The Journal of the California Alliance for the Mentally Ill
1993 – Volume 5, No. 2, p. 26
Friendship Network, Inc. Born Out of Need
By Berna Case, J.D.
Vice-president, the Friendship Network
We were born out of need. There is pretty much general agreement these days that people with mental illness have the same needs we all have. In most cases, as a consequence of their illness, they have a more difficult time getting those needs met. Too many of them live bleak and lonely existences, without real and significant friendships. Professionals and families, who support mentally disabled persons, now recognize the crucial role companionship plays in recovery. But, just how do you go about finding suitable companionship for individuals who have been isolated by profound illness? Enter... a new version of the old matchmaker.
More than three years ago, inspired by the loneliness of a mentally ill family member, Alice Cohen realized that most persons with mental illness had few relationships beyond their doctors and mental health workers, with whom they had infrequent contact. Perhaps there were a few other mentally disabled individuals with whom they lived, but meeting others and expanding their possibilities was unexplored and even, unavailable territory. Investing her courage, energy, heart and perseverance, not to mention some dollars and time and compassion, she founded and developed the Friendship Network, Inc. to address that need.
A casual conversation with Alice and you've experienced why this effort has met with such success. She exudes warmth and understanding; her laughter fills a room and develops instant rapport. A few words with her are tantamount to being hugged… but, just in case it doesn't translate that way for you, she generously obliges with an irresistible squeeze, or two. She had honed her own people skills in interior decorating for eighteen years, while raising three children, and staying married to the same man for forty-five years.
In December of '92, The New York Times published a front-page article about her fledgling efforts to which psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and parents had begun to refer persons with mental illness, with pleasing results. A flood of inquiries followed, including my own. It took me three days to track Alice down. What I witnessed, had me leave my recently started practice of law. Since then, I have been working with Alice, helping with this far more satisfying activity. My connection with mental illness had to do with a family member, whose problems were somewhat different, but who also lacked companionship.
Like any other dating, escort or temp office help service, we take in-depth applications that include age, interests, level of education, etc. It is our insight into the etc., that we think makes the difference in our ability to "Network" for these potential members. We conduct both telephone and face to face get acquainted interviews to get a better sense of each individual's unique needs and qualities. Then we go about matchmaking - following up with support and advice, as needed.
"Tim" (not his real name) is a young man who brings flowers every time he meets a new person. By the second meeting he is discussing his health. His routine is predictable. Some of the women, who have been introduced to one another and to Tim through the Network, are friendly with one another and always discuss Tim's approach. They wonder who will be the next one to receive flowers. Does this scenario sound routine to you? Not at all for these adults who have spent too much time alone.
Being able to pick up a phone to call a friend and gab, or having someone who - on the spur of the moment - will go to the movies with you, without making it a big deal… those are the little comfort things in life that most of us take for granted. Not so, for the people who wish to become members of the Network.
The Friendship Network facilitates your ability to make connections with others and develop a more fulfilling life… and do it in an easy, social setting… comfortably. Some members never had that chance to acquire adult social skills and graces… never experienced mature relationships forming and flourishing... and even fighting. They spent their critical maturing years warding off "voices" and being deeply tranquilized on heavy-duty meds. Can you imagine the joy and satisfaction, and gratitude our members experience and express when it dawns on them that they can be good at relating; that they can find someone with whom they can share their feelings, and be special, without fear of stigma?
A young man, availing himself of our service, said: "Stigma is a disease that so-called normal people have." Unfortunately "Rose" experienced the proof of that point after having successfully dated a young man who had no knowledge of her mental history. She wanted him to know about it, and to be understanding, but deep down she feared possible rejection. One day, she left her medication out in the open, on a counter, where anyone could see it. When he did, he zoomed out the door and never contacted her again.
We relate that story whenever people express skepticism about the Network further isolating our people from mainstream relationships. Nothing makes us happier than when one of our members calls to say he or she no longer needs our service. Unfortunately, some have tried, been unsuccessful or did not feel free to discuss their problems, and returned to us.
When "Cliff" became ill, he was unable to walk more than five blocks away from his house. For ten years he went nowhere. His family planned to move away, but didn't want to leave as long as "Cliff" was so fearful of simply getting out of the house. They found him a prominent doctor, but merely getting to the office for appointments seemed an impossible hurdle, especially because he would have to travel there by train. Convinced that the doctor could help him, "Cliff" used the subway, though he continued to be paralyzed with fear each trip. It was about that time that "Cliff" became one of our members and we set up an introduction for him. He spent a month, only contacting "Tina" on the phone, until he got up the courage to meet face to face. By design, the meeting was planned in close proximity to the doctor's office. They lunched and talked for three hours, and had a wonderful time. Then, without hesitation, "Cliff" look off for the doctor's appointment. Arriving at the doctor's office, emotionally drained from the anxiety he had experienced, he was also on a high, because he had met someone! And they had a wonderful time! Upon his arrival home, he couldn't wait to call us and fill us in. It was one of the happiest days of his life. "Tina" reported, "Ditto." And we felt very special.
"Mel" from Queens, wants to meet women from Long Island. He has fun, just taking them for a drive. When he got sick, he had no one. Now, through us, he meets men and women and feels more gratified at being able to dial a friend and take a spin.
"Iris" and "Jane" have been friends for quite some time, through us. They cannot work, and so their only contact with the world is through the friendships they have made via the Network. They used to speak on the phone three or four times a day. Because of the expense, they've had to reduce the calls to four a week. They go on and on, and have so much to share. Recently, "Iris's" father passed away. The pain of the loss was horrible for her. He was her only remaining family connection. But she had "Jane" with whom she could share her feelings comfortably.
Recently some of our members have come to work for us - on a volunteer basis. But, because of the spirit that pervades the Network, it turned out to look more like a party. We needed some help with a rather large bulk mailing, and four or five men and women showed up to assist - one with a guitar. They worked, sang, stuffed envelopes and laughed a lot. It was a wonderful lime.
This past Halloween we had a party in conjunction with Fountain House. It was a stormy night, a good reason to stay indoors, but wouldn't you know it, most of our members came and were glad they did.
We know, and they know, that this kind of socialization is a 'quality of life' issue. There's no real way to claim that our members have become more compliant, regarding their meds, which seems to be the biggest issue about people with mental illnesses, but it does look that way, because they are so much more optimistic about their lives working better for them with friendships, and the potential for intimacy. As for the Network, though we have grown exponentially, we still work out of two spare bedrooms in Alice Cohen's home, fund the operation with contributions, and take no remuneration for ourselves. Alice, in fact, still works part time as an interior decorator.
We know we are on to something very important, and even precious. We see it on the faces of our members, in their smiles and tears. Sometimes we even hear it summed up, by our very idiosyncratic members, in their special and unique ways. The other day "Rachel" asked me where she should send her nomination for the Nobel Prize. She was nominating Alice for "The Quality of Life" prize. Could I tell her there was no such prize? On second thought, maybe I'll help her find the address, and even assist in writing the letter. You see, it's been a life altering experience for me, too.
This copyrighted article is reprinted with special permission of the Editor & Publisher of the JOURNAL. 1111 Howe Avenue, Suite 475 Sacramento, CA 95825 Tel. (916) 567-0163 Fax (916) 567-1757