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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

More like an artist’s retreat than a treatment program: the communal GROW house

Bruce's story
The world where he was born, then where he was beaten and raped by relatives, did not invite him to open up. Understandably, he did not learn to communicate his true emotions in his family's abusive home. So early on, Bruce made a variety of survival adjustments. As a child, he learned to block out his pain by talking to an imaginary friend. When he joined the Navy at 17, right at the end of the Vietnam War, he was quickly introduced into drinking and getting high. The alcohol and drugs provided him with welcome relief from his psychic wounds. He couldn't just drink a little; he had to drink until he fell down, which led to a serious motorcycle accident. He was pronounced dead at the scene by paramedics, resuscitated, pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital, and brought back to life once more. After he recovered physically from the wreck, he decided to deepen his recovery by attending AA.

Bruce soon became a drug and alcohol counselor and got a Bachelor's degree, but the more he counseled others for their addictions, the more his own unexamined mental illness became apparent to him. His powerful capacity for denial, reinforced by his role as a mental health professional, allowed Bruce to ignore his worsening symptoms. After three suicide attempts and florid hallucinations and delusions of being possessed by demons, he ended up in a state hospital, where he heard of GROW.

Bruce went to a few GROW groups after his discharge from the state psychiatric ward. From his sporadic attendance, at the groups, he knew he needed to learn to be honest, to argue, and to disagree.

"I've got a lot of head knowledge," he said, pointing his tattooed, ropy arm to his head and chest. "But I've never been able to get it from my head to my heart."

Beaten into submission by mental illness, Bruce was willing to make the necessary sacrifices to find stability. Part of the GROW organization included a communal home, where people like him could live together and support each other in their suffering. He decided he was ready to take direction from someone else and willing to give up his privacy. He made his way to the GROW house.

It housed a nontraditional family. Its residents were all adults, unrelated to each other, who shared the burden of mental illness and the need for a place to call home.

He credited the balance of work, play, rest, eating and studying inside the community for the healing he experienced. AA meetings alone were not enough. Once he moved into the GROW house, Bruce learned how to handle himself maturely and began to generalize his new way of being to the larger community. Before GROW, Bruce could not keep a job because his living arrangements did not provide enough psychological safety to keep his overwhelming childhood memories at bay. Unexamined wounds resurfaced, and he would not show up at work, or he would fly into a rage if he got frustrated. Complete and honest disclosure was the norm for GROW residents, so Bruce never felt ridiculed or stigmatized for baring his soul. Residents talked about their illnesses in everyday terms, staying away from clinical labels.

"I learned to go by what I knew, not what I felt," Bruce explained, quoting GROW's own phrasing. "So instead of raging on a piece of equipment I couldn't fix, I remembered that I could do it after I calmed down."

The GROW house was more like an artist's retreat than a treatment program. People went there to retreat from the outside world and to work on their masterpieces: their own lives. The communal aspect of their daily interactions with other residents had more in common with writing workshops, where artists give each other feedback on ways to improve their respective work, than with the counseling of a therapeutic authority.

Bruce was surprised by how well people got along in the house, considering they were always in each other's company. People were at once able to follow a familiar routine and to cope with unexpected changes. Bruce found the daily household routine to be a reliable support, a guardrail that kept him on the road to rehabilitation, away from the pathological extremes of paralysis and extreme change. That link people felt with each other inside the house as they completed everyday tasks together was very spiritual to Bruce. The subtle levels of mutual support achieved inside the GROW house started with physical proximity and shared routines.

Advice: Find a supportive healing community for family members with severe mental illness.

Browse for related stories in the index at the very bottom of this page, or read a story about community of spirit.

Thanks to Leonard Jason and Martin Perdoux for the source story in their book, Havens: Stories of True Community Healing.

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