INVISIBLE IN NORTHAMPTON
by Sally Clay
I was a founding member of Windhorse Associates in 1993 and worked there as a team therapist and peer advocate from 1994 to 1996.
Another day at Windhorse. I drag myself out of bed, and turn on my computer. For a couple of hours I enter a domain where people share intimacy, where innermost thoughts are respected, and where loving kindness prevails. This is CyberSpace, where I correspond with unmet friends on mailing lists that call themselves communities -- MADNESS, Merton Online Community, and SPIRAMED (Spiritual Implications for Medicine and Psychology). It is wonderful to dive into this virtual world. Except for occasional "flame wars," or virtual conflicts, these lists are a wonder of communication and unconditional acceptance.
All too soon it is time to turn off the computer and go to work. My "real world" community calls itself Windhorse, a recovery program for people with mental disturbances. Our members, both staff and clients, live in individual homes in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts. A couple of years ago I made the transition from consumer/survivor to professional therapist, and I now spend my days driving to visit clients in their homes or to attend staff meetings.
On the streets of Northampton, rush hour has expanded to fill the entire day. The volume of vehicles on Main Street rivals Times Square. This is a college town, and pedestrians cross the road like ants, daring drivers to plow into them. Behind me, another driver is in a hurry, and he rides my bumper. As I turn into my client's street, I swerve to avoid another pedestrian. The tailgater hits his breaks and honks. Recently I heard on TV that a city driver must pay attention to 200 events per city block in order to avoid an accident. In Northampton, I think the number must approach 300.
It is not a good day. My client does not answer the doorbell, and I am obliged to walk in uninvited. George is a man in his early forties who came to Windhorse from a well-known private institution on the west coast. Now sprawled in front of the TV, he scowls at me. He has just had an argument with his housemate over whose turn it is to do the dishes. Now he is immersed in a rerun situation comedy, while the dishes sit on the kitchen counter, caked with food. I offer to do the dishes, but he growls that he is sick and tired of Windhorse running his life. So I sit down and watch TV. I hate situation comedies.
I know I am expected to help keep the environment clean and pleasant -- "uplifted" in Windhorse jargon. Consumed with anxiety, I debate whether I should risk George's anger and wash the dishes. The last thing I want to do, however, is to force anything on another client. As a former client myself, I am well aware of the anger that simmers beneath the surface of his passivity. It is anger from 19 years spent in the genteel prisons of the private mental health system. So I keep my mouth shut and wait for George to come around.
He always does, and I can tell that he appreciates my waiting for him, and letting him take the lead. After a while we smoke some cigarettes and decide to drive up to Greenfield to look into the community college. Later, over coffee, we talk about possibilities for a future that George thought he had given up on. It's a long process. Three hours after we started the shift, George is looking a little brighter. Perhaps next time he will want to apply for classes, or for the volunteer job we looked into last week.
I negotiate the noon hour traffic, stopping and starting for the hundreds of students, New Agers, and would-be hippies who every day fill the downtown strip with its shops and coffeehouses. I wonder where so many people come from, for I see few of my neighbors or colleagues here. My apartment building includes young mothers, black and Hispanic families, and some clients of the mental health clinic -- but we all keep to ourselves behind locked doors, seldom venturing into the marketplace. I speculate that the melange in town comes from the outlying areas, where alternative communities, individual drop-outs, and wealthy New Yorkers stake their claims.
My afternoon is spent with Linda, a young woman who recently left college. I bring along my guitar. Linda herself is a talented musician, and we have taken to singing together. Linda is plagued by voices and visions, and sometimes making music is only relief she gets from the demands of her demons. At meetings, other members of her Windhorse team devise strategies to divert attention from her mental horror shows. One of Linda's housemates admits her anxiety at working at such close quarters to chaos. The team is sympathetic, and discusses ways to support the housemate as well as the client. For myself, I listen to what Linda is saying. I am fascinated by how similar her mental state is to ones that I have experienced. I tend to agree with her that the world is coming to an end. I read aloud from her prayerbook, and to myself I repeat some mantras to lessen the fear that I feel.
That evening several of us gather at a housewarming for a new Windhorse client. The other staff members, better than I am at cleaning windows and floors, have helped the new person arrange his apartment. Now we all set out the refreshments we have contributed, and everyone stands around making jokes with the new client. George is there, too, and he laughs along with us. The new client smiles proudly, glad to be a host.
For decades, we who call ourselves consumer/survivors have demanded radical changes in the way mental illness is viewed and treated. We as a group always attribute our recovery to something other than force and pharmacology, the mainstays of the psychiatric system. We advocate for the human perspective in a way of life that has become increasingly cold and frenetic. We plead for treatment that is based on respect and kindness rather than judgment and pathology.
We have not gotten very far. Windhorse Associates is one of the few programs I know of that is translating the words of empowerment into the work of recovery. Kindness takes patience and humanness takes work.
Back home, I turn on my computer and exchange sincere email messages about spirituality and human rights on the information superhighway. It's a lot easier than negotiating the traffic on the streets.
"The bottom line is: what would you want if you, or your child, were crazy? Would you want any other kind of treatment?" -- Ed Podvoll in The Seduction of Madness