A Note from June
Back in the 1980s, for about a year, I commuted from Dutchess County to work for the Associated Press in Manhattan. I remember the day that I realized I couldn't do it any more. It wasn't the four hours a day on the train that did me in. It was the homeless man who slept stretched out across the entrance to Grand Central Station at Madison Avenue and 44th Street.
I realized one morning that I'd stopped seeing him.
I used to look to make sure he was breathing, at least. I'd think about the temperature, whether it was too cold to be sleeping outside. Sometimes, I'd think about tucking a dollar in his pocket, although to be honest, I never did.
But one morning, I realized that I was stepping over his legs without a thought. Right along with thousands of other people.
I blamed New York. This city is stealing my soul, I thought. If I go on like this, there will be nothing left of me. And, two weeks later, I accepted a newspaper job upstate.
Fast forward to 1996, and a place called Fountain House. I was living in New York with my fiancé, Bill Lichtenstein, and backward-commuting to work upstate. One day, Bill called me at work to say that he'd just received a substantial grant to make a film about people with schizophrenia. Did I think I could go over to this place on West 47th Street and find some people with interesting stories?
At that point I'd neither visited nor researched Fountain House. I'd imagined it, though. "Psychiatric rehabilitation center," we've all imagined that, right? Grey or green or pale pink walls. Scratched linoleum floors. Vinyl-covered furniture with cigarette burns. And the people: vacant-eyed, shaky people, sitting for hours in front of the television looking up only to swallow their medication or perhaps shuffle along to a crafts class.
Well, check your preconceptions in the front lobby (which looks exactly like the reservation desk at an exclusive resort hotel). The place is gorgeous. Crystal chandeliers. Persian rugs, real ones. Mahogany desks. The décor is more Ethan Allen than institution.
And the people are amazing. To begin, it is almost impossible to tell the staff from the people with mental illnesses, and the staff actually brags about that fact. And the people who are recovering there are "members," not "patients," because language is important, and this is their clubhouse, and they have as much say in its operation as anyone else. There are no closed-door conferences to talk about patients behind their back. In fact, there are very few closed doors of any kind. Staff and members also brag that at one time, you had to walk through the director's office to get to the bathroom.
People who come to this place are partners in their own progress. They may be resistant at first, from fear or anger or confusion, but there's a subtle and lovely compulsion that makes progress nearly inevitable. "If a person can't or doesn't want to wait on tables, we'll have them peel potatoes," the kitchen director told me, early on. "If they won't do that, we have them fold napkins. If that's too much for them, they can sit and talk to me while I work. Eventually, they ask if they can help. It's human nature to want to be a part of what's going on around you.
"You have to realize that for some people, just getting dressed and coming here in the morning is a really big deal."
The operating premise for a clubhouse like Fountain House follows a core belief in the whole-ness of an individual, the humanity inherent in each person. No matter how ill or confused, hostile or delusional, behind all the symptoms the clubhouse ethos sees a well person, someone looking for the same things we all need: a home, a job, some friends. And maybe a hot meal once a day.
Relationships formed through this therapy can be deep and lasting, and often transcend the place. Staff and members sometimes see each other on their "off hours" at night and on weekends. It's a community, egalitarian and inter-dependent.
It was a community strong and elastic enough to make room for a couple of filmmakers when we started showing up every day with a camera and a microphone. And we weren't just tolerated: these people, struggling with serious thought disorders and mood disorders, enfolded us. They remembered my name, and my birthday. They asked about my sick Mom, and about our wedding plans. I ate with them, went on outings with them and shared my life with them as they shared theirs with me.
I had no idea how unusual an experience this was. Because sadly, this is not the way people relate to each other elsewhere in the mental health system. Two years into our filming, I learned about that.
We'd been following Phil around Fountain House for months. We knew him to be a handful lively, loud and profane. I once asked his caseworker, a sweet older lady from Alabama, about Phil's diagnosis. Was he manic-depressive? Schizophrenic? Did he have an obsessive-compulsive disorder?
"Honey," Odie drawled, "Phil's got it ALL."
We also knew Phil as a person who carried some responsibility at Fountain House. He worked in the kitchen/dining room, preparing food and waiting on tables at lunchtime. And his jokes made us laugh. One day, we arrived to learn that Phil had become louder and a little more confused than usual, and was staying temporarily on a psychiatric ward at a fine New York hospital, respected worldwide for its research and treatment of serious mental illness. We knew the director, and got permission to visit Phil and bring our camera.
I sort of suspected the psychiatric ward would look different from Fountain House, more institutional. I expected the locked doors and the antiseptic décor. I didn't expect that they'd treat my friend Phil like half a person. And I really didn't expect that at lunchtime, we'd be escorted to a glass-enclosed cubicle to lunch with the staff, while the patients were fed at a table outside. The nurses and psychiatric aides were astonished and clearly a little appalled when Bill and I excused ourselves and went back outside to eat with Phil and the other patients.
That day, all of the patients talked to us. Phil was happy to be back on camera. Other patients asked if they could be, too.
Phil's psychiatrist, on the other hand, ducked whenever we pointed the camera at her. We eventually cut the whole scene, in part because audiences were confused by her disembodied voice off-camera. And his social worker carried on a completely bizarre discussion about whether Phil had chalked up enough brownie points to allow him to go to the dining hall with an escort. "Are you going to behave now, Phil? Keep taking your medication and sleeping through the night?" he asked, in exactly the same tone I use with my cranky three-year-old.
I was so upset after that visit that I had dreams about breaking Phil out of the hospital. I asked everybody I knew who worked in mental health: Why do they talk to people like that? Does treating a person like a child improve their prognosis? And what about all the walls and doors and why, please, why won't the staff eat with the patients?
Why, that's the way it's done everywhere, they told me, a little amused at my naiveté. Didn't you know?
And suddenly, I did know. Fountain House, and its special therapeutic mix of respect and responsibility, was an anomaly. No wonder so many people with mental illness around the country are terrified to seek treatment.
Making this film was a life-altering experience. I will never again look at someone with a disability, any disability, as if he or she is a lesser person. Or, for that matter, even different. They are just exactly as complex or simple-minded, warm or irritating, brave or whiny, as am I.
And I learned that mental illness is a great leveler. Black or white, deaf or hearing, rich or poor: schizophrenia, depression and manic depression don't discriminate. What's the biblical saying? "No Respecter of Persons?" That applies. You can have an Ivy League degree or two and parents with homes on three continents, you can be well-read and well-traveled, you can be in your third year at Julliard ... and you can still find yourself homeless and hungry, on the street, talking to the voices in your head.
Perhaps the most profound experience for me has been traveling with the film, seeing it through the eyes of a new audience every few weeks. The response has been the same, from Paris to Cleveland, Atlanta to Vancouver. People with no experience of mental illness find the stories heart-warming, tragic and inspiring all at once, and say it changes the way they see these disorders. Family members with a sick relative want to know how to find a place like Fountain House in their town. Psychiatrists and social workers say they're moved to reconsider the way they relate to their own patients.
This is important, useful feedback because it means West 47th Street is having exactly the impact we hoped it would. It means that we're helping to break down barriers that keep people apart.
But for me, all of that pales in comparison somehow to the people who come up to us at the end of every screening. They hang back until everybody else has left the room.
"I have a mental illness," they whisper. "I know what it's like.
"Thank you for telling my story."
— June Peoples