two months already, and I asked this question to the Swami, who is this Israeli guy wearing an orange robe– the ashram was run by Israelis, that’s why it was so militaristic (laughs). I asked, what is the relationship between hinduism and yoga? And he gave me a good answer, which is that every major religion has mystical components to it, the Jews have kabalah, Christianity has all these sects, Muslims have sufism, and yoga is the mystical element of hinduism. It’s more complicated than that, but if you just take that and think about it– all of these mystical philosophies have a lot more in common with each other than the larger religions do. There is a core set of beliefs. You can see where the religions come from. They come from these brilliant people who are in touch with stuff that not everyone is in touch with. And then, ideas get formed around them, and at some point it gets really fucking stupid, because it doesn’t make any sense when it’s so removed from the original context.              Because I come from the punk scene, which is very much a sub-cultural community, I have a large appreciation for how subcultures end up effecting the mainstream. But in order for them to continue to do it, they have to stay subcultures, they can’t totally become mainstream. The metaphor I started using some time ago is dandelions, check it out—(he walks over to the side of the airstrip, where, in a patch of scraggly grass there are, indeed, dandelions blooming)Anytime you see stuff growing, there’s the topsoil that it’s growing in and then there’s the sub-soil below it– that’s the heavier stuff that’s based on the bedrock that’s further below. Most of the action is happening in the topsoil, but then there are certain plants, like dandelions, that have tap roots that go down into the sub-soil, and pull up nutrients from the sub-soil that can’t be accessed by the other plants. When the dandelions die, that stuff breaks down into the topsoil. So they are a neccesary part of the eco-system. You have to have the plants with the deep tap roots. 

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