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Just Say No 

Conventional wisdom says psychiatric drugs save lives, but for some San Franciscans the pills are a prescription for disaster

Wednesday, May 23 2007
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Full Spectrum is now on the list of casualties. Bingham spent $1.3 million, a quarter of his inheritance, building the clinic. His plan was to use his money just to get it going, and then sustain it with a combination of clients who could pay out-of-pocket and grants to subsidize meager insurance reimbursements for those who couldn't. It didn't work on either side. In January, the day program and supplementary services shut down. Bingham and Morrissey continue to see some clients for individual therapy. Cooper is looking for an alternative day program for her young client.

"The system makes it hard for all mental health practitioners and clinics to survive," Bingham says. "If you add in our perspective on top of that, it just makes it that much harder."

Bingham is sad and frustrated, but says he's not completely discouraged. He's been talking to administrators of the state's Mental Health Services Act, the 2004 voter-approved program that taxes top earners to pay for improvements to county mental health services; he wants them to support alternative treatment approaches like his. He's continuing with his radio show, and thinking about how to rebuild Full Spectrum.


Tonight it's stuffed chicken breast with portobello mushrooms, and a white wine sauce that takes an hour to prepare. Michelle says crafting complex meals slows her down and helps her focus. Lately she's been feeling on the verge of a manic phase, so she's taking steps to keep it in check. She gets manic twice a year, on average, and the phases last from three weeks to three months. When you're on an energy kick and feeling like you don't need to sleep, you can read all the books you want, knit all the socks, paint a new picture. But the higher that high of intense productivity, the harder the inevitable crash.

Michelle's gotten much better at taking the edge off these spells. She generally sticks to a low-sugar, low-carb, high-protein, high-vegetable diet, which controls the severity of her moods quite well. She meditates regularly, and takes warm, scented baths at least twice a week. Depressive phases normally follow her mania, but if she can control how high she gets, the resulting lows become easier to bear.

"I once heard a therapist describe bipolar as your brain attacking itself," she says. "I just try to be like, "You know what? My brain has a different way of processing things, and I'm just going to have to find my own ways to work with it.'"

Last year Michelle found a zine called Navigating the Space Between Brilliance and Madness; A Reader and Roadmap of Bipolar Worlds. It was compiled by Sascha Altman DuBrul and Ashley McNamara, the founders of a support network for bipolar people in San Francisco and beyond.

Michelle picked it up and read it immediately, straight through.

"I said, 'This is an organization that I feel an affinity with,'" she remembers. "I can't be the only one who doesn't want to take medication. I can't be the only one who wants to educate the community and the world, so that when I say I'm bipolar, people don't think I'm a complete nutcase."

It's called the Icarus Project, alluding to the tendency of many bipolar people to fly too close to the proverbial sun. DuBrul and McNamara moved to New York two years ago, and from there they've helped groups across the country start local chapters. It's a diverse community. Some people take meds and others don't, many just participate in the online forums, and others come out to support groups or events.

After finishing the reader, Michelle wrote out her life story, sent it to Icarus via e-mail, and asked if they needed help. They did, and suddenly she was the new local director.

The Matrix incident on BART three years ago was the last time Michelle 5150-ed herself. Last September when she turned 25, she threw herself a "woo-hoo!" party to celebrate the milestone her former therapist said she'd likely never reach. She works part-time at an ice cream parlor, doing creative work on the side. Her Icarus work is her charity, she says — her way of giving people the hope she's found for herself.

"I would love it if I found out that somebody heard my story and decided to go off meds and their life was better because of it," Michelle says. "But I'm not out to get everybody to stop medications."

Michelle cautions that those under 18 have to obey their parents and doctors. She advises adults that the only good reason to get off meds is if the pills make life harder rather than easier. Like Bingham, she urges people who do choose to go off meds to wean slowly, to have loved ones or professionals watching the transition, and to not rule out getting back on meds if things go downhill.

Michelle's greatest hope is for mental disabilities to become more socially acceptable. She says that could ease the intense feelings of self-loathing that people like her struggle with, perhaps reducing their tendency to commit violent acts against themselves or others.


The $6 donations were optional on March 9 at El Rio, the hip Mission Street club. It was a benefit for the re-emerging San Francisco Icarus Project.

Michelle hadn't slept the night before. She'd been working since 7 a.m., and the only thing she'd eaten all day was a king-size Snickers. She dashed around, setting up a literature table, talking logistics with the doorman, consulting with co-organizer Eddy Falconer about how best to introduce his film, which was about to screen in the packed back room.

"This is one of those days I'm glad I'm manic, otherwise I don't know how I'd have gotten through it," she said mid-scurry, laughing.

About The Author

Amy Goldwitz

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