Dina began to pray, and you know when Dina starts to pray, things are getting serious.
Dina Tyler, my longtime colleague and beloved friend, and I had been having one of those days again. The days that I think we can all relate to: pandemic-addled, careening-towards-ecological-catastrophe, pervaded by brutal economic inequality and greed, terrified by the threat of potential nuclear war, hiding in our screens and social media bubbles, retreating into goblin mode disarray. Teetering on burnout. Both of us have many years as organizers in the psychiatric survivor movement, me in Portland Oregon and Western Massachusetts, and Dina with her work in the San Francisco Bay Area. We are both deeply nourished by our work, but we also carry the scars of conflict and the burden of burnout that so many activists carry. We had an emptiness inside us, parts of us had lost hope.
We felt our life dream, the dream of abolishing psychiatry and replacing it with love was failing. And that’s all we could think about. It was one of those days.
Failing not in the small things—we do see people get out of the system, we see people reclaim their freedom and heal their pain, we see ourselves finding a life outside psychiatry, and we know that there are many victories to celebrate: our issues are more visible, there are a few more alternatives (a few). But failing in the big picture, failure overall of our movement. More people are harmed by drugs than ever before, more people are crushed by psych labels than ever before, more people are kidnapped and assaulted by psychiatric forced treatment than ever before… and our society is more harsh and cruel and materialist and competitive and isolated than ever and just doesn’t want to make space for mad people. A seemingly endless horror of human destruction caused in the name of business as usual in a capitalist economy, harming people in the name of neglect and “mental health” as society marches in an endless rat race to nowhere. Things were only getting worse at the big picture level, in the years since we started being volunteer activists. Only getting worse.
We both were diagnosed with psychosis years ago, and even though we both have stepped into completely different lives, even though we have defied every prediction the doctors and hospitals tried to burn into our minds with drugs and scary-sounding scientific jargon, we still have our deep inner fears. What if all the activism we did was just a futile waste of time, a fool’s self-indulgence to be volunteer advocates for so many years? What if we really are just crazy? We are both getting older, and not making much money, activism seems like just running in circles… NAMI steals movement ideas and slick money people with salaries and grants seem to rise to the top on the backs of volunteers… What’s the point of putting more volunteer energy into this vague thing we call “the movement”? Maybe we need to just focus on our careers… Settle down. Get real. Grow up. What if we need to not just be ex-patients, what if we need to be ex-activists? We did our part, we tried, and maybe now it’s time to focus on ourselves, not changing the world. What if we need to just… move on?
But we also had this idea… and it was kind of a crazy idea. We were not sure. We kept sort of setting it aside… leaving it alone… But we had this idea.
Dina and I were dear friends with Jay Mahler—and Jay was a very close colleague and mentor for Dina (we interviewed Jay on Madness Radio, you can listen here). Jay was a connection with the roots of the psychiatric survivor movement for Dina and also for me: Jay came up in the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, and had been in the very early days of the ‘60s New Left, anti-war, and civil rights protests that were the crucible for protests and activism to abolish psychiatry, days that gave birth to everything in mental health activism today, from the peer movement to the rights and advocacy system to patient-run organizations like the Pool of Consumer Champions, to paving the way for Open Dialogue and Hearing Voices Groups to take hold. Jay was a direct link for us to the energy and vitalism at the heart of the movement. And so when Jay died last year, our own hopelessness and despair were made darker. We lost one of our inspirations, one of our shining lights. It was fading, maybe we should just move on.
But we also, from Jay, had this idea. Or rather Dina did. Jay told Dina stories about the early days, the organizing… It was really just friendship, community, and connection… People hanging out. No screens. No zoom. No email lists. No webinars. No tweets or posts or feeds or whatever people are up to today. Just people. And they used to go to the park and camp; they used to talk and meet and share food and bond. And from that human connection, the fire, commitment, and vision of the psych survivor movement were nourished.
Dina had seen the film Crip Camp about the summer camps disability activists organized for people with physical disabilities… and even in the dark times of grieving after Jay died, Dina had this idea. What is the real source of our inspiration, of our hope, of our vision? What is missing in our moments of despair and burnout, what really do we need more than anything? Each other. Not jobs or grants or events or even conferences. It’s each other. That’s the heart of the movement. And with all the money and recovery industry grantmaking and contract bidding and job description writing and certification training and likes and shares and branding and all of it… we were, as a movement, and us as people, drifting away from the simple truth: the mad movement is about people meeting each other, face to face, and forming bonds of caring and camaraderie.
So how about a gathering that’s just about people, to connect and know each other and just be together? What if we have fun? What if we relax and hang out? What if we play? What if we meet each other? We started to get excited. This is the antidote to hopelessness, fear, isolation, burnout… each other.
We decided to organize a summer camp. A summer camp for mad people. Mad Camp! We were going to organize Mad Camp!
Crazy? You bet!
And so we finally decided to take a big leap of faith and take our idea into practical action, put it out in the world and start gathering supporters and resources. But we still weren’t sure. We hadn’t taken the first step.
So Dina led us in a ritual.
And we found some clarity, some strength, and yes, some faith. (Or we found a self-delusion and a sense of inflated grandiose self-importance in a hypomanic moment—however you want to see it, go ahead, it works for us!). And we announced Mad Camp to the world.
A first post, a fundraiser launch, calls to friends (especially Monica Cassani, who joined our volunteer crew right away), more discussion… We didn’t know what would happen next. But Mad Camp started to take form, and each step of organizing this project—which is really super complicated logistically, as you can imagine—has confirmed something to us: Yes, people want to make Mad Camp happen. As crazy as it might be, this idea, born out of the memory of Jay and in his spirit, is catching fire, in that way that movements need to catch fire to be a movement. People volunteered, money started to materialize, and Mad Camp became closer to reality. And we got back in touch with some hope.
So what is Mad Camp?
Mad Camp, as a work in progress, is a five-day summer camp for mad people, July 20-24, at a forested retreat centre in Northern California, 2.5 hours north of San Francisco on public transit. Mad Camp 2023 will be fun, friendship, community, healing, replenishment, sunshine, electrolytes, dancing, music, listening time, mutual aid, remembrance, art-making, more fun, swimming, hiking, hanging out, open mics, delicious food, frisbees, poetry, meditation, scavenger hunts, nap times, ecstatic dance, acupuncture, storytelling, healing offerings, starry sky gazing, Jenga / board games, sun lounging, campfire hangouts, swimming pool, disco/80s happy hour, hanging out, get-to-know-each-other gatherings, optional breathwork session, optional it’s-all-groovy community spirit ceremony, optional raging against the psychiatric machine (but encouraged), and optional scheming for activism (also encouraged)… Participants at Mad Camp will be creating the offering, facilitating the activities, and creating the experience together.
We’re all volunteers. Nobody gets paid, and there isn’t a “program” like a conference, though this will definitely be a learning and enriching experience. The people at Mad Camp are the program. We have raised more than $4000 already—all donations going directly to scholarships to make it possible for more people to have access and join us. The retreat centre—Four Springs retreat in Middletown California—offers cabins and tent camping, swimming and hiking, an artmaking workshop, a dance floor, and lots of gathering places and hangout spaces in the gorgeous forested Mayacamas mountains of Northern California, a dry Mediterranean climate with geothermal activity and ancient volcanoes and a long history of nourishing native peoples. Our biggest expenses will be covering the event rental costs and covering the food costs (all finances are transparent and we aren’t seeking any grants or government sponsorship).
Because these spaces don’t exist for us, we are making Mad Camp by and for mad people—survivors, escapees, visionaries seeking a different way—people who share our life experience of altered/extreme states and struggling to live outside psychiatric coercion. Yes, of course, parents, professionals, and allies could use a summer camp as well, but for Mad Camp, we’re making it just for us (we’d love to see different focused gatherings as well!)
You can find out more at www.madcamp.net and also on our Frequent Questions page. We also did a small podcast interview with a couple of us talking about the Mad Camp vision, you can listen to it here.
Mad Camp won’t be perfect—we’ve already had to make difficult calls about how to put this together and structure it and form the budget and ticketing, and the limited resources and realities of an oppressive capitalist society make it impossible to create our ideal totally inclusive microcosm of real alternative space. But we are trying as best we can—and none of us has organized a summer camp before! It’s hard!
And one more thing. Mad Camp will have a special place of remembrance, a time and gathering spot where we will bring photos and cards and names of the people we know who have passed, to remember with our silence and our hearts and prayers the survivors who are no longer with us. Like Jay Mahler. Because we want Mad Camp to make our ancestors in the survivor movement proud, to honour history in the best way possible—by looking forward to the future. Together.
Editor’s Note: we are sharing this post on behalf of our friends and comrades at Mad in America