Karen wants what all mothers want for their children —for her son Justin to be able to take care of himself one day. While most people develop that ability before the age of 35, as Justin explains, “Progress for me is gradual. It’s a process.” For the past three years, Fountain House has been essential in that process. After a painful journey through homelessness, drugs and alcohol, and slipping through the cracks of a flawed mental health system, Justin was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. His mother and Fountain House have been his anchors and strongest advocates ever since.
Karen raised her son as a single mom while living with her parents. When he was five, she met someone and moved from New York City to California to begin a new life. “Justin missed his grandparents terribly and had a rough time with his stepfather,” Karen says.
The marriage ended when Justin turned 15. “I started running rampant and doing whatever I wanted to do,” he recalls. Mostly, that meant using drugs.
“I was watching him disintegrate before my eyes,” Karen says. His behavior was becoming erratic. One day, he was arrested and taken to the hospital. When I got there he was in this little room, pounding on the walls, barking like a dog, and screaming at the top of his lungs. I knew it was something more than just a bad drug trip.”
Unbelievably, Justin was released without a diagnosis or plan for further treatment. At home, he continued downward spiral.
Despite her best efforts, Karen wasn’t able to find help for her son. As Justin matured, he wanted his independence. Gradually, he saw less and less of his mother. He spent years drifting around the West coast and using drugs to ease the pain of his deteriorating mental state. While at a homeless drop-in shelter, staff workers introduced him to a reporter writing an article on mental illness. She helped get him connected to treatment. Finally, he was diagnosed and put on medication.
When he stabilized, he called his mother. At that point, Karen was living in New York City and had almost resigned herself to not knowing whether Justin was alive or dead. “When I heard from him, I was so happy. I wired him a ticket to come to New York.”
Karen devoted herself to learning as much as she could about mental illness. “The best thing I ever did was take the Family to Family class at the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI). It taught me to understand his symptoms and to realize when he was having an episode. I eventually joined NAMI’s Board of Directors.”
For the past three years, he has been coming five days a week. “Working in the units makes you feel more productive and like you’ve accomplished something.”
Justin has also made some good friendships. “People are genuinely nice here,” he says. Every Wednesday night, he plays drums with fellow members. He plans to return to school, as soon as he decides what to study.
Karen has grown so fond of Fountain House herself that she volunteers to teach art classes through Fountain Gallery’s Studio One program. The initiative provides workshops, training, space and supplies to members who want to cultivate their artistic talents.
“I wish everyone in the world could have the attitude they have at Fountain House,” Karen explains. “People are different whether or not they have mental illness. Fountain House understands those differences and works with members as individuals.”
“It’s funny. Fountain House is where all the supposedly crazy people are,” Karen smiles, “but most of the time it seems to me like the sanest place to be.”
She takes a deep breath and grows more serious, “I tell Justin that I’m not going to live forever, but while I’m alive, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure he can take care of himself. He is learning to do that at Fountain House.”
Fountain House helps members move forward with their lives, and, in doing so, helps families move forward with theirs. Look for more heartfelt familiy stories next month in our Spring/Summer newsletter.
Read Fountain House president Kenneth J. Dudek's thoughts on families and mental health reform on the Huffington Post.