I am not the first to suggest that the mad have idiosyncratic skills. The mad used to be shamans, oracles and accused of being witches. In all our splendid diversity, we tend to embody certain traits. Most of our behaviours are primarily gained through lived experience and the situations many of us are forced into by society. What follows is a list of what I would call some of our ‘Mad Skills’. They won’t apply to everyone, but they may be meaningful for some. Below this, there are some protective principles. Safety is a must. I struggle with this and it is going to be a lifelong learning process. The healthier I am, the more I want to do. I often overdo it, convin- cing myself beyond my malleable limits, then crash. It might sound boring – it still does to me – but the more I look after myself, the more I get to experience and engage. That is where the unexpected pays off. Not in the dramatic ruptures of my youth, but in the surprising revelations of propelling myself, alert, into the world.

Mad Skills

  1. Empathy. Mental-health issues can teach us about the experience of suffering. Not all suffering is the same, but living in a state of constant recovery tends to make it easier for most of us to put ourselves in another’s shoes. That can help with connecting, with drive, with staying together. It can also make us pretty fluent in mutual care.

  2. Patience. Anyone who has lived with mental-health issues knows it is largely a waiting game. We know the perils of mad-dash urgency.

  3. Energy, surprises, zeal. Not every mad person is the stereo- typical creative wizard, but we do have a tendency to shake things up. We can occasionally skirt the outer edges of the universe or end up confined to our beds for horrifying stretches of time. When we are on our feet, it is easy for us to destroy the dominant culture’s argument that ‘this is just the way things are’. If we have confidence, we know from our own experience that other planes are plentiful.

  4. Resilience. We mad have to bend with the wind without snapping. We can buck, we can buckle, we can have supports, but in order to survive we need techniques and practices, people and places that make us feel safe and allow us to live a life of malleable, adaptable, resilient recovery. Resilience must be a core value of any new system​(s). That’s our bread and butter.

  5. Understanding the collective nature of health. Mental- health issues are disconnections from reality. We know, intuitively, that there is something wrong with the status quo, something that is making people sick. No wonder we often feel so disconnected from the ‘normal’ world. Finding other people who get that, too, is beautiful. Holding each other up is revelatory.

  6. Priorities around rest and recuperation. Rest is not just responsible, it is revitalising. It is never ‘doing nothing’ (much as extractivist culture would have us believe). It is living. Rest is actively (and passively) loving our bodies and our minds. Movements need this wisdom.

  7. Creativity. People with mental-health issues are forced to think laterally. We constantly have to navigate within and around persecutory health systems, as well as work, relation- ships, medication and, for some of us, kaleidoscopic physical and psychological changes in perspective about ourselves and the world. Wiggling a way through that requires improvisa- tion, but it also requires know-how. Quite a lot of that is relevant to movements. The rest of it is relevant to care.

Protective Principles

  1. Have an entry strategy. Work out what it is that you want to achieve – in your life and in the world, on whatever timeframe you’re comfortable with. Map it out.

  2. Look for organisations you feel comfortable in and find ways to make your skills and strengths useful. Collectives are recommended. Check them out online or ask people you know. A good stress-test for the healthiness of an organisation is how it deals with conflict. Ignoring/ shutting things down unilaterally can be just as aggressive in practice as shouting someone down. Look for equit- able deliberation. Fairness feels right (because it is).

  3. Go with someone you know. This makes it easier to step over the barrier into a new space. You can also encourage each other, and help each other with much of the above (although sometimes it can be tempting to fall into constant side-chatting or create a little, separate bubble – try to avoid that, I often forget).

  4. Rest. Do not burn out.

  5. Keep connected, even if by just making a phone call.

    Don’t isolate yourself. Check in on your friends if they have gone quiet. Invite them to things, even if they have blanked you.

  6. Make sure you are having some fun. Movement work doesn’t have to be all sombre and sacrificial, no matter how perfectly any ‘leaders’ are channelling their strictest primary-school teacher. If they are wedded to that cari- cature, maybe try somewhere else.

  7. Avoid power struggles and status bullshit. Talk to people you trust about trying to keep things equitable, horizontal and fair.

  8. Commit. Repetition and consistency will mean you can build friendships and forge a sense of belonging. If you can’t make something, because of your health or otherwise, try to think of a way you can demonstrate you care even if you are not in the room – for your own sake. If not, be forgiving.

  9. Be explicit about your needs and your boundaries. If you have physical or mental-health issues, the group should do their best to accommodate you. It shouldn’t always be your responsibility to adapt.

  10. Try not to judge others in the group too much. Progressives are pros at creating purist factions and arguing over details that lead to splits. Easier said than done but think about a) whether the process you’re in is healthy and constructive, even if you disagree with elements of discussion; and b) whether the overall objective is getting any closer to something actually good. If yes to both, don’t have a go at people unnecessarily. If no, jump in.

  11. Don’t ask yourself if you’re doing enough. Ask yourself if you’re doing your best (thank you Jennifer).

  12. Use your privilege and position to platform others, but don’t let it stop you from sharing your perspective. The world you see is different from the world anyone else sees. That said, don’t monopolise conversation. Respect the room.

  13. Maintain all of the other things that are important to your mental health and wellbeing. If you don’t have economic security, it might be difficult to engage as much as you want to in this kind of work. That is not your fault. Some people have solidarity funds to support this stuff, some even get a basic income (like the Hero climate circles). Ask for support in meetings – be it cash, childcare, travel or information.

  14. Have an exit strategy. If you are struggling, for whatever reason, it might be best to take a break or change tack. An exit strategy is a contingency so you can be committed, while also having the option to prioritise your care in an emergency. Just as the world will be okay without us, you need to know the group will be okay if you step back.
  15. Ask people around you for their advice, both the newbies and the veterans.

I’m grateful to Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha who, in Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, elaborates onwhat she calls ‘crip emotional intelligence’ and ‘crip skills’ – a delicious subversion of Maslow’s discrimatory and exclusionary psychology. Using the terms ‘meant something,’ she writes, because ‘the deficiency model by which most people view disab- ility only sees disabled people as a lack, a defect, damaged goods, in need of cure. The idea that we have cultures, skills, science and technology runs counter to all of that. In a big way.’