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Name: Loon Dog

Bio: A mental health researcher motivated by self-self-defense; has likely dedicated too much of his life trying to define lunacy. Presently travelling through the USA seeking out mental diversity activists to help trace the threads between brilliance and madness.

Photos: Mad America's photo libraries

Hate in the Heart of People's Park ( 22nd Oct, 2010 )
Mad America: The Great Alternatives Conference: Intro ( 15th Jan, 2010 )
The Beat Gen, 90s Hip Hop legends and Oriental Zen Lunacy ( 17th Dec, 2009 )
Australian Shame ( 1st Dec, 2009 )
Entering the Great American Fruit and Nut Bowl: War Diaries, Inherited Madness and Other Things ( 16th Nov, 2009 )
Stuff in America you don't see on the TV ( 9th Nov, 2009 )
Sierra Nevadas: Clarity, purity, PBJ's ( 4th Nov, 2009 )
Road to Cedar Valley ( 3rd Nov, 2009 )
California Dreaming ( 3rd Nov, 2009 )
Library of Dust ( 23rd Oct, 2009 )
Consumers, Survivors and Mad-Pride: Burrito's and Bears. ( 23rd Oct, 2009 )
Begginings. ( 19th Oct, 2009 )

Mad America: The Great Alternatives Conference: Intro

On October 16th I flew from Oakland, California (thriving hub of cultural production in the modern world), to Omaha, Nebraska (...?), to visit a conference called Alternatives '09. The conference is a federally funded meeting of national mental health service user/ psychiatric survivor organisations. And so it was that on the last week in October 2009, the small city of Omaha, which lies smack bang in the centre btw the East and West of the USA, was to house the largest concentration of psychiatrically labeled people in the world. Although, that said, there's likely to be a more densely populated 'psychotropolis', the grimly titled clusters of psych-facilities, somewhere in the world, probably in China, India or NYC. So. Let's say instead, Omaha was to be the temporary home of the largest concentration of ORGANISED psychiatrically-labeled individuals in the country and, at that moment, the world. This invariably meant that whatever happened it was going to be, at the very least, the most interesting Halloween of my life. This was a big reason I came to the States; to connect and to contribute.

Over four days, activists and advocates and mental diversity thinkers showcased and discussed a range of peer-led responses to mental meltdown and explored other cool expressions for extreme emotional crisis, or so-called mental illness. (I don't at all mind the term, 'chucking a spazz', although it might be steeped too far in the peculiar idiom of Australian kids in the 70s and 80s. And anyway, to 'chuck a spazz' refers more to an angry, irrational tantrum that is hilarious to watch. Scrap that). The theme for this years Alternatives conference was 'Unity', a topic set to address the scourge plaguing all marginalised and oppressed groups: in-fighting, conflict and division; an ugly cancer that is fomented somewhere btw the anguish of the abused and disempowered, the violent jostle for table-crumbs of power, and the straight-ahead catty personal politics of individuals. Certainly, I am aware of splits in the movement back home and I could already sense tension in the US movement. I knew a number of the more radical US activists simply refused to attend Alternatives.

But for me, given my nooby status in this movement, the conference was going to be deeply interesting and informative however it played out. And in the end, it turned out to be one of the most politically and personally soul-replenishing weekends of my trip/ life, and not necessarily because of the content. Aside from the invaluable knowledge I gleaned from the broad range of expertise, I was more importantly able to link into a network of activists throughout the USA who generously shared their knowledge and wisdom - much of which was spurred and informed by their being seriously abused in mental health services themselves. Some particularly generous souls even fed and housed me for much of my trip and generally treated me as a distant, sorrowful family member passing through town.

The conference also set in motion a series of unlikely adventures over the next three months that saw me, among other places, at a thanksgiving dinner in Utah w/ a 54-strong Mormon family; to a despairing hour in a seedy desert-town motel carpark strewn with the belongings of an unhappy activist; to a flight over the Grand Canyon (that glorious shattered rift in the earths surface and just possibly the fabric of space); to Austin, TX, for a week of two-stepping to western swing and other shits and giggles; before a 20-hour car ride with three lunatic recovered-junkie non-recovered-poets. And then there were the five greyhound buses, the trans kids in LA, mad-hero meetings in the rainy verdent forests of Oregon, and the lessons in Shamanism from a radical madness radio host in Portland. I must also nod my head to the food that fueled all of this given that I have eaten the weight of, let's say, my whole family, in southern food alone (Texas BBQ [Jumbalaya, white bread, and {sorry vegan friends...} 11 hour stone smoked {organic, long-eye-lashed, happy cow} beef with pickles], not to mention a tonne of Soul food [grits, black-eyed peas, and collards greens] and Mexican [deep-fried avocado and plantain tortillas - O to the mofo MG), which have all helped, in their own way, to propel me here to Brooklyn, where i now write as I wait in a deli on new years day to have a cup of joe w/ an activist who spent ten years as a patient in NY State hospital before escaping and informing the New York Times who then wrote an award-winning expose on mental hospital abuse that prompted significant reform in the early 90s. Phew. (I'm holding a hot tea in a blue and white paper cup in a lame attempt to vacillate blood to my possibly gangrenous fingers. I'm also quietly hoping that George didn't slide off a bridge on his way here through the sleet covered bridges from Long Island. Outside, the sludgey snow heaps at the edge of the sidewalk like boiled newspaper and dirty streamers lay wet and soggy on subway grates with their cliched purls of steam drifting from the subway by 9th ave Station). Whatever it is that led me here, much of this was spurred from the Omaha conference which was attended by some of the greatest activists and thinkers in the movement that are alive today - in particular, Judi Chamberlain, Sheri Mead and Daniel Fisher - as well as countless others i hadn't heard of but was eager to connect with.

And so it went that the Alternatives Conference in Oct '09 was, I now recognise, a deeply significant week in my life.

Now, I'm a little uncertain of how to share the knowledge I gained from the conference. It's very important to me to get it out there. After all most of why I came here - aside from seeing a wild black bear (check) - was to synthesise all this complex business of MH politics into something accessible to non-mental health nerds or psych-abused citizens, and particularly to better inform other community organisers and activists. It is clear that the whole 'mental health' subject is completely confusing and UNCLEAR and that it is a complex (not to mention, taboo) issue that is very often intentionally mystified by a professional body nervously trying to maintain expertise over the damaged human mind/spirit.

So. How do I begin to simplify the major issues?... First, I'll be self-reflexive and ask myself how I should do this (check), then I'll tell some possibly hilarious but mostly tragic snippets of my own earnestism and foolishness (check), and then I'll launch into a day-by-day recounting of my time in Omaha prefaced by a brief criticism of Australia's pitiful equivalent. Hopefully that will do it. If not, I'll return with a zine of more serious political intention that cuts straight to the major points I'm trying to make. Or I'll write a PHD thesis.

Ok. Here goes.

In Australia, sadly, there is no real equivalent to the American Alternatives conference. The only barely comparable event is neither survivor-led nor alternatives-focused and is, instead, a 'consumer and carer day' tacked onto the front end of a five-day, government-/ pharmaceutical-sponsored mental health services conference for Aus and NZ. It is referred to as the TheMHS conference, an acronym for the equally uninventive (but apt) title: The Aus. and NZ Mental Health Services Conference. This patronising affair sidelines precisely those most affected by the system (i.e. those that use and are abused by it) and organisers are at pains to avoid the, ahem, uncomfortable term, 'psychiatric survivor'. The most prominent speakers at the Australian conference are psychiatric clinicians and policy-advisors followed by the occasional psychologist or social worker. Most participants (even so-called 'carers' and consumers) are firmly locked within a medical model of disability and the whole thing is entirely devoid of progressive political discussion. Actually, a few years ago I was asked to present my thesis at one of these conferences and I had to sneak into my own presentation to avoid having to pay over 400 dollars(!) registration. They are sponsored by zyprexa for gods sake! At one tragic moment in my brief dalliance with TheMHS I was chased through the Auckland Convention Centre by both a journalist, who came at me from one end seeking my comment on Auckland's homelessness issues (?), and a conference organiser running at me from the other end of the building trying, and ultimately failing, to simultaneously hold her clipboard, run in heels, and politely request my credit card details. It took months of curt emails to get out of paying for that rubbish.

By contrast, when I emailed some US activists and advocates who were going to be in Omaha for the conference and told them about my wish to connect and learn and share with the US movement, not only did some of them quietly suggest I crash the conferece, others went a step further and after hearing about my hopeless intention to hitch to Omaha in two days to save costs - it would take 24 hours of straight driving to get there from San Fran - they encouraged me to pay for a cheap flight and as recompense they would, they assured me, 'sort something out' viz. accomadation. As it happened, 'sorting something out' translated to a bed in the HILTON for every single night of the conference. When I arrived at Omaha airport at midnight I simply had to make a free call to a hotel porter to be then shuttled to the Hilton... for free! Egad. The only small aside to the accommodation was this: I would have to sleep in a different room each night, which meant a different roommate each night, which meant a different person who had used or been abused by the mental health system, which meant a new eccentric/ mad/ traumatised/ openly, tragically, spirited human being as a new roommate every single night, from every part of the nation, for five days, in the Hilton, in Omaha... Nebraska.
Yes, it was going to be a trip.
The first night I was welcomed by a painfully kind Hilton staff who handed me an electronic swipe key and encouraged me to make use of the complimentary hot tub, sauna, and pool pass. I shuffled bewildered down Coen Brothers'-esque hotel hallways, creepy and repetitive, while my befuddlement drummed to the hotels' constant broadcast of fine 50s bebop, itself sapped of creative integrity by the removed listening environment. It smelled like soap, bodies and laundry bleach. It felt seedy and exciting. I tried out my card on room no. 2033. A green light blinked, latch unhooked and there I was standing in a room with a sleeping stranger. I set my bag down, removed my clothes and crept silently into the free bed, freshly made, impersonal, warm. After what seemed like, say... ten minutes of listening to a strange man's heavy breathing, I drifted off.
A real trip.

Day "1","2","3", and "Halloween", forthcoming.

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