The following speech was given by Fountain House member Betty Eastland at the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize Ceremony on October 27th.
When I was 22 I found myself struggling in college. I sought help, but when I spoke to a therapist about my abuse history, I experienced psychosis and was hospitalized. I tried to return to school but I became a prisoner to the ups and downs of bipolar disorder. My college dreams were over.
One day I took the last of my savings, got in my car and left my family behind. I had delusions: I could control the ocean waves, start companies with no experience, and believed my family hated me. I lost a lot of friends, and the ones that stayed didn’t have my best interest at heart, often trying to induce mania to ‘see my craziness.'
At the age of 28, I hit rock bottom. My job wasn’t going well, and I had been living with a man who took my money and destroyed most of my belongings including all of my identification. Though I had been homeless before, I always had somewhere to crash. This time I had no other choice I than to live in subway cars – bathing in the office sink or whenever I had scraped enough money together to stay in a hostel. I was isolated and alone in a city of 8 million people.
The way I figured, there were only two options: kill myself or get better. But I had no idea where to start with either of them. I chose the first and it didn’t work. So I went with the second. I still remember the feeling of asking the world for help – my surrender – my promise that I would do anything and everything to help myself if I received guidance. A weight lifted from my body. I found a support group where they referred me to psychiatrist and therapist. But it wasn’t enough; I felt as if I was merely treading water, making small strides that would keep me out of the subway but not much more than that. Then a friend told me about Fountain House.
She described it as a clubhouse for people with mental illnesses and all I could think of was people shuffling around in feet pajamas. Then she mentioned the farm. I’m a country girl at heart; I needed to see this place for myself. When I opened those big green doors, I wasn’t expecting what I saw. Everyone was working - the house is like a beehive. “Aren’t all these people supposed to be broken? Is this normal?’ I thought. As we came to the end of the tour, I didn’t want to leave. I realized that outside was the stigma the world placed upon me. I knew Fountain House was the right place for me.
I started in the Horticulture Unit taking care of plants and working on the farm. I made friends and connections. My staff member helped me find better doctors and apply for benefits. One day I noticed we had a mealy bug infestation, and I whipped up an eco-friendly bug spray. All of the horticulture members started using it – and it worked!
Maybe you don’t realize how astonishing that is, and I’m not talking about the bug spray. A few minutes ago Kenn spoke of community. That’s our buzzword. Community isn’t a place or a thing. It is people, your family, coworkers, and neighbors. Our roles in relation to others define our community. People with serious mental illnesses don’t get to be community – they don’t get a role other than sick person. Yet, at Fountain House, I had taken on a role – bug lady. It was my role and I performed it well, my community relied on me for this.
A year later, I saw another member, Melissa, reading a calculus textbook. I got the nerve to ask her what she was doing. “Studying” she replied. I asked another question “how did you get into school?” “I went to the education unit and told them I wanted to apply”, she said. I wasn’t sure I was ready to try again – school reminded me of how unwell I was – and I didn’t think I could withstand flunking out again. But the word was out – people started asking me about my future. A good community not only makes you accountable, it also pushes you to fulfill your potential.
With a little help, I applied to Hunter College and was rejected. I hadn’t picked a backup school – and suddenly I was frantic – I realized I really did want to go to school. I was able to get last minute admission in to BMCC. College was a big adjustment for me, and I was determined not to mess it up. I worked hard. I joined the disability advocacy club on campus, becoming president of the club two semesters later. I met a professor who started a mentoring group for African American high-achieving students to mentor those who were on academic probation. I asked him if we could start something for people with psychiatric disabilities; he said “Sure, why don’t we start with you.” I mentored a young woman, helping her find better medical care and tutoring her in English.
After graduating from BMCC with a 4.0 average, I reapplied to Hunter College. Right now I’m preparing to go into my senior year at Hunter, where I’m am on track to get my B.A. in Art and Psychology. Next I plan to get a dual master’s degree in social work and art therapy. Ultimately, my goal is to bring the Fountain House Model to my hometown of Buffalo, NY, where my family lives.
A few weeks ago, I had the honor of meeting Patch Adams. He told me he had depression and paralyzing fear of death until he found his purpose – to be a clown doctor, to make people light up with joy and give them a reprieve from their sorrow. When he found that purpose and committed himself to it, he wasn’t afraid anymore – he was fueled. My purpose is advocating for the Fountain House Model. I have committed to it and it has truly saved me.
My role has changed, from bug lady to Board Member. And along with two of my colleagues, I started Fountain House Speaker’s Bureau to teach others how to tell their stories – all just as impressive or more so than mine. What I’ve learned at Fountain House is that everyone has worth, and a potential to fulfill. My work here is only beginning.
Now I’m going to leave you with a question. We have the capacity to give hope, to change lives, to make the world a better place: What is your role in supporting people with serious mental illness to reach their full potential?
Finally, I would like to give my deepest gratitude to the Conrad Hilton Foundation for recognizing our work, and opening up an international dialogue. Thank you all for being here tonight to celebrate our shared purpose.