Mad and proud
Anna Quon approaches, holding out a tray filled with dozens of little paper pill cups. “Would you like some mad meds?” she asks.
“No thanks,” says a woman in her twenties. Then, realizing the “meds” are M&Ms that come with a one-line “prescription” she changes her mind. “If you have any questions about your meds, ask me!” says Quon, carrying on with her rounds.
The young woman eats her M&M and unrolls the paper in the pill cup. It says, “Nothing about us without us.” She approaches Quon, who sports a red heart painted on her cheek and a floppy straw hat with a silk flower pinned to it, to ask what it means. “It comes from the disability rights movement,” Quon says, explaining that people should be involved in developing policies that affect them.
It’s a beautiful 2017 summer Sunday on the Common. Perfect weather for the Mad Hatter Tea Party, an early, tentative step in the city’s nascent mad pride movement. Organized by the Schizophrenia Society of Nova Scotia (SSNS), the event features people making and wearing a wide array of wild hats, along with yoga classes, live music, spoken-word performances, and of course, tea. A sign with a quote from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is prominent. “You’re entirely bonkers, but I’ll tell you a secret: All the best people are.”
Quon is one of the people who first came up with the idea of the tea party, a celebration by and for people who broadly come under the umbrella of “madness.”
Mad pride is about “having ownership of who you are and feeling comfortable with how you want to live life, whether or not you want to go by a diagnosis or not,” says Robyn Badger, one of the event organizers.
“You’ve heard about queer pride, gay pride, black pride, and different pride movements,” says Quon, a writer, artist, and filmmaker who describes herself as “mixed-race middle-aged Mad Woman.” (She specifies that “Mad Woman” be capitalized.)
“It’s a way of reclaiming the word ‘mad’ and all the slurs and negative associations that come with it,” she says. “Some people in the mad pride movement are very much against psychiatry. They would probably call themselves anti-psychiatry activists. And some like me are more in the middle. I just want to say I’m here, I’m mad, and I’m OK with that.”
Mad pride started in Toronto back in 1993, with an event called Psychiatric Survivor Pride. Eventually, it developed into a week-long festival including music, art, theatre, and most famously, a parade that features hospital beds pushed through the streets of the city’s Parkdale neighbourhood.
Halifax therapist Laura Burke, who has been active in the local mental-health community for years, spoke at the tea party. She says mad pride is in part about celebrating differences, getting away from a purely biological description of mental illness, and recognizing “that it’s not wrong to be anomalous in these ways.”
Toronto’s mad pride has inspired similar events around the world. There is an annual Loonies Fest in East End London, and there have been mad-pride-style celebrations in various Canadian and American cities and farther away, in places including Australia, Ireland, and Ghana. Mad pride festivals usually run in mid-July.
Quon says she isn’t surprised it’s taken this long for mad pride to make an appearance in Halifax, in part because of Nova Scotia’s size and history. “We had a hardscrabble kind of living in this part of the world for a long time, and I think families who had loved ones with mental-health problems probably didn’t talk about it much,” she says. “In Nova Scotia how you make a living still depends so much on who you know. And if people know you have a mental-health challenge, you may not get hired as easily.”
Not long after the tea party, Burke drinks iced coffee at the Alter Egos café on Gottingen Street and prepares for a session of the new group she’s developed with SSNS for people who hear or have heard voices. It draws on the thinking of the international hearing voices movement, which started in Holland in the 1980s. Burke says this isn’t the first group in Halifax for people who hear voices, but it is unique in that it is run by and for people who have experienced them.
“Just to be able to talk about hearing voices with people who understand what that means is healing in and of itself,” she explains. “Some people might think of it as mental illness, some people might think of it as just a phenomenon they deal with, and there’s no right or wrong.”
The group is co-facilitated by Chris O’Halloran and Derick (he asked that we only use his first name), both of whom have heard voices for much of their lives. “We’re trying to offer an alternative treatment method that includes peer input,” Derick says. “We acknowledge the voices instead of treating them solely as hallucinations, and this hopefully allows people to get more from the group than if they were just given a medical explanation. We talk about how to live with the voices as a part of our own lives because they are part of our lives.”
O’Halloran adds that while he sees medication and psychiatric care as an important part of his own well-being, one of the values of the group (like the mad pride movement) is in putting control into the hands of people who aren’t clinicians. “I think outside of a medical context you can innovate more,” he says. “People who hear voices don’t usually have an outlet to talk about it. And if you do, it’s usually with someone who doesn’t hear voices themselves.”
The group’s first 10-week session was a pilot, but SSNS executive director Diane MacDougall says the organization is currently running a second session and hopes to continue with the group in the future.
Encouraged by the turnout at the first tea party, SSNS is planning another for this summer. “The plan is to do another Mad Hatter Tea Party in July to go with mad pride,” says MacDougall. “A lot of people dropped into the tea party and didn’t know who we were, but had a good time and reached out to us later to say what a great event.”
And Burke says Nova Scotia could benefit from a larger made pride movement. “Mad pride is like a seed; it’s like a cultural shift,” she says. “I love Nova Scotia, but I think there’s a shame about it in the culture here: Be quiet, don’t be too big for your britches, don’t protest, just go with the status quo.”
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.