Jordan, Maguire Fellow in Vermont

Jordan G. is a graduate student studying medical anthropology. He was awarded a Maguire and Irby Family Foundation Public Service Fellowship for summer 2017 from the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at SMU. He is spending the summer volunteering with The Hive, a public mental health service group in Brattleboro, Vermont.

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Creative Maladjustment Day

 

On Sunday July 16, the Hive hosted a day of free workshops led by friends and community members. Creative Maladjustment Day, as it’s called, is devoted to challenging oppressive systems and celebrating those ways we respond to them that are often labeled “mad,” “noncompliant” or “maladjusted.”

Six sessions, which ran all day, addressed issues such as harm reduction and addiction, healthcare activism, and the interconnected struggles of marginalized groups. There was a good turnout– over the course of the day, about 30 people from the Hive and beyond– with participants enjoying snacks, homemade teas made from wild herbs, and plenty of time to connect with one another. Here’s some background and highlights to give a fuller picture of what this event was about.

The Hive’s Creative Maladjustment Day is a local celebration of the international Creative Maladjustment Week started in 2013 by Mindfreedom, a mental health activism coalition. It takes its name from a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in which he proclaimed his pride about being “maladjusted” to such things as discrimination, religious bigotry, and violence. King called for an “International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment” that would help us “emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man” (May 18, 1966, Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution). While he was not specifically addressing the oppression of those labeled “mentally ill,” King’s notion of creative maladjustment has provided an apt framework for conceiving of innovative resistance to dehumanizing forces. In this way, Creative Maladjustment celebrations address those systems– psychiatric and otherwise– to which we are “proud to be maladjusted.” It pitches a tent big enough to hold a range of intersecting struggles, along with their collective knowledge and strength.

The workshop “Compassionate Harm Reduction Strategies for Opiate Addiction” was led by Emily Megas-Russell, as well as her mother and stepfather – both of whom had personal experience with opiate use. Harm reduction, a humanistic approach and set of strategies for supporting people with addiction, is both a radical and commonsense response to the status quo. (Learn more here.) Instead of seeing substance use as “the problem,” it sees it as the solution to a problem, such as a lack of resources or physical/systemic violence. Rather than subscribe to stigmatizing attitudes that reduce people to dirty addicts or fragile patients, it encourages honest conversation about drug use, challenging common fears about “enabling” or “condoning” with authentic connection. Having Emily’s mother and stepfather share their own (and their family’s) stories illuminated this approach, while group discussion challenged the audience to consider their own prejudice, privilege, and contributions to stigma.

Another workshop, “DID: Democracy Individuality Democracy,” Krystale talked about her experience of having multiple personalities (currently called Dissociate Identity Disorder). Her more than a dozen fully formed, compartmentalized identities are “co-conscious,” meaning they are aware of and able to communicate with one another. They continuously negotiate relationships and control, and so have provided her with intense practice in navigating the outer, social world. As she explained, her multiples formed in response to early childhood trauma.  Notably, this all sounded as far from disordered as possible. Rather, it seemed structured and meaningful, or as she called it, a “complicated brain ordering system.” While Krystale’s experience may register as “maladjusted” or “mad” to most, her creative integration of her multiples challenges dominant narratives and media portrayals on a number of levels. Read her blog here.

Another workshop was led by the Spark Theater Collective, a local street theater team, which first showed a video of one of their public performances. It was a series of vignettes on the connections between historically oppressed groups (i.e. Jewish, Black and brown, undocumented, and LGBTQ communities) and the exploitative role of capitalism and the state in their struggles. Afterward we broke into groups and developed skits around the idea of creative maladjustment in response to injustice, and then performed for each other and discussed. This offered a broader context for the mental/health-focused presentations.

Other workshops included Pamela Spiro Wagner’s account of her experiences surviving the psychiatric system; Sarah Knutson’s community practice known as Peerly Human, a holistic, human rights-based approach to mental health; and a discussion led by Vermont’s Healthcare is a Human Right Campaign on how to effect local and national issues in healthcare.

Creative Maladjustment Day addressed how systems– economic and criminal justice, health and social service – are intertwined, as are the struggles of those who interact with them. It showed how profit-driven, one-size-fits-all approaches strip people of rights, voice, and community in the name of care. Finally, it demonstrated how such systems will struggle to recognize humanity in its complexity and context, the links between medicalized suffering and gendered/racialized oppression, and even the negative effects of their own interventions. As dark as this message may seem, the workshops – and the passionate, engaged discussions they provoked – produced plenty of ideas about how we might creatively respond.

The Hive, too, was an apt host for this event. As a mutual support network that is a product of grassroots organizing and an alternative to traditional systems, it is itself an example of creative maladjustment. And in this national moment of persistent threats to healthcare, civil rights, and human rights, seeing so many people come together to discuss how we can collectively embrace the human condition, change systems, and make our own was profound. As a student of anthropology – and a member of this community – this was inspiration for both research and praxis.

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