The stakes aren’t exactly high, but that doesn’t stop my heart rate from rising just slightly as the minute hand inches closer to 12 p.m. in the Pathways Clubhouse kitchen.
With the order sheets in hand, I’m ready to start my second task of the day — serving lunch to a full dining room of hungry patrons.
“I like to wait until it’s exactly noon before I announce lunch,” says Dave MacDonald, executive director at the clubhouse.
I nod, though I’m still not entirely sure what I’m doing. He and Gary, a member and food runner, continue to joke about breaking me down.
Noon strikes and we’re off. The system works like clockwork, though I only manage to cover two tables — getting their names, taking orders, adding up their bills — before the other two servers have gotten to the rest.
As we return the orders to the kitchen, the crew, a mix of both members and staff, seamlessly prepares the meals and MacDonald brings them to the counter for us to run them back to the tables. I fear making a mistake, despite the easygoing nature of the members who are animatedly wrapped up in conversations with each other.
In light of its eighth annual fundraiser dinner next Wednesday (now sold out), I thought I’d spend a day volunteering at the clubhouse — a community resource for its members who each struggle with a different type of mental illness — to see what actually goes down inside.
That morning, as soon as I walked into the open and brightly lit space, longtime member Andy Birch warmly greets me at the door to give me a run down of the services and a tour — the usual drill for any new or prospective member.
With a conversational flair and a dry sense of humour, it’s hard to believe Birch ever had a terrifying fear of public speaking, or that he could not get out of bed for years when he received his diagnosis more than a decade and a half ago.
He now prepares for about three or four accreditation trips a year, travelling to clubhouses around the world, making presentations and evaluating how each operates. His next stop is St. Louis in October.
As we walk through the building, members work at computers, or on group projects. He continues to tell me about the people he meets.
“People come in with different degrees of issues and in different states, some are alert, but occasionally some are too ill to participate,” he says with a faint British accent. “I was giving a tour to someone in such a deep state of depression. They weren’t even able to respond, but tears would be running down their face. At that point, I knew they weren’t ready for the clubhouse yet. You sometimes have to refer people elsewhere first.”
Birch highlights the clubhouse’s importance as a transitional facility, offering housing support and temporary job opportunities.
“The best thing is time, sometimes,” he says. “I mean, I waited 15 years before I came here. It varies from person to person. The trigger for me was that the days started going by really slowly, and I needed to fill them.”
Spending 30 years in the copier industry, Birch was a top salesman, once making Canon $16,000 in one month. However, a back injury had him put on narcotic painkillers.
“That was when I started hearing voices,” he says. “When I stopped taking the pills, the voices still continued. I was 42, which was the exact same age my mother was when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.”
After looking through the kitchen, thrift store and reading room filled with books and videos about mental health, our tour comes to an end.
He leaves me to help out at the thrift store, my first task of the day, while he dashes home to have a new Internet connection installed.
The thrift store often acts as a first point of contact with Pathways for the greater Richmond community. It raises awareness and funds for the clubhouse as people pass through browsing or donating.
I sort through the shelves and watch as regulars come in, talking to Christine Chan, the member responsible for the store today. I’m glad she’s there to tell me where everything goes.
“It’s our goal that members will eventually not need us,” says MacDonald.
In the meantime, Pathways tries to provide support for a variety of individuals from those who need access to resources or want the social support, to those who appreciate the daily interactions.
“There are people who have more of a mild illness and can be caught in the middle,” says MacDonald, who has mild depression and anxiety himself. “We become more of a resource centre for them. Maybe they don’t need to become members, but we can connect them to support groups.”
For someone like Tiffany Ellison, Pathways started out as a place to find temporary employment, and she then realized its support system was something she could benefit from.
“It helped me deal with housing problems and in communicating with the ministry,” says Ellison, who now works part time as a receptionist, both at Pathways and at another business. “I needed this support because I couldn’t deal with it myself.”
It’s something that many people not suffering from a mental illness don’t always understand. Talking to people at the clubhouse, it becomes clear that stigma is one of the major concerns occupying them.
“There’s still huge stigma, especially with something like schizophrenia,” says Birch. “Sometimes, when people hear the word, they vanish. In the real world, if you tell someone you have it, that’s where the conversation stops. At Pathways, you don’t have to be identified by your illness, you can just be Johnny, not Johnny the schizophrenic.”
As a manager of workplace initiatives at Canadian Mental Health Association’s B.C. branch, Julia Kaisla understands this stigma and is working with companies across the province to dispel it.
One of the ways CMHA achieves this is through workshops on creating a socially supportive workplace and providing consulting on policy changes.
“There is a lack of understanding that mental illness is an actual illness,” she says. “There’s this buck up mentality where people say, they’re able to overcome things so why can’t you. It breeds senses of failure and weakness that ignore the internal fight people endure every day. There needs to be a culture shift; that hasn’t happened yet.”
Sometimes Ellison, due to her bipolar disorder, can’t bring herself to go to work and interact with people.
“I just can’t always deal with it,” she says. “So it’s always a challenge, but some days can be worse and in that case, I need a support system that can help.”
Besides its support systems in finding employment and housing, Pathways also has a public education and outreach branch. Members go out in the community, such as to high schools and the RCMP detachment, sharing their stories and helping raise awareness.
As MacDonald tells me about the program in his office, he gets a call from the kitchen. It’s Rob Milner, a five-year member, wanting MacDonald to pass on a message to me that the baking group will be starting in five minutes.
I immediately join them in the kitchen to help out with my third, less stressful, and most enjoyable task. There are three others helping out today to make orange cake.
“I like to do anything around the kitchen, especially baking,” says Milner, who will be joining Birch next month in St. Louis to present. “I learned all my skills here and I hope to be able to use them in other restaurants soon. It’s a great transition here. I found it easy to make friends. Things are going pretty well right now.”
To see some comics about depression, visit http://www.buzzfeed.com/hnigatu/comics-that-capture-the-frustrations-of-depression.
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