Tashawna may not think of herself as a poster-child for physical fitness. She is unabashed about her love of food. “Cheese is my husband,” she declares. “I’m not a mover, I’m more of an eater. Basically, I’m a couch potato unless I’m dancing,” she concludes.
There is no question, however, that Tashawna is the poster-child for positivity. On almost a daily basis, she can be heard greeting members and staff throughout the clubhouse with her unique assortment of nicknames, which include Sugar-toe, Sugar-foot and Sweetpea.
Tashawna’s nickname for Fountain House Medical Director Ralph Aquila, who she sees not just as her psychiatrist, but as her friend and advocate – is Thumbtack. “I call him that because he’s so sharp,” she beams.
The profound respect and gratitude Tashawna feels for Dr. Aquila, her doctor at Fountain House’s Sidney R. Baer Jr. Center for three years, are well merited. Since becoming his patient, she ended a fifteen-year cycle of hospitalizations that began when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teenager.
Raised in Harlem by a hard-working mother, Tashawna excelled academically and socially. Until the day her mom decided to run away from an abusive partner. “She couldn’t take it anymore. So one day she waited for him to go to work, packed everything up and moved all of us to The Bronx so he couldn’t find us,” Tashawna explains.
Ripped from the life she loved, Tashawna began experimenting with drugs, hanging out with the wrong crowd and falling behind in school. Eventually, she dropped out. “I was smoking a lot of marijuana and I started hearing voices. I told my mom and she said not to pay attention to the voices and to stop smoking.” But the voices didn’t go away.
“I went to Lincoln hospital to see if they could help me. From there they transferred me to a hospital in Ossining, NY. It was an awesome place, very nurturing. The best thing about it was the food. It was like an all-you-can-eat buffet,” Tashawna recalls.
“I liked it so much that I used to try to get in trouble on purpose just to get sent back.” She went back and forth so many times that her doctors decided she needed more intensive care and transferred her to the Bronx Psychiatric Hospital.
There, two life-changing things happened: she was prescribed Clozeril, which she describes as “an awesome drug that kept me focused”; and she heard about Fountain House.
“When I saw Fountain House for the first time, I thought it was beautiful. I saw chandeliers…I said, ‘oh wow, this place has chandeliers!’ I was attracted to the Education unit. I saw the Library and I said, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen so many books!’ Fountain House felt so welcoming and warm,” Tashawna recalls.
Since becoming a member, she has never looked back. She has taken advantage of every resource available, including working two paid transitional employment jobs and going back to school with an art scholarship.
Most recently, and even to her own surprise, she has begun taking advantage of another Fountain House resource.
“Dr. Aquila spoke to me about managing my weight. He knows I like to eat,” she laughs. “So, I’m using the gym in the Wellness unit twice a week with my friends. It’s cool. It has weights, treadmills, elliptical machines. I guess you could say I’m getting into fitness a little more now.”
Tashawna’s dream is to become a professional performer – “a singer and a dancer. A few years ago, I was cast in an Alvin Ailey production. But, it was before I started seeing Dr. Aquila. I got sick and was hospitalized. I couldn’t perform. I’m hoping I get another chance like that. This time, I’m ready.”
Dr. Aquila believes Tashawna will get that shot - and others in the future. “He believes in my dream. He tells me to keep doing what I’m doing. To take my medicine and to keep coming to Fountain House. He sees me as a success. He motivates me to do my best and to be the best I can be.”