ASH peer support lounge

ASH peer support lounge

Hanging out. It seems like a trivial term. A time-waster. Something that young people do, perhaps, before they grow up and begin useful lives with adult responsibilities. But since the peer support team at Austin State Hospital (ASH) converted the old client library into a lounge, my perspective on hanging out has changed.

The idea of hanging out has a profundity that’s often missed. In his book The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day, author Ray Oldenburg argues about the value of “third places.” These are places that are neither home nor work, but which serve as a gathering center for people to meet and build community.  He says that much of the nostalgia about small towns is actually a longing for the hang-outs they provided. What he calls “informal public life” is a buffer against stress. When Americans moved to the suburbs, the absence of such places made us less healthy.

When peer support created the lounge, I dubbed it the hospitalized person’s “Starbucks away from home.” While other members of my team say it’s like a living room, I contend that it’s more of a third place like Starbucks or Quack’s 43rd Street Bakery and Café – my beloved coffee shop in Austin.

What sets the lounge apart as a true third place is its conversation, the hallmark of hanging out. Says Oldenburg, “Nothing more clearly indicates a third place than that the talk there is good; that it is lively, scintillating, colorful, and engaging. The joys of association in third places may initially be marked by smiles and twinkling eyes, by hand-shaking and backslapping, but they proceed and are maintained in pleasurable and entertaining conversation.”

The peer support lounge is a living laboratory for learning the art of conversation. My coworker Veronica likes to get the ball rolling by asking open-ended questions such as, “What would your ideal vacation be?” Or, “What’s your favorite song and why do you love it?”

In the lounge, one can socialize with others. Or not. Interestingly, many people recently hospitalized tend to take books off the lounge library bookshelves and read quietly. Or they may watch the client-selected movie we always play out of the two hundred or so available. Or a person may take a nap in the recliner. Those who have been to the lounge a few times, however, are more likely to engage in conversation.

I came to realize that for some of our people, having simple friendly conversations was a skill they were learning by observing and trying out. “Hanging out” did not come naturally to them. Some had never done it. That is not as surprising as it seems. For instance, when one gets involved with alcohol and other drugs at an early age, all talk centers around seeking out, obtaining, and using the substance. If a person comes from a neglectful, chaotic, or violent home, ordinary conversation may have been rare or nonexistent.

How rare it is for the people hospitalized at a place like ASH to have available to them a place like this. The rave reviews I get from people who have spent time there provide evidence that it meets a deep-seated need. To be in a space where there are no classes or programs and nothing is expected beyond mere presence is a rare experience. It is a place where people can sit on comfortable couches, read, enjoy the artwork on the walls, and drink real coffee, which for some is like sipping the nectar of the gods!

Our team had unwittingly but serendipitously created a “third place” for our folks that they may never have had before. That possibly explains the reaction one client gave us when he remarked, “The peace is very loud in here.” For him, the feeling of relaxation he got in the lounge was unlike anything he had experienced before in his life. Others have been more direct and colloquial. “This is badass!”

The peer support lounge is an accessible place. It is inclusive. There are no criteria set for admission or exclusion. Although a doctor’s permission is required as one must walk past an unlocked door to get there, we set no requirements as peer supporters. It is not a reward for someone else’s definition of good behavior or meeting recovery goals.

“The peer support lounge is an accessible place. It is inclusive. There are no criteria set for admission or exclusion.”

One well-liked feature of the lounge is the extensive book collection. As the room was originally a library, it is replete with books provided by several bookstore donors. People not only read there; they can take books back to the unit. They do not need to ask nor sign them out. When they discharge they can take the books with them if they wish. Not only is this enjoyable in itself; it’s a conversation-starter. Many a time I have been surprised to find a shared interest with a client in detective stories or history. Those discussions sometimes carry over to further talk on the unit later about favorite authors and books.

When hospitalized people walk in, they are warmly greeted. If they are new to the lounge, we briefly tell them about accessing the books, choosing a movie, and helping themselves to coffee. After that they are left to their own devices. At the end of the hour, with books under their arms and memories of conversations dancing in their heads, they go back to the unit refreshed.

As clients recover, their interest in the outside world grows. The lounge provides a place that bridges life between the hospital and the community. It is a great equalizer. Oldenburg’s book makes note of “level ground” being a critical aspect of third places. Social status differences are minimized there. And is that not a hallmark of peer support? Power differentials are supposed to be as invisible as possible. There should be no us and them, only us. We are all in community together.