I have a feature in the April 2017 issue of Halifax Magazine on the nascent Mad Pride movement in Halifax. You can read it here.
As you can imagine, the label of "mental illness" is a complicated one. I have known people for whom a diagnosis of mental illness comes as a relief -- finally, they have a framework that helps them understand themselves and their experiences. Other people may reject that label altogether. And some embrace it.
In my Halifax Magazine story on the Mad Hatter Tea Party, I have a few quotes from Anna Quon, who describes herself as a "mixed-race middle-aged Mad Woman." She is the author of several novels and books of poetry, and also creates beautiful visual art. (She often donates the proceeds from her artwork to the Schizophrenia Society of Nova Scotia.)
She told me:
"Originally I had a lot of internalized stigma -- self-stigma -- and I didn’t want to talk about the fact that I'd been hospitalized and had problems with depression and some psychosis. And I didn’t want my dad to tell people who he thought might help me because they’d been through a similar situation. Even though I came from a family that was supportive, I had internalized stigma just by growing up in this world that has so much stigma about mental health.
"It was a personal journey to actually acknowledge who I am. I don’t have to hide it or pretend do be “normal” or pretend to be something that I’m not. I feel comfortable with it so I’m willing to be out there about being mad to a certain extent."
Think about the standard recovery narrative: your life falls apart, you are hospitalized, get diagnosed, get treatment, then start getting better. There are a few setbacks along the way, but eventually you are able to carry on with your life in a healthy, satisfying way.
Many people's lives line up with this narrative. But many don't. And while some people reject the notion of mental illness, others embrace it as a fundamental part of who they are.
Anna said she wouldn't have a career without her mental illness. After being hospitalized, and unable to find work, she started writing for the Dartmouth-based Ability Network. Then, she got a Canada Council grant "to do a memoir of madness in poetry -- so some of my art and work came about because of my mental health challenges." Not in spite of them.
Last summer, a family member asked if my partner and I wanted to go with him to the Mad Hatter Tea Party on the Halifax Common. It was an event organized by the Schizophrenia Society of Nova Scotia, and was inspired by the global Mad Pride movement. I had no idea what to expect. I certainly didn't think I'd be writing about it. I was just planning to enjoy a sunny afternoon on the Common.
The most striking thing about the Mad Hatter Tea Party is that it was FUN. Sure, there was a broader political purpose, but it was also just flat-out fun: crazy (yes, crazy) hat-making, gentle yoga classes, music, food, face-painting, and a general atmosphere of celebration. "Are you here to cover this?" Anna asked, when she saw me there. (We had previously met a couple of times.) "No," I said. "I'm just here for the event."
Of course, I did wind up writing about it -- and about the underpinnings of mad pride, and why it has taken so long to come to Halifax. There's another tea party planned for next summer, and I'm hoping I'll be able to be there again.