Sanctuary on Lake Avenue

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Carriage House, Ft. Wayne, Indiana
Carriage House, Ft. Wayne, Indiana

I’ve got to admit that this posting is personal.

It’s not just that I once battled depression myself and spent a few weeks in a psychiatric ward, back in the early 1970s. Or that my son John and daughter Robyn suffer from mental illness. Over the years, I’ve made so many friends who suffer and so many advocates that it’s like having an extended family.

That’s exactly the feeling I have about the Carriage House on Lake Avenue, here in Fort Wayne.

Yes, I have a special interest in this rehabilitation center. I’ve been on the board since the beginning, in the 1990s, before I retired writing editorials for The Journal Gazette.

Let me begin by noting that the Carriage House belongs to an international movement that has established hundreds like it worldwide. That includes cities such as ours throughout the United States.

The granddaddy of them all is Fountain House, on West 47th Street in New York City, which I’ve visited.

Clubhouses do their best to follow the international standards, set years ago. These standards have been proven to help persons diagnosed with a major mental illness.

For years, the International Center for Clubhouse Development has been sending my son John to other clubhouses to evaluate their work and to make recommendations to improve. He’s one of many throughout the country.

I should emphasize that the clubhouse model is unlike anything else that treats persons with a mental illness. As the directors of these centers will tell you, “You leave the illness behind when you walk through the door.”

You’re accepted for who you are not for what illness you’ve got.

Clubhouses don’t dispense drugs. Members receive their prescriptions from their family doctor or their psychiatrist.

Clubhouses don’t offer personal or group therapy, either. Members might or might not attend therapy sessions with a private counselor. They might or might not have a job.

A bare-bones professional staff at a clubhouse offers members a chance to help fix and serve a nice luncheon. Other members will help with office work. For years, one member has always made a financial report to the board.

Beyond these activities, you might find members cutting the grass or, in the winter, clearing the driveway and parking lot. Then there are the “T.E.” jobs: transitional employment. Our Unitarian congregation has employed a club member as the regular custodian since the beginning.

I believe we were the first employer in town for a club member.

The Carriage House is hard to miss on Lake Avenue. A large, converted private mansion, with a large addition, it’s set on a hill which day and night quietly announces its hopeful presence. Inside, it’s a different story.

Club members convene daily to discuss issues that arise in such a program that can see scores of people every day, Monday through Friday. Most of us on the board have a personal connection to mental illness.

In fact, several club members also serve on the board themselves.

I’ve been so impressed with how much the Carriage House has helped both of my children. Both of these middle-age persons have found new ways to contribute to their community.

Besides evaluating other clubhouses, John has taught nursing students about mental illness. Robyn, a long-time Spanish teacher, has been tutoring students on a private basis, often as a volunteer.

Countless other club members have found their way back into the mainstream, in jobs, completing schooling, supporting other family members who might have their own struggles.

But if I had to single out one thing that makes programs such as the Carriage House such a success, it’s the chance members have to develop real, accepting relationships.

I can speak from experience that mental illness can be so isolating. You can spend day and night ruminating. In this state, a person can easily fall deeper and deeper into depression and a sense of worthlessness.

Thoughts of suicide are too common.

A clubhouse takes a person out of him or herself and connects that person with others, with the world. I’m so sure it’s a great feeling to be so liberated. You can restore your self-respect. You can get back your sense of purpose in life.

To be sure, persons with a mental illness can find a way through other kinds of program. A few even get back into the mainstream on their own. For me, it was resigning from public school teaching.

But I know of nothing that addresses so many different issues and has helps so many persons with mental illness in so many ways. I just hope that more people who suffer in our town will find their way to that big white house on Lake Avenue.

It’s likely to change their lives.

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