Margaret H.

Areej and I walked over to the Steven’s Center this morning, getting there around 11:00AM. We stopped by Stephanie’s office to tell her that we were there, and to say hi. We headed straight for the dining room, where we knew people would be. Everyone was helping Ron, who is the main chef at the Center, make lunch. We sat with Sandy, Tom and a few people who were visiting from the Pennsylvania State Hospital. Most of the visit consisted of conversation versus the activities that we did with everyone at the last visit. At noon, everyone started putting tacos together and eating. And Areej and I, after eating some food with them and having a discussion about local buses (and Carlisle’s horrible version of a transportation system), left around 12:45PM.

This day in particular consisted of a lot of stress. It seems that everyone we talked to had anything but a peaceful weekend. Tom mentioned that his new meds were having odd side-effects, and Sandy’s weekend mostly consisted of looking for jobs. Everyone else just seemed tired and content to sit around drinking coffee. Debra, a new member who i met today, mentioned that perhaps there should just be a caffine I.V. in the Center. Tom brought up the conversation again about Tom Cruise’s comments regarding therapy. This seems to be a discussion that’s brought up frequently among the members at the Center. We all agreed, after explaining Scientology to a few people who were talking with us, that different methods of recovery work for different people. It’s just rather frustrating to me that there is still such a stigma attached to mental illness and therapy. Even when I was listening to Sandy talk about finding a job, she mentioned that it was hard for her to work certain jobs because of the stress level. I suppose it’s just easier for the rest of the world to not think about these issues unless they have a loved one or a friend who goes through a similar situation (or they go through it themself), but I don’t think people realize that it could be someone close to you who is going through such set backs. People should just take these injustices more personally in my opinion.

On that note, I couldn’t help but think about the article “The ‘Careers’ of the People Exhibited in Freak Shows: The Problem of Volition and Valorization,” by Gerber. The article concerns with the physical aspects of disability rather than the cognitive. However, it’s true that the “higher” places in society and “better” jobs are assigned to those who at least give the impression of being normal cognitively as well. The members of the Steven’s Center did not ask to have something that society stigmatizes, just as someone with an extraordinary body can not control society’s stigma upon physical disability. And thus, they cannot always acquire the jobs and positions that they would like. Sandy explained that she would like to be able to carry a good job, but none were available to her due to the fact that she was a member of the Center; that most people would not hire an individual going through active therapy. And while most of these members are not going to make money off of what society might find as a spectical, the way that the members of a Freak Show would, the situations of most of the people I have met in the Center speaks openly to the lack of choices there are in occupations for those with a cognitive disability.

Areej, Sarah and I arrived at the Steven’s Center at about 10:00 AM, Thursday of this week. We met the second manager (besides Stephanie), Lauren. She told us to just to mingle with everyone, get them doing activities, etc. The first person that I met, aside from those at the orientation, was Sandy. She talked with us about our class and somewhat about her husband, who is attending school in Vermont to get a degree in psychiatrics. Sandy introduced us to nearly everyone who was there (apparently Thursday is a rather slow day for the Center). Everyone was sitting in the dining room, since it’s the only place we were allowed to drink and eat. Sarah and I spent time with Bill, a man of about 50 years, who proceeded to tell us most of his life story – about his family, his first and second wife, his daughter’s upcoming marriage, and his fears concerning the future. When we returned to the table, Areej had begun a game of monopoly with two other members – Sarah and Scott. Meanwhile, a different Scott shuffled about his art work so that he could share it with us. Sarah went bankrupt in monopoly. Scott and I taught Areej most of the rules to the game. But, needless to say, he ended up winning. We left a little after noon, promising another game of monopoly the following week.

Areej and I had been talking about our experiences with mental illnesses the previous night, and I learned much about her unease concerning the Steven’s Center. Thus, we all decided to go together at 10. During the car ride, I spent a great deal of time wondering about what we would do with the members, and hoping that they would want to talk with us. Sandy relieved most of my fears when she automatically began talking to us. She seemed genuinely interested in what our class was about, as she was asking her friend (Bonnie, I think?) to roll cigarettes for her. I have to admit, I wanted to ask her to roll one for me as well. Bill’s story about his family was rather heartbreaking, and I was surprised that he wanted to speak so openly with us about it, as I am always very hesitant to talk to people about my own personal issues. He spoke about the effect that his mental illness has had on his family – how he regrets that his son had to spend so much time looking after him, as he had to do the same for his own father. I tried, during the course of his story not to feel pity, for I dislike it when people pity my own circumstances, but I did feel sorry for him. And not just for him, but his family as well. Later, Sarah named Scott the “Monopoly Master,” as he rolled off numerous facts about the board game. I had alot of fun talking to him about board games my family used to play all the time. We all sat and reminisced for a while about family-board-game-gatherings. The two hours went by very fast, I must say.

Thomson’s book, “Extraordinary Bodies,” speaks to the experience closely I feel. It is difficult, in general, when first meeting people – how to evaluate them and to adjust yourself so as to communicate with them. Surprisingly, I never found this all too much different than when meeting a person with visible disability; to me, the visual means little as compared with a personality. And yet, when communicating with people who have invisible disabilities, the situation becomes complicated at times. Thomson writes, “One [the individual with the disability] must always anticipate the risk of tainting a new relationship by announcing an invisible impairment or the equal hazard of surprising someone by revealing a previously undisclosed disability” (14). While the three of us are quite aware that all the members of the Steven’s Center have been diagnosed with a mental illness, I at times, feel that they are wondering how to best present themselves. The majority of them do not talk to us about their mental illness, which is perfectly understandable. When I first meet someone, I would not want to walk up to them and present a personal problem; their disabilities do not define them after all. It was interesting, though, thinking about the dynamics of the relationships we are beginning to form with the members. They are not awkward in the slightest, however they do require a bit of an adjustment every now and then.

From the orientation received, the Steven’s Center can –in a word- be described as welcoming. The members, some hesitant to greet us while others inquired about our class with enthusiasm, met us with amiable smiles and led Areej, Sarah and I through a tour of the building, explaining that it was formerly a Pizza Hut (and a rather large one at that). The Center, overall, seems to be a very supportive community – one that emphasizes communication and active participation from all members. Areas of the building include a greenhouse, a kitchen, TV room, game room, a lounge, a workshopping room for meetings and group therapy, as well as a room for the “Warm Line.” The “Warm Line” is similar to a hotline for anyone, at anytime, to discuss what ever subject. To see such an active and open community made me even more enthusiastic to be there.
I was hesitant at first, I must admit. Not hesitant of what I could not expect or did not understand, but rather the opposite. In my life, I have had both first-hand and second-hand experience with mental illnesses. My anxiety arouse due to the fact that I did not want to recall certain memories of mine (although such things are usually inevitable once and a while). And while I’m sure that a slight bit of that anxiety will remain every time that I return to the Steven’s Center, there is an autonomy about this particular community that sets it apart from these memories of mine. The Steven’s Center is a place in which all members seek recovery, and in this positive attitude I feel this situation will not be similar to any other.
Perhaps, in addition, I also will be able to contribute to this community because of my personal experience. Because of encounters with mental illnesses, one of which is my own, I can understand some of their feelings toward society as well as feelings about themselves as individuals in society. Granted each person and his/her situation is different, but (for example) when Stephanie mentioned that the members are very sensitive about certain things (such as Tom Cruise’s rants about psychiatric care), it is easy for me to imagine how and why such topics would affect them. So, while I feel rather uncomfortably familiar with psychiatric rehabilitation centers, I foresee this experience to be a good one in which I can bring forth my strengths for the members, and perhaps the members of the Steven’s Center can help me with one or two of my weaknesses.

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