Sturdy, cheap binding for DIY publishing

ayoooo updating my website ate all the photos I had previously posted to it, so I’m making a new tutorial based on my Improved binding for chunky zines post! I’ve actually updated my technique a little while since making that post anyway.

psssst you can get one of these copies here or request a free solidarity copy by emailing mildewamyx(at)protonmail(dot)com

What it is:

This is a fabric-reinforced stapled binding for folded zines and books. It uses a thin glue to securely attach a fabric strip to a card stock cover. This helps keep your cover/outside pages from ripping off the spine, and also introduces moisture that (in combination with a strong weight or press) actually molds the paper into a tight u-shape. This means the finished zines sit flat, rather than flopping around, wiggling and quickly falling apart like they might if they were folded and stapled conventionally.

When it’s useful:

This technique is perfect for very long zines and short books that are too thick to staple normally (we’ll actually be using a utility stapler/staple gun, rather than an office stapler)–it lets small creators work on big projects without needing to invest in expensive equipment. The only tool you might need to buy is a staple gun–and that’s like, fifteen bucks and generally a good thing to have if you don’t got one already. It’s also better than spiral binding for shipping–you don’t need to worry about the spirals getting crushed or poking through your packaging, and if your piece is like 30-ish sheets (120 pages) or less, it’ll still be under 1/4″ thickness and you can still pay USPS letter rates if it’s under 6″x9″ (nice) (which should be around $2.35, instead of media mail which is fucking FOUR BUCKS A POUND now). It’s also cuter than regular staples and a good way to add a polished touch to a smaller piece even if it COULD be stapled normally, and I think it would be fantastic for something like a pocket guide format–a nice, thick 5.5″x4.25″ (quarter sheet) book instead of a larger, floppier 5.5″x8.5″ half sheet zine.

I haven’t met a maximum sheet count for this technique yet, but it starts getting a little bit harder around 40 sheets (160 pages). There’s no minimum, but if your piece is under 15 sheets, you can skip the staple gun and just use a long-arm stapler.

Limiting factors:

But wait, what are the downsides? Well–

  • It takes a bit of time and effort. I don’t think it’s that bad–definitely easier than hand-saddle-stitching or god forbid a hand-bound codex on every. single. copy, and less room for error than trying to glue bind a bunch by hand–but it will take you a few hours to get a batch done.
  • Batch size is limited by whatever you have to press them with AND your willingness to sit and do papercrafts for an extended period. The latter can be remedied by conviction (or haranguing your friends into helping–it is fun!) but the former really depends on how many huge, flat, very heavy objects (think milkcrate full of canned goods more than a couple hard-cover books) or, if you’re fancy, clamp-and-board sets you have. You may ONLY stack FOUR BOOKS TO A LAYER under whatever you’re pressing them with.

If those sound like reasonable constraints you can deal with in your project, great! lets go.

What you’ll need

  • A utility stapler (staple gun) with 1/2″ staples (smaller will probably work if your zine isnt HUGE, but if you’re buying something for bookbinding generally you’ll want nice long ones to make sure you can bind anything that comes your way)
  • Some kind of soft surface to staple through your pages into, so that you’re not just attaching your books to whatever your work surface is and having to wrench them out. I’m using a bit of foam packing material which works great; you could use anything similar, Styrofoam, whatever, even a couch cushion if you don’t care about putting a ton of holes into it.
  • Any kind of small piece of wood to bend your staples with. I’m using a random scrap block; you could use anything like that or even the handle of a wooden spoon or spatula.
  • Plastic wrap cut into sheets that are roughly 8″ by however wide your roll is. You can reuse these for the next batch.
  • Pre-cut fabric strips. See deets below.
  • Some glue. Wheatpaste recipe below; or use white glue diluted 1:1. We want it to be thin and runny
  • Something to press your books-in-progress with at least overnight–as said above, it needs to be very heavy and flat, like a crate of canned goods, a cinder block, a LOT of books…you can also use boards and clamps, i’ll be using some random scrap plywood boards cut about 7″x9″ and my tincture press. As above, FOUR COPIES TO A LAYER–I’m doing a twelve copy batch today so I have four boards (you’ll see what i mean).
  • Some cardboard or some shit to cover your work surface and soak up extra glue
  • A towel to wipe glue off your hands on, or wear pants you don’t care about
  • Some smallish sharpish scissors
  • And, of course: Your unfolded printed pages with a cardstock cover for each.


Add a line to your cover art down the very center of the spine. This is where you’ll put your staples. Add too more lines on either side of that one, the width of your fabric strips. This will make your life so much easier I promise. Honestly? If you already have printed covers, take a bit of time to measure and draw these lines out on them, it WILL pay off in how consistent your copies are and how nice they look and it’s faster than trying to fuck with drawing lines or making guides in the middle of the process.


You can use ANY woven, non-stretchy fabric that isn’t too think (probably denim wouldn’t work but thinner than that’s fine). If you’re buying fabric for a specific color, I recommend getting cheap poly-cotton broadcloth; otherwise poke around for old bed sheets or clothes to cut up. Your strips need to be at least 1/4″ longer than your spines–you can absolutely eyeball this as LONG AS THEY ARE LONGER. We’ll trim them down as the last step but if you try to make them exactly the right length from get they will be too short at the end. I don’t make the rules. As for width, up to you, but no thinner than an inch and a half. Take care to cut the sides of your strips neatly unless you’re going for a trashy look.


Want to spend Almost Zero Money on your glue? Great. Here’s what you’ll need for a wheatpaste that’s the right consistency:

  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup white vinegar
  • A fork or a whisk or something like that
  • Small saucepan + stove
  • A sealable container for your wheatpaste

PLEASE NOTE that because this is acidic, it is NOT archival quality glue. It might discolor some colored coverstock and paper, and your books will likely not live to be fifty, let alone 1,000 years old. It IS cheap though and it works great, and unlike other wheatpaste recipes this one’s actually pretty shelf stable. I wouldn’t, like, eat it after 24 hours, but I wouldn’t eat it anyway so.

Whisk your water and flour together in a small saucepan until there’s NO CLUMPS, and then put it on medium low heat. Bring the mixture up to a low simmer and stir frequently, scraping any thicker mix off the edges and bottom of the pan and mixing it back in. Once the mixture is about the consistency of raw egg, turn the heat off and continue stirring. As it cools it should thicken up to about a soft-set pudding texture. Add your half cup of vinegar and stir in thoroughly, and then pour into a jar or a tupperware or something for storage. Done!

This recipe makes enough for somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty books.

hint! You can put anything you want in your glue. Glitter? Check. Confetti? Sure. Pigment or paint? Why not! Glow in the dark paint? hell yeah bud! Just remember that if you add anything, it won’t dry clear anymore, so you’ll have to be a lot neater during the glueing process if you don’t want it to look messy.

Okay that’s enough let’s get started for real actually

Do each step for every copy in your batch before moving on to the next step.

I recommend starting with a trial run of no more than eight copies, four if you don’t do many crafts. Don’t bite off more than you can chew and only realize it when everything’s already soggy!

Step one:

Using your SOFT SURFACE (so you’re not wrenching your pages out of whatever you just stapled them to and potentially damaging them), make sure your pages are in a neat stack, line up your staple gun with that center line, and let em loose!

Make sure to use TWO HANDS! Use the heel of your non-dominant hand to press down on the top of the staple gun right above where the staples come out, as shown in the picture above. Otherwise, the stapler will kick back and your staple won’t sink all the way into the pages to sit flush with the cover.

Placing your staples as close to exactly on the center line of your cover is important (your staple gun SHOULD have an arrow you can use to line it up); but their vertical placement on that line does not really matter–the staples won’t be visible from the outside, so just eyeball two staples that seem like a reasonable distance from eachother and the top and bottom edges of the book and don’t waste time fussing over it.

Step two: Bend in those staples

On a HARD SURFACE (so it, uh, works), use the edge of that block of wood to bend in them staple ends! It actually is easier to understand in video, so here:

step three: glue, fold, crush

Dip a fabric strip into the glue and then squeegee off the excess with your fingers. Genuinely I think this is easier, faster and tidier than using a brush or a sponge or something, which i’ve done in the past. You want the strip totally saturated. Line it up with both of your outer lines on the cover and smooth down with your fingers. Give your hands a quick wipe on your pants or an ergonomically placed towel.

Slap a piece of plastic wrap over that spine while it’s still flat, pick it up and fold it in half. Press down slowly and then hold with pressure over as much as the spine as you can (ideally with both hands, i was taking a picture so I just had the one spare) for about thirty seconds.

Stack your folded copies (spines facing alternate directions) under a temporary weight (here, a handle of grain alcohol). When you have FOUR, NO MORE! copies stacked:

Place your stacks of four at a time into or under whatever apparatus you’re using to crush them–pictured I have two layers of four, so eight copies total, with the remaining four next to them.

Let your copies dry under weight overnight. It’s okay if they’re still a little damp, but they shouldn’t be wet or sticky for the next step.

Step four: trim!

use a small pair of scissors to snip the spine strips so they’re all even with the top and bottom of the book, and there you go! Congrats.

Reopening consultations

Hi! I’m very excited to announce that I am once again publicly offering one-on-one herb consultations and peer support. You can read all about it here!

I’m glad to finally be in a place again where I have capacity to support others more consistently. I really love one-on-one work–I get to talk to so many incredible people and encounter so many interesting challenges. It’s an honor.

I’m also working on a scheme to offer free support to folks who are geographically or socially isolated from IRL radical herbal projects–hesitantly I’d say news about that will probably come in february so keep an eye out if it’s something you’re interested in or a resource you’d like to keep on deck.

Opiate rant

It boggles my mind how much time, effort and resources the medical industrial complex puts into pain relief research when we got it right with opium and morphine a hundred goddamn years ago. Are they desirable for everyone? No. But instead of trying to meet the needs of people with complex or difficult to treat pain conditions, the pharmaceutical industry is desperately trying to create alternatives for people that wouldn’t need alternatives with decriminalization, education and home synthesis rights.

The average relationship to opiates in the so-called US is not what it could be. It’s extremely hard to manage physical dependency when your supply is inconsistent and you have to spend half a batch trying to get a handle on how strong your shit is and then have to start over with a completely different batch a week or two or three later–to say nothing of how impossible it can feel to schedule tolerance breaks or plan ahead to manage how fast your tolerance builds when you don’t know where your next fix (or the money for it) is going to come from. Black market pressure (especially how drug penalties are calculated) prioritizes the most potent possible substances in the smallest physical quantity, meaning lots of people are forced to take doses much higher than what they would otherwise need or find desirable, causing tolerance to build very rapidly and be difficult to control. AVOIDABLE gastrointestinal problems, malnourishment, and infection run rampant because our culture teaches drug users that these are punishments for immorality, not simple side effects and risk factors that can be dealt with through drug-user-specific health education and care.

How many people would live happy, desirable lives–fuck it, how many people would STILL BE ALIVE RIGHT NOW if they had the option to use safely produced, content-guaranteed, consistently-dosable opiates? How many people are suffering on non-indicated ineffective gabapentin prescriptions when their pain could be easily, safely managed with opiates? How many people lose years of their life to antipsychotics and SSRIs when a week or two of opium tea could’ve been all they needed to get through that rough patch, cope with that death, keep that awful event from becoming a life-long trauma?

What would happen if instead of choosing between pain and fentanyl-cut who-knows-what, you could plant some poppies in your back garden and have next-to-free access to effective relief? If instead of shelling out for pharmaceutical pills that could just as easily be cut you could make your own or get them from a farmers market stall or your friend in the corner house with the big lot and know exactly what was in them and how they were made? If you could go to any doctor or community healer or medic or harm reductionist or WHOEVER and get customized, experienced, well-thought out advice on a dosage and tolerance management plan, on food habits and options to help with suppressed appetite and potential GI problems, recommendations for supplements or medications to limit or eliminate GI distress, fresh needles and rigs or glassware and injection training and wound-care supplies and instructions, supplements and medications and exercises/habits to limit lung damage from smoking…

No more ruinous addictions. No more ulcers from tainted supplies or trying to disinfect wounds with hand sanitizer and mouthwash. No more avoidable pain and emotional distress. No more emotional and physical damage from using intense substances without knowing how strong they are or what effects they might have. NO. MORE. FUCKING. DEATHS.

Opium is exceptionally easy to produce–morphine and heroin are more complicated, but we’ve been making them for a long time prior to modern industrial labs and the basic chemistry knowledge and equipment needed for safe production could be 100% achievable to just about anyone. The harm reduction and side effect management are THERE, they’re just obfuscated by drug war politics and general health illiteracy. Opiates are not ontologically dangerous, they are made dangerous by the state. Because the state is not invested in healthcare, it only cares about control. Opiate deaths are a punishment. Addiction (as opposed to managed dependence) is a punishment. For daring to be poor, for daring to be Black or Indigenous, for daring to be disabled, for daring to try to be OK in a system that dangles health and happiness as a reward for participating and being the right kind of person— and to get the right kind of people to do the right kind of thing, to live between the lines and reproduce civilization, to retain homeostasis in the social macroorganism, there has to be a threat. There has to be a scapegoat. There has to be the wrong people who do the wrong things.

The opiate crisis was engineered through overprescription and under-education. The problem wasn’t just availability of these substances: It was and continues to be pushing opiates without harm reduction, without health literacy, without unconditional safe supply and user-tailored healthcare.

I don’t have any grand synthesis to wrap this up in a nice bow. I’m just tired, and angry, and scared, and screaming into the internet in the hopes someone reads and understands. I don’t have an answer. I don’t have a call to action. If this inspires you to do anything, please do it. I don’t want people I love to die anymore.

I’m alive! Practice updates, announcements, and all that jazz

Hi everybody. It’s been a minute!

Over the summer I became homeless again, had to part with most of my belongings, and landed in a part of the world I’ve never been to and never particularly had any intention to live: small town Oregon. I’m no stranger to being uprooted though, and pretty fast at putting roots down, so it could be a lot worse.

Not being able to practice much herbalism over the past few months has been rough on me to a degree that’s hard to communicate. This is my passion, it’s what I’m good at, it’s how I can impact the world around me in line with my values… Having begun to establish a public facing practice that allowed me to really dig my hands into everything I love about it, allowed me to really help others, and then immediately having to let it fall by the wayside because I was no longer stable enough to afford the time or resources really hurt.

I am ashamed of flaking on people and projects. I am embarrassed that I went too big too fast and was not honest to myself or others about what would be sustainable for me. I don’t want that to happen again, so, I’m focusing more on educational and informal offerings that have historically been a lot easier for me to be consistent with, as well as moving more slowly and deliberately with projects.

Consultation offerings on hiatus

I’m not at a point in my life where I feel able to support people on a one-on-one basis, so I’m putting all individual consultations and services on hiatus. I still welcome people reaching out with questions and I’ll do my best to find answers or point you in the right direction, I just might take a while to reply and I can’t do full workthroughs with people or offer sustained support.

Open study night!

Starting next month, I will be hosting Open Study Night, a public digital meeting (with an accompanying email newsletter!) for herbalists of all stripes to connect, share announcements, and collaborate! Learn more here.

New & more frequent online workshops

In addition to the Herbal Emotional Support workshop, which I plan on announcing a new session of in the near future, I’ve been working on a few other courses that I’m very excited about. Most are much shorter–single sessions over the span of one to three hours–and should be a lot easier for me to put on as I have time and the ability to plan a few weeks ahead. I’m hoping that as I put on these newer, more experimental workshops, I can get feedback, continually improve them, and add them to a more regular rotation.

The first of these will be announced shortly 😉

And no, I haven’t gotten any better at naming workshops lmao.

Sliding scale updates

This is a hard one for me. Previously, I have run my practice on a “pay me or don’t, whatever” kind of model, with more intense fundraising as the need arises, and hiatuses when I need to spend my time making money to survive. This is my ideal.

However, as I’ve mentioned…my life is tenuous. Some of that is by choice, but most of it is unavoidable as a multiply disabled person with no familial support network. I can’t just get a shitty part time job and supplement with gig work because it’s physically impossible. The ways I make money are paid below minimum wage, occasionally dangerous, usually unpleasant, and INCREDIBLY unreliable. I can’t always promise that hiatuses will be short. This one definitely wasn’t.

So here’s the deal: I will not hound or shame people I work with about their ability to pay. I will not means test or ask you to prove yourself. I will not turn people away for not being able to pay. But I am going to start being more transparent about my needs, because even the limited income I get from donations makes a huge difference in how I can afford to spend my time, my ability to do this work, and my physical and emotional wellbeing.

This is reflected on the Fees? page of this site, where I talk a little bit more about donations and have provided a sliding scale self-assessment for anyone who has a bit more flexibility in what they are able to donate for workshops

Writing projects

Finally, I do wanna mention that the herbal harm reduction zine I announced on instagram right before my hiatus is still being worked on. It’s going a lot slower than I would like it to, but it’s a project I’m extremely passionate about and do intend to release in whatever form ends up being manageable.

Thanks for sticking with me!

I’m really excited to be back. Here’s to the future!

NEW OFFERING: Herbal Exploration Activities

I’m extremely excited to be offering a new service: Herbal exploration packages. These kits include a set of customized herbal preparations and related exercises, focused on bodymind exploration, building experience with herbs, and most importantly, FUN!

Example package with preparations wrapped in colorful paper, ready to ship.

I developed this offering at the same time I was writing my manifesto–Actually, the realizations about my practice that led to the manifesto came as a result of me trying to explain why doing things like this is so important to me.

I want to incorporate play more into my practice. Herbalism doesn’t have to be restricted to responding to problems and returning to “normal”. I think that actively practicing interacting with our bodyminds in ways that aren’t focused on making ourselves “better” is extremely important to refusing to pathology–and I’m so, so incredibly excited to be making these packages because it’s play for me too!

In preparation for this announcement, I went through the process of creating a package for a friend of mine, and it was so much fun. I got to make herbal preparations I don’t typically make, do a bunch of design and packaging tasks I deeply enjoy, and share something I love with someone else. I can’t wait to make more.

Like all my offerings, there is no set fee–unfortunately there are minimum donations for physical kits, but if you have the means please consider donating towards the cost of a kit for someone else!

Full description + interest form here!

(admin note: I have also made some updates to my “herbal offerings” page–this page now has an overview of all of my offerings, with herbal consultation & support, herbal exploration packages, and workshops as sub-pages in the menu.)

Improved binding for chunky zines

I try to mix up the AAFH covers every once in a while c:

Interest in AAFH has picked up lately, AND I’m tabling at an event later this month, so it’s time for another print run! I got to do the 1st printing of AAFH with access to a hot-melt glue binding machine and I’ve been chasing that high ever since. Binding machines like that are relatively rare in my circles though, and at 16 sheets (64 pages) the compact typesetting is small enough to work as a stapled booklet–barely. This setup is not idea though. Even though its short by book standards, AAFH is a pretty hefty zine, and just folding the paper feels relatively flimsy. I do have access to a spiral binding machine, but 1) it would mean paying 25cents more per copy, which adds up since these are free and the project survives on donations and 2) I mail these in cheap half-size manila envelopes and I’m worried spiral binding would either get crushed or pierce the envelope, and padded mailers are a lot pricier.

HOWEVER, using a diluted glue to attach a strip of scrap fabric to the spine makes a big difference, both reinforcing the binding and temporary softening the paper, allowing it to be pressed completely flat. Add that to a cardstock cover, and you have what is basically just a nice binding. Next I’ll have to track down a guillotine slicer so the pages are easier to turn…

I got this idea from a zine about risograph printing I came across a while ago–and since that’s the only zine I’ve ever seen that used this technique, I thought I would share my process.


  • Printed zines (obviously)
  • Woven scrap fabric
  • White glue (im using washable glow in the dark glitter glue, but same difference)
  • Sponge applicator
  • Plastic wrap
  • Something heavy with a flat bottom

This seems to work best with zines that were stapled, but NOT folded yet. I diluted the glue with water about 1:1; it behaves more like a liquid but is still be thick and sticky like a thin syrup. The width of the fabric strips doesn’t functionally matter in my opinion, but I wouldn’t go much thinner than the approx. 1.5″-2″ I have here. They should be slightly longer than 8.5″; somewhere around 8.75″. I’m not worried about super consistent production quality, so I made mine by ripping long, ~2″ wide strips from my fabric, using the edge of a sheet of paper to eyeball cutting them up into slightly-longer-than-8.5″, and then trimming the frayed edges off. This was pretty efficient.

Next I placed the glue-soaked fabric onto an unfolded zine, making sure to line it up with the bottom edge so I only had to trim the top. I put a piece of plastic wrap over the glued strip, which is hard to see in the photo but i promise is there. I folded the zine as best I could with my hands, pressing it down with my palms, and stacked them facing alternating directions.

I did these in a batch of 10 and a batch of 16, weighing down each batch in two stacks with a flat-bottomed wooden crate that has some gallon jars of tonics in it. They’re not significantly different from folded-only zines while they’re still wet, but after a few minutes the difference is notable. Since it’s diluted white glue, these dry to the touch extremely quickly, but I left them overnight because they still seemed a little soft and not totally flat. I was able to peel the plastic wrap off the first batch of dried zines and save it in a stack to reuse for the second batch, and I have it saved with my craft supplies to use in the future since I hate throwing out plastic.

Over all, this process took somewhere around two and a half hours of active work for 36 copies, split over two days because I’ve been lazy lately. That’s about half as long as the 40-copy perfect bound run I mentioned earlier took, which isn’t bad at all–In my opinion, which is slanted by being shit-poor and enjoying papercrafts enough to spend hours on them for fun, this is totally viable for publishing projects with runs measuring in the dozens or low hundreds, especially if you can get a couple friends to help. I have a lot of practice doing things like this so YMMV if you’ve never DIY’d a print run, but it’s definitely possible to pick up the skills and do it efficiently.

And yes, the spines on these do glow in the dark.

(AAFH is available for download as a PDF and EPUB, and I distro copies for free by mail–just send me an email at mildewamyx(at)protonmail(dot)com with your mailing address.)

Mental Health Is A Lawn; Desire Is a Prairie

Note: I would like to say a huge, loving thank-you to my incredible friends for helping me write this piece. I’m incredibly grateful for the time and effort you’ve all put in to helping me express what I want to.


A little over a month ago, I began posting about upcoming changes in my practice, which I’ve been working on since. As I said in an instagram story, I realized that I’ve been pretty bad about replacing surface-level words instead of actually challenging underlying concepts; so, I’ve been taking some time to work on learning to better articulate my philosophy.

In the following essay I am going to try to explain my critique of psychiatry and offer a framework to replace it. You don’t have to agree with anything I say to receive herbs, advice or education from me. If I only wanted to work with people that believe the same things as me, I would stick to caring for my network of friends and accomplices. I have a public-facing practice to offer something immediately and materially useful to (broadly speaking) anyone that asks for it. I’m writing this because—while we may or may not be/become friends—my services are a personal gift, and I do not want them to be received as a function of psychiatry.

Most of all, I believe that everyone has an idea about what the future will hold, and everyone is trying to bring that idea to fruition. Ultimately there is nothing in my lifetime that will result in everyone being on the same page about what we all “should” be doing; and we are all relatively powerless on a global scale. What I can do is help the people I can touch, and walk away from those that want to force me to believe things I don’t want to believe in. I can’t make universal healthcare happen, right now or decades in the future; but I can fight tooth and nail to help heal the people around me for free, and I can share, liberate and generate knowledge to help others do the same.

I’m writing with a very limited scope here—if I was having an easier time writing this it would very quickly become an entire book, not a 3,700-some-odd word essay. I’m asking to you believe at face value that this is what I consider to be true; unfortunately I don’t have the capacity to write out an argument containing all the applicable historical evidence and referential sources right now. I hope at some point I do.

Part 1: Groundwork

Lobotomistic violence

I’m going to start by laying out a definition that I think is important to understanding where I’m coming from. I started using this term because I think it marks a useful distinction in how certain people are treated by psychiatry.

Lobotomistic violence is the set of psychiatric “treatments” that intend to make someone “normal” by reducing/inhibiting function in certain parts of their brain. While surgical lobotomies are generally considered outdated and barbaric in mental health culture, the root concept is still very much alive and well. Several antipsychotic drugs have similar effects to surgical lobotomies, and many more otherwise limit brain function in other ways. These drugs can prevent the people they’re prescribed to from thinking abstractly or feeling deeply, and often cut them off from meaningful parts of themselves.

According to the psychiatric framework there are people who need support, understanding, and accommodation; and people who need their bodyminds* to be physically altered and parts of them literally removed/made nonfunctional. Lobotomistic violence is a “last ditch” effort, when less extreme forms of medication or therapy are considered “ineffective”. Sometimes this comes after a long process of trying different treatments—but a lot of people are subjected to lobotomistic violence because they occupy a social position that society sees as a lost cause from the start, like people kidnapped off the street by ambulances in the middle of a psychotic break, or kids in state custody.

*Bodymind is a popular term in mad liberation that refers to the mind and body as a cohesive whole–it invokes the idea that we do not just inhabit our bodies, we ARE our bodies.

Defining mental health

(In this section, I’m using a very charitable interpretation of psychiatry from a scientific standpoint. Even the most advanced neuroscience cannot reliably identify specific mental disorders or their causes—but even if it could, it would still be fundamentally bad, and that’s the point I want to make.)

Civilization is an organism and an ecosystem in its own right, with structures to achieve equilibrium and to perpetuate itself. The choices that we make and options we see as available have been formed by thousands of years of accidents and choices that shape patterns of behavior and create social constructs. It is these structures I’m referring to when I talk about control.

In order for civilization to exist as it currently does, the people and things subjected to it must be easily understood, because things that are understood can be controlled. An example my friend used was a small, early agrarian state—a ruler wants to collect tax, with the goal of collecting as much as possible to enrich his position against neighboring states. He cannot collect too much tax, or else the population will either starve, or get angry and refuse to participate in the state; so to maximize what can be taken he has to know how much is produced, and in turn the farmers have to know how much they produce to know what they owe and what they need to meet immediate needs. Civilization needs to reduce complicated questions to knowable categories in order to respond in ways that benefit itself. This legibility occludes true understanding, pares down the messy, beautiful, difficult-to-communicate nature of life into one-dimensional criteria to be accounted for and processed. To see how these criteria are constructed, let’s look at an oak tree.

The name “oak tree” refers to a thing that exists, pretty indisputably (at least until you get into existentialism but, uh, let’s not go there). However, the name “oak” is something people made up. There are many different perspectives one might understand an oak tree from. Whatever lens you want to use impacts what characteristics you focus on and how you understand them in relation to the whole. You focus on certain attributes to create a story—if you’re using a scientific lens, you might look at DNA and draw connections to other DNA to tell a story about genetic history. Genetic history is also a human construct that only focuses on the pieces that are significant to the stories our culture wants to tell. These stories are what we use to build knowable categories; but a squirrel doesn’t give two nuts about the genetic history of an oak tree, and likely has its own stories that are entirely alien to us—because different attributes are significant to its life.

Mental disorders are real in the same way an oak tree is real—and fake in the same way an oak tree is fake.

The experiences that diagnostic labels describe are real, but the way disorders are defined is 100% a social construct that is entirely dependent on what is significant to our culture, scientifically backed or not.

“Health” is defined as bodymind states that are convenient for cultural perpetuation; and illness is bodymind states that are not. What experiences and attributes are constructed as diagnostic categories is dependent on what is valued and relevant to the dominant culture—and more importantly, what is conducive to the reproduction of that culture.

In our modern society, people who do not fit squarely into the mold of a responsible, reproductive citizen are either validated or marginalized. These are both methods of control, pushing people into legible categories to make them more easily understood and influenced by society. Validation might look like a kid who’s disruptive in class getting diagnosed with ADHD and working more closely with the school to receive accommodation, whereas marginalization might look like a disruptive kid getting diagnosed with ODD and being treated as if any resistance to an authority figure is a symptom of disease for the rest of their life.

In psychiatry, validation is “positivity”. This extends from clinical practice to what I’m going to call “mental health culture”, the expansion of psychiatry from a form of medicine to a fixture of culture. I’m going to talk about this more in a minute, but for now the point is: mental health does not identify a list of “problems” that exist in a vacuum. It constructs sicknesses in order to justify control. Which leads us to…

This wouldn’t work if we didn’t care about each other

Pretty much everything I have said up to this point describes social mechanisms: how individual actions build on each other and create trends and dynamics as a larger organism. This kind of thinking is helpful to understand how and why things happen on a very large, faceless scale, but becomes messy when we try to apply it to every day life. I think that’s part of why conspiracy theories about shadowy puppet masters are so appealing to a lot of people: the world is full of shitty, complicated things and it feels a lot easier to know how to react to them if they were the product of an individual malice we could isolate instead of the chaotic outcome of thousands of years of individual, collective, and environmental actions/events. This is an example of pushing for legibility! 😀 As individuals we are also often guilty of creating legible-yet-false narratives to help us understand things.

Unfortunately, there’s no simple malice to blame here. A lot of the ways psychiatry hurts people are made possible by compassion. I try not to make generalizations about the human condition OR evolution-based arguments, but I do believe very deeply that humans are a fundamentally social species and that we are physically predisposed to caring about each other—evidenced in part by how much of the coerced labor necessary for society to function depends on making it hard to even SEE enslaved and low-class people, let alone extend solidarity and care to each other. The history of modern psychiatry (mostly over the past 200 years) and the birth of mental health is a chaotic mash of capitalistic profiteering, attempts to stifle liberatory movements, and individuals who are genuinely trying to take care of other people, all informed by the underlying assumptions about what “mental illness” is that I just described.

Brief digression: I’m always tempted to put “mental health” into quotes, but “mental health” implies a distinction between what I’m referring to and some other legitimate, non-fucked-up mental health that just doesn’t exist, so assume whenever I say mental health I’m using a slightly sarcastic tone.

Mental illnesses are, by and large, defined and diagnosed based on suffering, and the treatments, by and large, are designed to reduce suffering—or, the assumption that someone is suffering. How that suffering is measured and defined is still dependent on the basic assumption that correctly reproducing culture is good for you and not doing so is bad for you. For example, many diagnostic criteria measure one’s ability to work productively, and our society assumes wage labor is the norm for a healthy life. Sometimes, this is obfuscated by so many layers of reformed language and liberal feel-good-ism that many people who would disagree with that assumption when said so plainly (reproducing culture is good for you and not doing it is bad for you) are still deeply invested in mental health culture.

Diagnostic categories pick out certain experiences and characteristics to name as symptoms of a disease—but human brains are not very easy to put into boxes. Who is pathologized—labeled as diseased—is heavily dependent on their class status, and how well their behaviors contribute to the status quo. A lower-class non-Christian is more likely to be labeled as psychotic for describing their spiritual beliefs and experiences; whereas a richer person who talks about “being spoken to by the Holy Ghost” is simply a religious fanatic. We see consistently demographic-based diagnostic biases for disorders that are supposedly an issue with predetermined brain “hardwiring”, such as autism and ADHD being diagnosed more in white children, whereas Black children receive ODD diagnoses. By associating abnormality with suffering, and enforcing suffering for the abnormal, attempting to make people normal can represent reduction of suffering and a kindness. This dynamic is even more heavily enforced when people actively choose non-normative lifestyles: someone’s body state is not conducive to them living a “normal” life and they don’t even WANT to change, that means they are extra unhealthy. Under this logic, (attempting to/)forcing them to change is doing a good thing for them and thus the kindest course of action.

Everyone who advocates for broader mental health services is contributing to psychiatric and lobotomistic violence through kindness. There are plenty of people who think positively of their interactions with psychiatric institutions or mental health culture, AND there are ways to reduce harm when participating in mental health culture/be more honest about the risks involved; but encouraging people to participate in clinical settings is still encouraging people to put themselves in vulnerable, potentially dangerous positions.

Madness vs. pathology

Anyone can be crazy. I highly recommend trying it. Experiences are individually varied and highly personal—some people see and hear things other people don’t, some think in ways that are strange or confusing to others, and so on—but madness is simply refusal to conform to normative categories of mind-state and behavior. It is not bowing to social norms and the embrace of abnormal experiences that get in the way of a middle-class aspirations.

Pathologizing is the process by which madness is constructed as sickness. Pathology includes all the things that are “unapproved” about madness and it increasingly includes things that are only minorly inconvenient to our legibility and our participation. People re-contextualize experiences they never thought twice about as part of a disease, simply because they were given a label. “I never knew that was a BPD thing!”

Mental health culture encourages and facilitates this creep because even though its participants will often nominally criticizing practitioners who enact psychiatric violence, they continue to rely on the frameworks this violence is based on. Mainstream criticism of psych focuses on the idea that individual doctors (and/or institutions) apply psychiatry poorly, but it caries the implicit assumption that if it was only used correctly it would be a benefit. This can look like social/support groups of people identifying with a common or related diagnoses criticizing the way psychiatrists behave while encouraging people to self-diagnose, seek certain medication or therapy, or otherwise enforcing mainstream assumptions about the ontology of mental disorders.

Pathologizing talk surrounds us: “I think you might have ___”, “I’m like this because I have ___”, etc. It feels very similar to the ways in which certain queer spaces invent and push labels to describe every possible facet of gender or attraction, because well, it is. Both fixations gain traction because we are told that making ourselves legible to the outside world and making those around us legible in the same way will make us feel less lonely or invisible. Unfortunately, only letting people understand us in terms of our categories instead of on our own, unique terms continues to compound this loneliness. In an effort to make the system “work” we expand what experiences are known, create new labels and try to champion “inclusion”, instead of addressing the forces and dynamics surrounding the things that feel lonely, invisible, and difficult to communicate… A list of abbreviations doesn’t tell the world who you are, it tells the world how to react to you.

Many people who ascribe to psychiatric frameworks still live in ways that resist legibility. There are also plenty of people who are both mad and mentally ill, who use diagnostic labels but do not seek to conform to standards of “treatment”. There are also many people who use these labels to pressure conformity from themselves and those around them. It seems to me like the majority of people who, for example, encourage everyone around them to go to therapy, have never had a practitioner make good on the implicit threat of psychiatric violence.

The role of saneism

It would be incomplete for me to talk about the role of kindness without talking about the role of prejudice.

Saneism is a different form of bigotry than say, racism. It is not hatred of an “other” group that the “perpetrator” is not and never will be a part of. It’s more like fatphobia: hatred of a body state that every human being has the potential to experience. It is self-inflicted as much as it is wielded against the other.

Saneism is a tool to select who is and isn’t crazy. It should be clear at this point that there is no “sane” human being; sanity is only the ideal they beat you with. If you can emulate sanity well enough, driven by fear of internal and external hatred of madness, you are sane. If you can’t, you are insane, and either you can be mentally ill, assimilate to the categories and modes of behavior that are deemed acceptable for people like you; or, if you can’t do that, you’re crazy, and your options are either to submit to lobotomistic violence or to refuse to participate in psychiatry.

Part 2: Praxis

As I said at the beginning: The experiences that psychiatry addresses are real. Critique is all well and good in that it helps us name and understand the systems we live in, but it is only part of the process towards doing something better. Here is my attempt at building a model. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

A lawn is an artificially maintained shape, but a prairie is created organically through small and large events, which lines up nicely with the idea that mental health, as a noun is a standard that must be maintained, but desire, as a verb is a process of seeking, experiencing and evaluating that builds and grows in symbiosis.

Mental Health is a Lawn

The process of maintaining mental health through the reduction of suffering is like the process of maintain a lawn. A lawn is a pre-defined shape created through the prescription of behaviors and chemicals (weeding/mowing; herbicides/pesticides); regulated to be non-challenging and “safe” (no spikey plants, bee or wasp nests, etc) in the name people’s comfort and at the cost of native species; and prioritizing a certain socially-imposed aesthetic at great cost to the environment. Lawns have to be nourished (fertilized and watered) to grow, but are not allowed to get taller or more robust than a set value so that they’re easy to trim regularly with minimal effort. Lawns are monocultures with shallow roots that do not stand up to environmental conditions like drought without intervention. Lawns are also a standard everyone knows–and holds each other to, judges each other based on.

Likewise, to maintain “mental health”, people are regulated to a predefined standard that prioritizes “normal” aesthetics and the “safety” and comfort of others through the prescription of chemicals and habits (medication and therapy). Everyone knows the rules enough to police themselves and each other. Peoples’ material and emotional needs are taken into consideration enough for them to survive (and not commit suicide), but no one is well-supported enough to not feel the pressure to work; and people do not have the freedom to self-regulate on their own so when crisis occurs, you either have to keep working or rely on psychiatric intervention such as hospitalization.

Desire is a Prairie

Seeking desire is like how a prairie or grassland maintains itself as an ecosystem. Many types of plants grow deep symbiotic root systems that create resiliency and allow the ecosystem to survive through many environmental changes. Critters and bugs may kill/destroy plants at times, but they also reuse and decompose detritus and allow the ecosystem to recycle material and stored energy, spread seeds, etc. A prairie is too tall to be mowed easily by a conventional lawn mower and must be poisoned or crushed via heavy machinery. It is a complicated, compelling and beautiful organism that takes years of interaction to understand.

Desire cultivates varied experiences that let us practice the flexibility to survive distress emotionally, and shapes our lifestyles to prioritize self-regulation. Pain, whether external, self inflicted, or both, is an inherent part of life; but pain can allow us to grieve, process and grow, to clarify our desires, and maintain our bodyminds. When we live by desire we become unwilling to bend to social rules that don’t suit us, become uncontrollably mad, and are accustomed to freedom such that we can only be recuperated through incarceration and lobotomistic violence.

A prairie takes a long time to grow, and is difficult to support in a society that demands lawns. Switching from a mental health model to a desire model isn’t a simple or quick thing. Most of us will resemble something more like an overgrown lot, which is just as valuable.

Part 3: What this means for me

It’s taken a long-ass time to be able to articulate these concepts, so it feels extremely good to have finally made the pieces click.

Ultimately, what I offer isn’t substantially changing—at least right now, though I do have a new offering I’ll be announcing in the near future that incorporates herbalism into pleasure-seeking activities. I’ll still be here for consultations, workshops, and informal support; but the foundations are different, and I will be more explicitly incorporating these ideas into how I teach and discuss concepts. You might notice that the pages on my website have been rewritten and restructured, hopefully in ways that represent these ideological changes.

Something that comes up fairly frequently in conversation with my friends and accomplices who do similar public-facing non-hierarchical healing work is how to respond when people come to us expecting more standard frameworks: When people talk to us expecting to be told things about their bodies, or for us to diagnose a sickness and tell them what to do about it. To me, figuring out how to deal with these interactions is a matter of building and improving social skills; figuring out what questions to ask to break the script. This is just as much practical as it is ideological: What I do is in no way compatible with Western Medicine or psychiatry—the tools I have work granularly, effecting a few parts of the body at a time in specific ways. I can help you sleep, eat, relax, play, reduce fear, increase focus, cope with grief, ground thoughts and emotions, feel pleasure… but I do not use diagnostic categories, I do not offer “antidepressants” or treat disease. Someone telling me they have PTSD gives me exactly 0 information about what they want me to be doing for them. In some ways what I think what I already do in these interactions does more to ground my practice outside of psychiatry than any long-ass manifesto or theoretical explanation; but if you want to know why I do what I do, well, there you have it I guess.