by Marin Sardy
When I visited Fountain House this June, I was in New York for an event related to my memoir, The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia, in which I describe the mental illness that runs in my family, especially my brother’s schizoaffective disorder and long-term homelessness. I had been invited to tour Fountain House after an excerpt from the book, “My Brother Tom’s Schizophrenia,” appeared in the New Yorker, and I was eager to discover what the organization had to offer for others like Tom. I had long wondered what kinds of help might have made a difference for him, as he spent years trapped in a cycle of crisis-focused care and relapse, ultimately dying by suicide.
Pictured: Marin and her brother Tom, in 2002
The first thing I noticed when I stepped inside the Fountain House building was how lovely it was—the wallpaper, the furniture, the art hanging in every room. It looked like the lobby of a hotel. I heard music coming from a coffee kiosk, a Beatles song. And as I took in the atmosphere of the place—so welcoming, so warm, so human—I realized I was surprised that a place for people with mental illness could be so nice. For a moment this made me sad, but then I felt much more—grateful, thrilled, hopeful.
I had written in my book of my belief that my brother could have been helped by “programs that would enable him, and others with schizophrenia, to participate in society rather than be pushed to its fringes.” And now, suddenly, I was standing in just such a place.
All through my tour, seeing the welcome center, the education center, the kitchen, the nursery, the research center, and more, I kept asking myself, What if my brother had had this? He was a gifted young man, intelligent and creative and kind—someone with exceptional potential that he could never fulfill. Now I was seeing, in room after room, concrete solutions that actually were enabling others in similar circumstances to fulfill their potential. With every step, I grew more amazed by what Fountain House has proven possible, both for mental health organizations and for the people who rely on them. Because it wasn’t just about what my brother could have had, but what he could have become.
The poet Adrienne Rich once wrote, “No one has imagined us.” She was writing in 1976, of different circumstances, but the words apply just as well to people living with serious mental illness today. I had Rich’s words often in mind as I wrote my book, committing to the page the love I felt for my brother, as well for as my mother, who also lives with a form of schizophrenia. I wanted to write about schizophrenia in a way that was not reflected in mainstream culture, to reject stigma and look beyond my family’s pain, in order to offer others something more meaningful and useful and even, despite the sadness of our story, hopeful. I understood that my love for my brother and mother, a love stronger than the difficulties and challenges of mental illness, was one that too few could imagine, and I wanted to do as Rich had done—to help others feel that love and act on it.
Now Fountain House has shown me a little bit of what it can look like when such love is acted on and made concrete. It has shown me what can result when people with serious mental illness are supported in reaching their full potential. And it has shown me how much more there is to imagine.
Marin Sardy has been praised for her “gorgeous, cerebral” writing and “heart-breaking eloquence.” Her essays and memoir explore family, mental illness, art, biology, and other fascinations. Her book The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia can be purchased here. An excerpt from her book appeared in The New Yorker on May 20 entitled "My Brother Tom's Schizophrenia" and can be read here.