Lauren P

After four visits to the Stevens Group, I am not any more familiar with any of the disorders themselves, but I am familiar with the people living with them. I can not explain schizophrenia or depression, but I could talk about people I have met who are living with conditions like these. Of all the people I interacted with at the Stevens Group, I can say that I only knew one person’s disability, which was schizophrenia. The only reason I know is because he told me. The first day, I wanted to know which person had schizophrenia, who had depression, who had multiple personality disorder, but I never asked and no one ever told me. If I had known, it would not have made any difference though, because I do not know what any of the conditions actually do to a person’s brain, emotions, and body. It is strange how I felt compelled, along with my classmates, to want that information even though we would not know what to do with it if we had it.

I think the Stevens Group is an incredible establishment because of its dedication to helping its members regain independency and employment. Individuals who join the Stevens Group come to the group with the desire to work and to learn the skills necessary to live on their own. The center provides opportunities to learn how to do household chores, such as vacuuming and cooking. It also provides opportunities for people to work and receive a salary for growing and preserving plants. In addition to acquiring all of these skills, the center also provides a comfortable environment for all the members to socialize and feel like they can hang out and not have it be in a therapeutical or medical context.

I am uncertain how I personally impacted the people I met while at the Stevens Group. If anything, I think I helped to wipe away some of the stigma that the people there have attached to Dickinson students. The director, Stephanie, always said that she thought it was great we were there because most of the people there hate Dickinson students. They thought Dickinson students were all rude and offensive because of the way some of the students have treated them.

Fair treatment, I think, is the major problem that the people in the Stevens Group encounter on a daily basis. A lot of the members are apprehensive at first when they speak to me and then open up quickly once we start having a conversation. I always got the feeling that they were anticipating for me to judge them and stigmatize them. I realized that I was worried about the same thing when I talked to them too. I was worried they were going to judge me before talking to me and just pass me off as just another student with a stigma attached to me. A lot of people there I met seem content for the majority of the time. When they are not, they are usually untrusting, insecure, or angry. This is understandable because they get taken advantage of by cashiers, they see psychiatrists who try to fix them instead of trying to understand them, and they get prank calls by kids who do not see them as people, but as disabilities.

My experience at the Stevens Group reminded me a lot of Mary Douglas’ concept of “dirt” whenever any of the people I met told me of a time they were treated poorly or when Stephanie would tell me stories. No matter how many times I heard about it, I was shocked at the amount of energy some people expend just to make themselves feel more normal. I found that when I was in the Stevens Group, I arrived not really knowing what to expect. I was expecting not to be able to relax and that I wouldn’t be able to talk to the people there like I would talk to my friends. However, I was corrected by the stimulating conversations I had with the people I met and when I could sit back and forget that I was talking to someone who was living with a mental disability. The first day I was there I also felt sympathy and guilt, but then after I talked to people I didn’t feel that way anymore. I have noticed that most of the authors we have read play on this tendency for the reader to create assumptions about the character with a disability and the plot itself.

The characters with disabilities we have read are developed in such a manner where the reader feels naturally inclined to feel sympathy, guilt, and maybe even to ally ourselves with him or her. However, there is always a twist which plays on those emotions the author knows the reader is having. For example, in “Fat,” I felt really bad for the “fat man” because the waiters were making fun of him and because of the way the author described his polite demeanor. But, at the end of the story we see that the narrator wants to be the fat man instead of being thin, the cultural ideal. In Motherless Brooklyn, Lionel is set up as a victim to the bullying of the other Minna men, but then we soon see that he is smarter than all of them. There is also the girl in “the Fat girl” who loses a lot of weight but is only happy when she gains it all back. Lastly, there is Hulga in “Good Country People,” whom we sympathize with and become happy she is on a date, but the guy turns out to be a sadist, pretty much. No one was expecting that, only because her leg caused us to see her as someone we only wanted good things for.

Last Wednesday I got to the Stevens Center at 8:00 in the morning. It was just the supervisor, Stephanie, and a new employee, Laura, who were there that early. I began to talk to both of them about the Steven’s Group and their past experiences to gather information for the Wiki page. Eli arrived and we ended up talking to Laura and Stephanie for longer than I had anticipated because we kept having more questions that we wanted to ask. Stephanie talked of how she first got into this line of work in college when she landed an internship working with people who had mental disabilities, but whom were more low functioning than the ones at the Steven’s Group. She said she was terrified at first but now has a great passion and enjoyment for the work. She enjoys trying to help the members become more independent and get back on their feet again. Also, she is passionate about trying to change the stigma that is associated with people who have a mental disability. After Eli and I talked to them, we socialized with the members at the Steven’s Group. We talked to people about our Spring Breaks, our families, animals, current events, and lots of random things – the way conversations usually flow.

This time I went to the Stevens Group, more people remembered me which made me feel more welcomed. I also felt good that they not only recognized me, but that they were happy to see me. Almost all of my discomfort and worries are gone by now. I enjoy talking to the members there and most of the conversations I have there are interesting and captivating. Talking to Stephanie was inspiring for me because she is so passionate about what she does and I admire her for pursuing a noble cause and sticking with it although it might get stressful at times.

The more I go to the Steven’s Group, the more I don’t want to leave at the end of the two hours. I have fun talking to the people there now instead of feeling like I am being watched, or feeling like I don’t know how to interact. I enjoy hearing about all the members’ families or just bullshitting over random current events and their ideas on issues. I talk to them just like I talk to my friends at Dickinson, but I still get sad sometimes to think about how much some of them have lost. Stephanie kept saying that for people with mental disabilities, the biggest thing is “loss.” A lot of the people there have lost family members and friends because they abandoned them or just didnt know how to deal with it. A lot of them lost their homes, their jobs, their cars, their self esteem…etc. Motherless Brooklyn brushed on the issue of self-esteem a lot, especially in the scene where Lionel has sex with Kimmery. “Freakshows within Freakshows.” He is not confident with women and his penis always gets pointed out as odd by them. He also felt like he had to hide his Tourettes from Kimmery because he didn’t want her to stigmatize him when he first met her in the zendo. Stephanie was saying that a lot of the members do not stand up for themselves when they know they are being harassed or taken advantage of because they have low-self esteem.

The Wednesday before Spring Break I went to the Stevens Group with Eli at 8:00 for a visit. For the first 30 minutes we watched a movie that was on television. It was about a guy who was running for governor and was also the head of the klu klux klan and who also brutalized his ex-girlfriend. It was really disturbing, needless to say. There was a unanimous decision to turn it off. While I was watching the movie with the members I found that I learned a lot from the members, and not on a social level this time. The other members were educating me about some bits and pieces of American History I did not know and and the 19 year old woman, Natasha, was explaining to me about the uses of different chemicals in warfare. The rest of the time there, I walked around and talked to different people and listened to the morning meeting at 9:00 about the chores for that day. Peanut was upset that morning because of a Dentist appointment. She approached me and pulled me outside because she said she needed to talk to me about something. I followed her outside and she told me that kids had been prank calling her and that she didn’t go to her dentist appointment because she thought that kids had prank called her and made up the appointment to make a fool out of her. So, I told her I thought that she should call her dentist to see if she had an appointment, to which she replied, “No, that’s what they would want me to do. I’m not a fool. I’m not going to call.” She continued to complain about kids prank calling her and told me they were mean and that she was going to call their parents. She asked me if I believed her, and I said, “It could be kids but you could also have an appointment.”

I was incredibly frustrated about my conversation with Peanut that morning. She talked to me for about twenty minutes and kept asking me if I believed her or not. I did not think that she was prank called about her Dentist appointment, but she so desperately wanted me to agree with her that I just decided to keep avoiding that question. It made me really sad to know that this distrust Peanut had about people did not spring from nothing. I knew that kids had probably prank called her before about other things and it broke my heart that she did not go to her dentist appointment for that reason. While I was watching the movie, Natasha was getting really aggravated with another member and insisted he was snoring, when I was sitting right next to him and didn’t hear anything. She kept waking him up to scold him. I tried to take her mind off of it by asking about the boyfriend she was talking about the week before. She then informed me that her boyfriend had dumped her and she looked like she was going to cry. I felt like running out of the room and finding a hole somewhere to hide because I felt so guilty about bringing it up even though there was no way I could have known. She always seems really depressed and irritated at everything and everyone. When she was going out for a cigarette she told me that she hated going outside because she hated sunlight. I thought this was interesting, just because I had never heard anyone say that before.

I talked to the supervisor at the Stevens Group for a little while and she was telling me how she thought that us volunteering there was such a great idea because most of the members had a really bad impression of Dickinson students. She was saying how a lot of Dickinson students make fun of the people there when they see them around town and how some of them even spit or throw things. This reminded me of how Tony in Motherless Brooklyn shoved shit in Lionel’s face. It is the same kind of intolerance towards people that don’t fit the norm. What I thought was really interesting was that the supervisor was telling me about how members are intolerant of each other. She was saying that a lot of people there get irritated with the disability of whoever they are interacting with. I saw more tension in the Stevens Group than I had any other time being there so I can see this to some extent. Natasha seems to get irritated with people a lot and there are a lot of times where I see people rolling their eyes at others without them knowing. For some reason I had never considered that maybe the members might feel the same kind of lack of knowledge or experience with each other that I feel when I am there.

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