Mad Farmer Sascha #70 - Her Wings Flew Too Close To The Sun

HER WINGS FLEW TOO CLOSE TO THE SUN

    This is so fucked up. I've been shaking and crying -- slipping between waves of numb shock and deep sadness. I can't believe Sera jumped off a fucking bridge. I can't believe she left all of us so soon.

    I was at my house in Oakland when the phone call came. Our friend Geneva in Wisconsin saying her friend in Eugene had called her with some crazy story that a girl on the East Coast named Sera had killed herself. Geneva though it was just a rumor but was calling me to see if it was true. "Naw man, I just talked to Sera a week ago -- she was going traveling and had a ticket to Europe in February. She said she had been a little down but she really didn't sound so bad." But that's when I kinda started shaking. So I called her house in West Phili. The voicemail picked up and when it said press 2 for Sera I pressed 2 and was greeted by her cheery voice: "Hi, this is Sera. Leave me a message and I'll get back to you when I can. BEEP."

    My dad died on me just as I turned thirteen. For the first couple months after his death I had this reoccurring dream where he and I were talking on the telephone. It wasn't always the same backdrop: sometimes from a payphone on the street, sometimes from the kitchen at my mom's house, sometimes from school, but the same thing would always happen. We'd say goodbye, hang up the phone, and then I'd suddenly remember he was dead. Confused, I'd pick up the phone and dial the number -- 222-5046 -- and the mechanical operator would come on and say the number had been disconnected. I'd wake up with my heart beating really fast and wish that I had my dad back.

    "Hello.....Sera? Uh,...[long pause]...I, I just heard this rumor that you, you killed yourself. I really hope it's just a rumor. I'm going to be really pissed at you if you killed yourself, hear me? Uh...so, uh...call me when you get this message, alright? I love you... [long pause]...Bye." I hung up the phone.

    When I met Sera it was the Summer of 1999. I was recovering from being locked up in the psych ward and was getting my shit back together working on an organic farm just North of New York City. She had been working at the Victory Gardens Project up in Maine and wrote me a letter after reading one of my zines. I wrote her back and soon after that she boldly invited herself to come visit me at the farm.
    I was really impressed with her. She was almost intimidatingly smart, quoted me Baldwin and Faukner from memory, eloquently articulated her revolutionary critiques of global capitalism, taught me about the horrors of 20th Century Eastern European history, and knew the lyrics to all my favorite CRASS songs. She was also strikingly beautiful: she had this amazing smile and this olive Armenian skin that was all dark from working in the fields, dreadlocks that hung down to her shoulders, and these deep brown eyes that would constantly study my facial expressions and try to read me, search for the meaning in everything I said.
    She was really passionate about everything she did, and she did a whole lot. She threw herself right into the middle of the struggle wherever she went, and she went to a lot of places. Right after we started getting to know each other she took off down to rural Nicaragua to work on a construction project with a group of women in a Sandinista village. Her travelers energy was infectious and really helped to inspire me to remember all the parts I liked about myself that had been hidden under all my layers of self-doubt and depression.
    It was really obvious from the first time we hung out that Sera wasn't afraid to feel really strong emotions and dream big dreams. Underneath all the tattoos and attitude, Sera was definitely insecure in a bunch of ways, constantly struggling with her sense of identity
and feeling out of place in the world. But the flipside of her insecurity was that she had this brilliance which shined. She'd tell me with a smile that she was going to be a famous writer one day. She really did take herself too seriously but she knew how to make fun of herself at the same time. She had a sarcastic, biting, and very punk rock sense of humor.  Even with her struggles with insecurity, she didn't take any of my shit without dishing it back twice as hard. I fell for her for sure.

    "It's true man, she's dead. I'm sorry to have to be the one to tell you. Things have been really strange around here the last couple days." That was Spam in West Philadelphia. I had called his house after talking to Sera's voicemail. "Everyone around here is freaking out. You two were really close, huh? I'm really sorry." Shock. Disbelief. As the tears started falling down my face I could suddenly feel this unfamiliar emotion rising up inside of me the same way that you can sometimes feel unfamiliar muscles in your body the day after doing a new exercise. And it hurt. It really hurt.

    Sera and I had a lot in common. We were both hopeless romantics and suffered from crazy wanderlust. We waxed poetic over freight trains and the call of the open road. Sera and I ended up hitchhiking all the way across the country to go to those historic protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle and we had mad adventures all along the way. She was a great traveling partner. We both loved gathering stories in our travels and were both obsessed not just with recording history as it unfolded, but making our own with our friends and community -- capturing and illuminating the meaning of our experiences as young traveling anarchists at the end of the millennium.
    We both loved punk rock: the music of course, but the cultural scene that had nurtured us as teenagers and made us feel like there was somewhere that we finally belonged. Sera was a couple years younger than me, a few generations in punk rock years, and she'd make tapes for me of bands she loved that had come around after my time like Young Pioneers and Anti-Product. I'd tell her stories about going to Nausea and Missing Foundation shows in the old squats on the Lower East Side.
    We spoke a similar language. We also both loved words and communicating -- her letters to me once we parted ways were a crafty mix of English, Spanish, and broken French, with a periodic smattering of Armenian from her childhood. We shared some intense common ground because we also had a lot of the same neurosis and insecurities. In our own ways we both tried to shirk our sheltered, educated upper middle-class backgrounds and dropped out of school to hang out on the streets and learn lessons the hard way. We both had a lot to prove to ourselves and the people around us. We were never satisfied with our work -- no matter how much we were doing. We both threw ourselves into crazy situations just to feel alive -- just to feel things really intensely.  We were both running from the ghosts of our childhoods and found our peace out on the open road -- in the excitement of the new, the stories of strangers, and in the struggle for justice.

We were also both manic depressive.

    Mike Antipathy called from Maryland, his voice was breaking up on the message. Him and Greg Wells and Ammi from New Orleans  had gone to the bridge Sera had jumped from on their way back to Richmond from the funeral in New York. Greg said later: "It was beautiful, man. That's the crazy part. You could almost see the ocean from the bridge. It was so peaceful." He was crying just a little and I could picture the expression on his somber face as we talked and bonded in the intense way that mutual friends do when their connecting link is suddenly gone. When we hung up I found the bridge on the road atlas.  North of Baltimore on the I-95. The Susquehanna River feeding into the Chesapeake Bay feeding into the Atlantic Ocean. Death by water. Painful. All that time in the air to think about what you've just done. The finality. "And I am not scared looking at myself, if anything, I'll recognize the real truth of who I am." Sera's cryptic words in her last piece for Slug and Lettuce, the magazine we both had had a column in. How long had she been planning it? How long did she torture herself with the thought before she finally got the nerve to do it? I shuddered, and took a deep breath.

    When the depression comes it's like having lead weighs on all your limbs and thoughts and feelings and emotions. It's not just being really sad. There's a big difference. I'm really sad right now because Sera's dead, but I'm definitely not depressed.  Just imagine for a second that all of your deepest and worst insecurities have risen to the surface
and are present with you wherever you go: every conversation you have has a second dialog going on internally telling you that everything coming out of your mouth is full of shit and that you're a liar and a hypocrite and a coward and you better kill yourself as soon as you can before everyone finds out how fucked up you really are. And then imagine that the pain and shame of hating yourself is so great that the thoughts of ending your life are constant, like a broken record: throwing yourself in front of moving cars, jumping out of windows, gun in the back of the head, carbon monoxide in the garage, a handful of pills, etc. It's exhausting and horrible. And it feels like it's never going to end.
    The couple times it's happened to me I've stopped being able to take care of myself. I get cuts on my hands and don't tend to them even after they get infected and nasty. I get really confused and scattered -- lose all sense of direction and get lost in neighborhoods I normally know like the back of my hand. I'm shut down. I stop being able to perform basic tasks like going to work and buying groceries. I stop being able to communicate with anyone because I can't even get up the energy to formulate sentences between the black noise and broken records skipping in my brain. Everything seems pointless and irrelevant because I know I'm going to be dead soon. The only thing I seem to remember how to do is to eat, and that's what I do: eat until I'm sick because I'm craving something that I'm not getting. And then I feel like shit because I'm not even paying attention to what my body wants or needs.  I stop being able to get out of bed. I curl up in a ball and just wish that someone would come and put me out of my misery.  My whole life is one big mistake. And no matter how many times I've come out of it, each new time it never feels like it's ever going to end, it feels like I'm going to be in mental agony forever.

    I can't really get mad at her. Sera wasn't in control of herself when she jumped off that bridge. She just wanted the pain to end. She just felt so uncomfortable in her own skin that she couldn't take it anymore. Suicide is not malicious act. I spent four months of last year totally suicidal and psychotic, stuck in a miserable halfway house for people with severe psychiatric disabilities, far away from all my friends, my head eating itself alive with self-hatred and despair.  Manic-depression is a sickness, a disease. But it's more complicated because it always seems like it's the most brilliant and talented people like Sera who are cursed with it. It's a blessing and a curse -- an imbalance of chemicals in their brains that torments them but lets them see and feel things other people can't; allows them to create art and music and words that grab people by the heart and soul -- allows them to kiss the sky and come back down to tell the tale.
    What I've begun to discover in attempting to write about this mess is that there isn't good language in our vocabularies to talk about it. What is a word for something that's a blessing as well a disease? And I don't really like that word disease at all. It doesn't really capture it because it's so two-sided and on the flipside of all that horror lies so much beauty. But the fact is that although there's so much we still don't know about manic-depression, we do know it's genetic -- passed down through family, through generation, through blood. It's brought out by environmental factors like a fucked up childhood, but only for those who are genetically predisposed to it. You can't get it by watching too much television and eating too many poptarts as a youth (which used to be my original hypothesis as to why I was such a headcase.) So for lack of better words: what Sera had was a disease. But it was also very much a gift.  She was sensitive to the pain of others because she truly knew what pain felt like. She had an incredible mind which raced with a fury and drew connections in seconds -- the structure of her written sentences reflect a mind that could juggle multiple subjects with ease. She was a brilliant thinker and had a haunting way with words -- she knew how to paint a picture in text and give it to you like a priceless gift. She had an extraordinary memory, she talked about going to law school for environmental law and we all knew she could do it. But man, she was so tormented by the demons inside her. She struggled for justice and peace wherever she went, but she didn't know how to treat herself justly or what it was like to be at peace within.

    My friend Matt is a seaweed farmer. He lives with his partner Kehbin on a piece of land on the coast of Maine. They're both dedicated activists I've known for a bunch of years now who left the city to pursue their dreams of creating sustainable revolutionary community. Kehbin swears she sees a change in Matt since he started spending so much time in the ocean. "It's just become a part of him," she says, "the sea, the salt in the water, the waves. He's out there all day. You can see it in the look in his eyes" she tells me, "he's calmer, more stable, more at peace."

    I take a drug called Lithium -- 600mg. twice a day, every day. I've been doing it for a little over a year now. You can find Lithium on the periodic table, it's an element. The pills I take are synthesized in a laboratory somewhere, but Lithium occurs naturally in the ocean. It's a sea salt. Even after using it for more than half a century the doctors don't really know how it works, but it has something to do with altering the ion exchange in the brain. It keeps me stable. It's still pretty mysterious, but Lithium creates a homeostasis in the brain, some type of equilibrium that theoretically keeps one from jumping off bridges or walking down subway tracks thinking the world is about to end. Basically it keeps you from getting too manic or too depressed. They give it to people diagnosed with Bi-polar disorder.
    Bi-polar disorder is just a fancy word for manic depression. At some point some group off official folks decided that the word "depression" in "manic depression" was too much of a stigma and they wanted something more clinical for their medical reports. The polar thing refers to the fact that some folks are depressed all the time (unipolar) and some folks switch back and forth between mania and depression (bipolar.) Some bipolar folks like me have huge dips and peaks over long periods of time while other folks like Sera go up and down really quickly. In the psych jargon they call what Sera had "rapid cycling". All these words get thrown around a lot and can become quite ambiguous and confusing. Doesn't everybody have mood swings? At what point does it become something that gets the label "disease?" At what point, if any, does it make sense to start taking the drugs?
    Let me say right now that the good majority of my friends would probably be diagnosed with some form of "crazy" label or other by mainstream psychiatrists because a lot of mainstream psychiatrists are just the pawns of the big drug companies (which are in fact very evil and just want to doll out as much product as they can and get you hooked so you'll always be coming back for the fix.) As a subculture we don't usually take the whole "crazy" thing too seriously. It's a word that me and my people throw around with ease. It's often said: in a world so obviously insane, it's a complement to be considered crazy by the mainstream, right? I recall Sera saying  that to me on more than one occasion for sure.
    But the reality is that a lot of us struggle with our own madness and we don't always find ways of coping that work, but we all deal with it in different ways. But there is a point where you have to draw the line and come to some kind of conclusion about the nature of your problems. Let me illustrate this with an example from my recent past.

    This time last year I was sitting in a tiny cell in the psych unit of Los Angeles County Jail talking to the flickering light bulbs and truly thinking that they were listening. I was picked up by the LAPD because I was running down the streets putting my fists through windows and hopping over fences and running through traffic screaming the lyrics to early 80's pop songs and laughing hysterically. At the time I was very happy about the fact that the world as we had known it had just ended and we were all living on in dreamtime and that everyone I saw was just a reflection of me so it didn't matter what I did. I thought that the helicopters flying above had fancy cameras and were recording all my actions and broadcasting them live to members of the secret illuminati all across the world. I was convinced that I was the center of the universe and it was all so crystal clear, it all made so much sense that it was a wonder that everyone else couldn't see it. In short, by all measurements: I was totally stark raving loony toons.
    I'd been building up to it for months. What happened wasn't inevitable. I'd stopped taking my psych drugs a few month earlier because it seemed obvious that I didn't need them anymore and I was just being my usual hectic self: working on too many projects, leaving piles of paper everywhere, riding around on my bike and being super busy. I'd actually convinced a foundation to give a grant to an organization I'd started -- a regional seed library for community gardeners. It was a cool project and I was happy to have some focus in my life. I'd been out of town for a couple months interviewing farmers and now I was back in town making a million phone calls and setting up meetings between people who I didn't really know and who didn't know each other. I had all these exciting ideas about building alliances between small seed companies and organic farmers and farmer's markets and community organizers and musicians and local gardeners and restaurants and school teachers and students and all the old folks who lived in my neighborhood. I was going to raise a ton of money and get jobs for all my friends and all the kids in my hood hanging out on the street and smoking weed all day.  We were going to have a little revolution on our block. I was having these amazing conversations with my neighbors who
remembered when the Black Panthers, who had formed as an organization not but a couple blocks from our house back in the late '60's, had their free breakfast program and community patrols going. I was talking on the radio and giving speeches in front of local community groups and making appearances on the local public access TV station -- articulating a vision of taking power out of the hands of petro-chemical corporations and putting it back in the hands of the people through localized community controlled agriculture. I was super charming and eloquent and articulate and full of passion. And I seemed to inspire people wherever I went. I felt like I was on fire and it felt historic and I was loving it.
    Then at some point things began to get a little out of control. I stopped sleeping well at night because my head was constantly bursting with amazing ideas. I would draw out these complex diagrams in my journal fleshing out the importance of edge space between wild and cultivated systems and how one was dependent on the other. I'd take detailed notes on a curriculum I wanted to teach to high school students about the relationships between cultural and biological diversity. I was reading twenty books at the same time and writing twenty-five essays. My mind would race, moving micro and then scaling out to macro and then right back to micro within a matter of seconds. I could feel the presence of old friends with me as things they had said to me in the past would surface in my mind. I would have conversations with them and write them down. I felt like I was channeling spirits or something.
    Then my thoughts started to get more desperate. Everything started to seem very relevant. I mean everything. My mind suddenly had the power to take any two things and draw connections between them. The projects I was working on suddenly seemed very very important, event urgent. I felt like I had discovered THE secret that was going to bring
everyone together -- unite everyone in the world against the global power structure. I was reading a book called Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton and books about COINTELPRO. I started getting paranoid. I started to have the very disconcerting feeling that I was about to die, that there were important people that wanted me dead.
    I started getting really short with my friends, cutting them off in mid-sentence because I knew how important it was that I get my thoughts out before it was too late. I knew that I wouldn't live to see the day, but I wanted to make sure I did as much as I could before THEY got me. I needed to leave behind instructions for everyone so they'd know what to do without me around. I'd wake up in the morning from a couple hours of restless sleep and pour out pages and pages of ideas for what life should look like after the revolution. My housemates, my girlfriend, and everyone else around in the community was getting really sick of me and telling me to chill the fuck out. I had great I ideas, they said, but no one was going to listen if I was talking so fast.
    I knew they'd understand later. I stopped hanging out with anyone who knew me well and I started hanging out with people who had just met me and didn't find it so disturbing that I had slipped totally off my rocker. I started walking up to total strangers on the street and talking to them and have amazing conversations. I'd walk to the community garden down the street and just hang with the plants. I was so in tune with the universe that I could feel every last blade of grass as if they were breathing with me. Each plant had an incredibly different personality and I would spend hours just listening to them talk to me. It was so incredible. Meanwhile, I began to get more and more estranged from my community. My housemates were scared of me. Everyone was talking about me behind my back, but no one had the courage to actually confront me.
    At some point my mom came out to visit from New York and in her typical fashion, proceeded to organize a bunch of my friends together to take some direct action. One night they sat me down and pleaded with me to start taking my drugs again. I was furious.
    Were they fucking blind? Hadn't they been reading the news? Didn't they realize that the pharmaceutical companies and the agri-chemical companies had merged into the LIFE SCIENCE INDUSTRY and these people wanted nothing less than enslavement of the human race and control of the entire planet. These were the same people who were trying to genetically engineer the world's crops to be dependent on their herbicides, the same one's who created the technology that can make seed crops reproduce sterile. It's so fucking American to think that you can fix everything with a pill or feed people with chemicals. Hadn't they read Huxley's Brave New World? How could they not see what was going on when it was so obviously right in front of their eyes? You want me to trust these people's medicine? You gotta be kidding me. These people peddle pesticides to farmers in the developing world and graft human ears to lab mice. They are evil motherfuckers.  I'm not going to put those drugs in my body -- they're just going to kill the parts of my brain that are working so well! You just want me to be a robot like the rest of you. Fuck that shit and fuck all of you!
    And so off to Los Angeles I went, to get myself locked up in jail. I've been told that it's very hard to argue with someone who is not only manic and delusion but not really that far off the mark. For brevity's sake I'll spare all the details, but let me just say that I'm very lucky I didn't end up with an LAPD bullet in my chest. While we're all mourning for Sera, the whole thing hits me on another level as well because I'm very conscious of the fact that it could have been me dying in some fucked up and dramatic way, and all y'all would have been freaking out and trying to figure out what you could have done to stop it if only you had known... It makes me really glad I'm still here.

    One of me and Sera's big conflicts while we were traveling was that she'd always trying to get me to stop taking my psych drugs. She said that they slowed me down. The whole idea of them just made her uncomfortable. Sera didn't believe in a life without extremes and she didn't want her experiences mediated by some drug made by The Man. They just want you to think that you can't take care of yourself without those drugs, she'd say. She'd taken Prozac for a while when she was a teenager and had hated it. It made her numb. It killed her sex drive. She said she just couldn't feel anything when she was on it. She got off it quick and didn't look back.
    Like to so many of us, psych drugs symbolized defeat in Sera's eyes. Like having to spend your last money on a greyhound after getting kicked out of the trainyard and the highway.  But it's worse because it's not just like popping a couple pills. It's a completely
different lifestyle. It means having health insurance so it means having a job so it means staying in one place to it means being stable. A reminder that your dependent on the system that you hate to keep you alive and healthy.

    They say that most manic-depressives go off their drugs a bunch of times before they either kill themselves or realize that they need them. That's a hard one to hear, and I still don't completely believe it, but mania is alluring for sure. They say that we get addicted to the intensity like a drug. But of course the problem with the intensity is that it's like a pendulum swing -- if you swing too far over to one side, you're inevitably going to swing back over in the other direction. I can plot the last eight years of my life on a graph and it would look like a big sine wave. Huge swings. And the upswings have been responsible for everything cool I've ever done in my life. But the downs are fucking miserable and anyone who knows what's really up with people will tell you that delusions of grandeur are always deep down masking great insecurity. Both sides of the same coin. There has to be a balance.
    So in the interests of sticking around the planet for a while, I'm learning new dances with the enemy. At least for now I've made my choice to take the drugs and deal with all the sacrifice that go along with that choice: not being able to stay up all night, slowing down, staying in one place, holding down a job for more than a couple months at a time, going to a bunch of therapy, all things I've always been so scared of. But I really really want to live and I really want to grapple with my demons and I know it's going to take a long time. I was really worried the drugs were going to turn me into a zombie, but trust me: I feel strong emotions everyday, I need something to keep that shit in check. This isn't exactly the path I pictured myself walking down, but here I am, walking it.

    Reading all her letters to me, looking at her smiling face in the dozens of photographs I have of her, listening to the mix tapes she lovingly made me, thinking about the impact she's had on my life, it's so hard to believe Sera's dead. She had such wide open traveler eyes. I can't help but remember little things like how when we were on the road we'd wake up in the morning and tell each other our dreams.  She taught me this word once in Armenian: yavroos which translated to something like "one who knows your soul." I loved that woman something real. She bared her soul to me. She still feels so alive. And that's the strange paradox about the whole thing: I think it's really because that she really was more alive than most of us. She felt things more, she took more risks, she refused to play by society's rules, she lived with an intensity that most people only ever dream of -- she lived her life like someone who always felt like she didn't have enough time. She lived fast and died young just like she figured she was going to. She wrote hundreds of pages that are inevitably going to be published and change a whole lot of people's lives. She's leaving her mark for sure.
    But it's really fucking sad and I can't stop thinking of that ancient Greek myth about the father Daedalus who builds a pair of wings out of wax and feathers for his son Icarus so that they can escape from the maze they've been imprisoned in. As the myth goes, despite all his father's warnings, Icarus flies too close to the sun, melts his beautiful wings, and falls into the ocean to his death. The idea being that he was fortunate enough to have been given wings, but he wasn't patient enough to learn how to stay balanced -- he couldn't see anything but soaring as high as he could so he ended up in the sea.

    Around the new year, just about a month ago, me and my people were having a party over at the house in Oakland. My friend Matt was visiting from Maine and we were sitting by the fireplace catching up. Matt said to me: "You know, Sascha you should really come harvest seaweed with me back East next Summer. I think you'd really love it."  He smiled warmly. "It sounds great man." I replied. "But I don't think I'm going to be able to
make it really. I'm trying hard to settle down for a little while and Maine is about as far as you can get from here without leaving the country." He smiled again. "That's alright, man. We'll be there for the next thirty to forty years. You have plenty of time." I looked at his face and suddenly imagined it full of wrinkles, the two of us in our sixties living by the ocean with a bunch of our crazy friends and growing old together. It didn't seem that outlandish. It actually seemed really nice.

    I wanted to get old with Sera Bilizikian still in my life. I just figured that that's the way it would be. I just want her back now and it's not going to happen. Sera had a beautiful pair of wings that carried her to faraway places and on amazing journeys. She burned bright in her short twenty-three years, did a lot of good for the world while she was here, and will be missed by many many people.  I hope that as a community we can learn the lessons from this fucked up tragedy, and that it inspires us to learn how to understand and take better care of each other.

That's it.

    I welcome any correspondence from folks who want to dialogue about depression and manic-depression and madness and ways we can build more support in our community for people going through rough times. I'll reckon I'll write about it more next issue depending on what kind of responses I get. I especially want to hear from people who have been or are on psych meds and what your experiences have been like. I can't respond to everyone, but a number of us have been talking about putting together some type of zine or book or something with stories and resources so what you write will probably end up in that if you're into it. I also want to apologize for everyone who's written to me in the last year and a half and hasn't heard back, especially the folks who've sent money for zines. Drop me an email or quick line and remind me what you asked for and I'll get it out to you ASAP. (We've been having some recent technical difficulties with the copy system in town and I'm out of almost everything, but hopefully it'll all be worked out soon. Does anyone local have a good connection? -- I betcha we could work out a good trade.)  Just in case you were curious, all of my columns from the previous year were written before I got locked up and mostly while I was really manic -- Chris has a secret stash of my writing she breaks out for just such occasions...
Thanks for all the support from everyone who was there for me when I needed it. Take care of each other. Lets all try to stick around for a little while, alright? I've had my fill of heartbreak for this year. 
Love, Sascha
-Sascha Scatter