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Mad Pride at Virginia Tech

10 Nov 2007

By Gregory Warner

There's black pride, and gay pride. And if 32-year old Sascha Dubrul has his way, "mad pride" will become equally ubiquitous. That's mad, as in mentally ill. Dubrul's Icarus Project believes that part of the problem with mental illness is the words we use to describe it. Diagnosed bipolar when he was 18, Dubrul says he could have dealt better with his diagnosis if it had been framed differently, not in clinical terms but as a "dangerous gift." Now Sascha and others are going across the country giving workshops to change the language around mental illness. Reporter Gregory Warner met the Icarus Project at its first stop-Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.

"The first time I was locked up in a psych hospital I was 18 years old," says Sascha Dubrul, as he sits in a circle of students at Virginia Tech. "When the police found me I was walking on the subway tracks in New York City and I thought the world was about to end and I was being broadcast on primetime television."

Back then doctors diagnosed Dubrul as bipolar and gave him lithium. It would be the first of several major psychotic breaks. He thinks he could have avoided them if his illness had been framed differently. "If someone I respected who was doing interesting things had shown up and said, 'You're someone who has dangerous gifts. You're the equivalent of a mutant and you need to learn how to use your superpowers.' That would have reached me."

Dubrul co-founded the Icarus Project five years ago to talk about illness in terms people could be proud of. The project is named after the boy Icarus, son of Daedelus, who was given a dangerous gift of wax wings. He died when he flew too close to the sun and the wings melted.

"We see our madness as a dangerous gift to be cultivated and taken care of, not a disease to be cured," said Bonfire Madigan Shive. an indie-rock cellist in a sleeveless white dress with silver boots. She's been part of the Icarus Project since suicidal depression hampered her own tour.

When it's the students' turn to speak, though, they don't talk much about their own diagnoses. They do talk about their struggles to cope. It's been six months since student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people.

Senior Maggie Clifford feels pressure to get over it and move on. "There's all this 'We will prevail - we're Virginia Tech, we'll get through this'," said Clifford. "But what are we getting through?"

Her friend Thomas Burke also feels like he wasn't allowed to talk openly about the shootings. "That was it. Buy a T-shirt."

A poll of Virginia Tech students found that almost a third of those who needed help were too embarrassed to seek counseling. Bonfire Madigan Shive said she felt stifled visiting the new campus memorial.

"I just wanted to lay down in it and make a gravel angel," she said. "Like a snow angel. And I kept going, 'there's no one here telling me don't do that.' But something was telling me that. And maybe that's the elephant in the room people are saying 'oh come talk to us about this' and other people are saying 'you're not supposed to talk about this.' And that's very much like I felt for years about talking about my relationship to my own death."

At the word death some people in the crowd flinched. The Icarus Project is sometimes accused of romanticizing mental illness.

"I wouldn't call it a dangerous gift but that's not my language, it's your language," said Catherine Snyder, the Presbyterian minister on campus. "Because this dangerous gift has created deep suffering in many lives." Snyder sniffed back tears. "A little over eight weeks ago my sister killed herself. So, when you talked about what I would call suicidal tendencies, it was so painful for me I could barely listen."

Dubrul spoke next. "You know, as the person who came up with the term 'dangerous gifts,' I guess I'll just call on the myth of the boy Icarus. And I thought of that myth when my friend Sarah killed herself five and a half years ago. And I thought, here's a person that shines so bright. But she didn't know how to take care of herself."

"Are you saying that Sarah couldn't take care of herself?," Snyder asks "Or is the philosophy that she could have and should have?"

Dubrul's voice shook. "No, she was going through these really extreme states and the people around her didn't understand what was going on. So they couldn't be there, they couldn't support her. And one of the things I'm really proud of, is that six years later in that same community in Philadelphia, I don't think she would have ended up committing suicide."

This is Dubrul's big hope with the Icarus Project. By making it easier for people to talk to each other, it's easier to help each other. Friends make the best medicine, he says.

The next day I visited the new campus memorial. It replaced the spontaneous one made by students, which had had wax candles, handwritten notes and 33 stones, including one for Cho. This one is stark, more official. It's got 32 stones. And there's a plaque that says not to put any flowers on the stones because it'll block the ground lighting.

Still, near the center of the memorial I found a few big guys in black shirts staring down at something. "Somebody said it must be an angel and I thought, yeah. I mean, I never did one in the gravel, but obviously that's got to be it," Chris Petersen said. He and the others are employees of Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. They've come here to plant 32 trees for the university and deliver a check.

"It's a pretty unique design," Petersen said. "It's something human. And the maintenance people didn't come out here with rakes and say, 'Oh, fix that! This is a defecation of this memorial!' They said, 'No that's a snow angel! Or that's a gravel angel from somebody. And they said, 'You gotta keep that!' So I like it. It's cool. And I gotta go. It was nice meeting you."

Click the link below to listen to this story:

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from American Public Media.

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