Erin U

This Wednesday morning I arrived at the center to find Lauren interviewing Stephanie about the Steven’s Center for information for our Wiki page. She spoke of her passion for her work, why and how she came to the Steven’s Center, and what services they offer. We also spoke with the new staff member, Laura, who explained her background and experiences with people with mental illnesses. The members arrived soon after and the two of them encouraged us to go socialize with them. I spoke with two of the cooks (one of whom recognized me) about various things; their weekend’s, plans for Easter, our spring breaks, etc. The morning meeting started at 9:30, led once again by the senior female who usually takes orchestrates the program. The rules were read, the trip (to Capital City) detailed, and chores given out. After that, Lauren and I spoke with a woman who I usually chat with and another woman. The topics of discussion were varied: we talked about pets, tv shows, clothing stores and strange stories.

The ambiance this morning was pretty calm: it wasn’t tired but just sort of normal, status quo, regular. I’m really glad that Lauren was talking to Stephanie when I came in because it was so insightful to hear her thoughts about the program. She’s so passionate about making a difference in peoples’ lives; telling/showing people labeled “disabled” can in fact achieve their goals. She knew from college that work with people with mental illness was what she wanted to do; and has loved it since her first job. She said that the atmosphere at the center is actually really positive, as most of the folks who attend are already high functioning, which is why at certain times, I have no idea why some of the people are here because their “disabilities” do not define them. I think in comparison, it was such a normal, “habitual” day that nothing really struck me as outlandish, or unfamiliar. Which I guess is good because it means that us as students are helping dissipate their notions about Dickinson students (people actually wanted to talk this morning), and they are changing our minds about what it means to have a disability. The highlight though was when two of the members I usually talk to (and have been for the last four weeks) actually knew who I was. It was interesting to just sit back and think about how different it was now, after four times, than it was even at the orientation. It’s almost like there was nothing “remarkable;” we had conversations, shared stories and chatted for the entire morning.

I was thinking about what Stephanie said, and what we’ve read about how in societies eyes disabilities tend to encapsulate the entire person instead of simply being another characteristic thereof. She spoke a lot about how this image is changing, slowly, and how it’s part of the center’s mission to defy these stereotypes and engage the members back with the community. This made me think of Motherless Brooklyn and Lionel’s dream at the end, when Minna calls him a “radish rosette” as sort of a bizarre, but funny metaphor for his existence. A radish rosette, as we mentioned in class is a garnish, yes, but also something that is being turned/transformed into something else. Even though it probably tastes bad, and I don’t really think about radishes with much affection, they’re pretty when we seen them in that shape. I think that’s a bit like what the Steven’s Center is trying to do. They are helping these people who are, and have been deemed complete anomalies integrate into “normal” society. Because it’s not a treatment center, instead it’s more of a psych/social group they help the members become something that is not what culture expects, but still beautiful in their own way.

At the Steven’s Center, the members for the most part have either bipolar/manic-depressive illness, or schizophrenia. These two mental disorders are actually quite similar and are often mistaken one for the other. Bipolar is characterized by varying periods of excessive mood swings, or alternating highs and lows. In severe cases hallucinations and delusions might ensue without the proper treatment. Most people have their ups and downs, complimented by “normal” times in between. Schizophrenia is characterized by these same hallucinations and delusions, most often exemplified with a belief that someone is speaking to them, who in reality is not. Stephanie informed us that most of the members had their first “break” or episode when they were young, between 18 and 25 I believe she said is the average age. These two conditions can be treated with varying medication, allowing people with them to lead normal lives. However the medication does not cure one of the illness, rather it suppresses the symptoms, and consequently if the medication is stopped, or if the condition goes untreated, it is likely to worsen. In my experience at the Steven’s Center, all the members I interacted with led “high functioning” lives, and by that I mean that I would not have known immediately, or even at all that they had these conditions if I had met them in another situation. Only a few times was I taken back by a member perhaps muttering quietly to him/her self, or having difficulty focusing on the task at hand.

The benefits to the members of the Steven’s Group are innumerable, and evident as soon as you speak with the director and understand the state some of the people are in before they start attending. The center concentrates on social rehab as well as psychiatric rehab, which is an idea recently introduced into the mental health field. What the group does is help empower the members by teaching them that they can attain their life goals, just as any other person except that their pathway to achievement might vary slightly. They help rebuild the confidence of the consumers by essentially leaving the day to day functions of the center to the men and women. The Steven’s Center offers employment in the domains of cooking, cleaning, horticulture and supportive services. Aside from the paid jobs, the chores involved in daily maintenance of a club, such as leadership, motivation, cleanliness and organization are also doled out every morning. By leaving these tasks and jobs to the people, the center allows the members to regain self-assurance while learning to construct their social environment.

I’m not sure to what extent, or even how I impacted the people at the Steven’s Center. It’s difficult to evaluate my contributions when recognition and feedback from the people I interacted with was minimal at times. First and foremost I hope that I helped changed some stereotypes they may have harbored about Dickinson students. The last couple times I went there was definitely one guy, a cook, who remembered who I was, and maybe two of the women. I would like to think that they remembered me because they appreciated our conversations and exchanges. My time there changed my mind significantly about disabilities, especially in light of the assumptions that we as citizens are fed via the media and the entertainment industry.

The problems faced by those members I interacted with are extensive, and hurtful. For example, Stephanie once told us that sometimes the members walk up to the convenience store near Walmart to buy a soda or a snack. The person working there however, has not infrequently refused to service them, or changed the prices for the same item depending on the day of the week. This manipulation of them, suggesting an assumptive superiority I imagine is relatively common. I also know that the people we (Dickinson students) call “crazies” who sit in the town square might also be members. These simple examples show how universally their impairments are misinterpreted, consciously or not. On a more general note, people with these disabilities might have trouble holding jobs or keeping relationships due to the potentially unpredictable state of being. However, in light of the center’s work, hopefully more people of our “normative” society will learn to recognize these disabilities simply as traits and not as defining characteristics that are cause for exemption.

I feel as though this experience is relevant to our work in class in so many different respects. For starters, on a purely theory-based level, I’ve seen to such a great extent how Garland-Thomson’s observations, exemplified by Lionel’s narrative in Motherless Brooklyn about stigmatizing and defining people by their disabilities are true. Thinking I had no preconceived notions before starting, I found myself uncomfortable and awkward upon even entering the building with these “freaks,” not to mention the initial fear during my interaction with them. The prejudice against people with impairments, visible or invisible is quite obvious in this situation. I’ve also experienced the reverse, what it’s like to be the one ostracized, as the norms are in Geek Love. One day I was singled out and forced to wear a nametag, despite the fact that none of them wear tags. Perhaps they were projecting their fears upon me, the “norm” just as we as a society do by rejecting and denying the anomalous, the unknown or the inexplicable disabled body. This experience at the center has helped me to truly conceptualize the sound theories, and at times seemingly outlandish fictitious works we read into a more concrete understanding of just how askew our perceptions of disabilities are.

This Wednesday morning I went to the Steven’s Center with another classmate. Upon arriving, we watched tv with another female member for awhile. The movie that was showing was about the KKK; which naturally spurred conversation between ourselves and the other members that filtered in and out of the room. The conversation shifted and eventually stopped on people with Indian heritage. One of the younger women argued vehemently with a young male about the truthfulness of claim, after loudly reprimanding him for snoring. After awhile I left and went to the kitchen where I spoke with the artist I had met last week. She showed me some of her latest creations, and I inquired as to the state of the paintings from last week. I drifted between members during the rest of the morning. I spent a considerable time talking with one of the cooks who seemed to remember me from last week. At the morning meeting chores were assigned, and rules reviewed. The more elderly female member appeared to be having difficulty this morning, and one of the cooks helped her. Afterwards a few of the guys offered to teach me to play pool, but they had to leave to go bowling. I spoke with the artist again for a few minutes before leaving for class.
For some reason, I felt really uncomfortable there this morning. I don’t know why exactly, for nothing really remarkable or disturbing happened. The whole atmosphere seemed different though. Everyone was really tired, people weren’t as talkative or outlandish as at other times. I suppose this community is not unlike any other group of people; the dynamics change each day. Anyways, there were a mixture of moments of ‘normalcy’ and awkwardness. The girl who was crocheting told Lauren and I that we should wake up the sleeping man (no sleeping allowed), because he wasn’t listening to her. Well, obviously I was not comfortable doing that, even if he was breaking the rules, I didn’t feel it was my place to enforce them. I also noticed that the senior woman who is usually in charge was not as together today as I’m used to seeing. This was a bit strange to watch. She kept walking around, talking to anyone who would listen, I suppose, but mainly to herself. She kept her hat, scarf, and coat on, despite the fact the building is quite warm. I also noticed that each time I’m there, which granted is always in the morning, the senior cook is obsessively cleaning/organizing/I’m not sure what in the kitchen: pots, pans, coffee pot, cleaning counters, etc. I guess in general I felt a lot more disconnected and like an outsider looking in upon this situation, as opposed to an active participant. It was the first time I really noticed the quirks of the members’ disabilities, and perhaps subconsciously it made me uncomfortable.
I started thinking about this last week, and today more or less cemented this idea in place, although it may be a bit farfetched. As of last week, all visitors at the center have to wear nametags, just to identify them to the members and facilitate interaction, I suppose. What’s ironic about this is that not only do I now feel like I’m the “object of the gaze” as Garland-Thomson calls it, but I feel almost stigmatized for being “normal,” which is the complete opposite of what one would expect (26). It’s bizarre the type of inverted stereotyping that is happening, unintentionally of course. In the story “Fat” by Raymond Carver, the two main characters, the fat man and the narrator aren’t even allotted names. Culture deems them as so anomalous that their physical trait (large and small) defines them completely. At the Steven’s Center, on the other hand, my name is paraded loud and clear, marking me as different, even though I represent the ‘normate’ in this situation. I wonder, is this what it feels like to have a disability in such a narrowly defined world?

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