“A clubhouse is more than a place to be,” Athena McClendon says. “It’s a place to belong.”
Recovery has evolved from a buzzword into a useful framework for giving meaning to the experience of living with mental illness. Advocates of recovery-oriented principles aim to widen our lens to bring into view a person’s capacity for flourishing—not just functioning—in society.
Losing Sight and Finding Community
Athena is the firstborn daughter in a family of five. Growing up, her pastor father imparted a Christian ethos that emphasized independence, but left her ill-equipped to handle the crises that beset her later in life.
After being diagnosed with Lupus, Athena found herself unable to cope with the intensity of her fear and shame. “Life happened to me, and it was very hard to deal with,” she says. “I had the promise of faith and family, but I didn’t really know myself at the time. So I had a little break.”
For Athena, that break meant a bout of severe depression. She became reclusive, only leaving her home to attend a weekly counseling session. When Athena found out about Austin Clubhouse, it took a few months for her to work up the courage to join. But once she did, she knew there was no going back.
At Austin Clubhouse, a psychosocial approach to community care is used to create a structured environment in which work, play and kinship can coexist.
“A clubhouse to me is a place that is beyond accreditation standards—beyond the typical workshop or shelter,” Athena says.
Through communal activities like cooking, cleaning and other specialized programs, members learn to interface the three pillars that sustain the clubhouse model: independence, community and wellness. “A clubhouse is a place of fun,” Athena says. “It also acts as a place of stability, which is a hard lesson that I had to learn, but it was possible.”
In this context, stability needn’t be synonymous with a compartmentalized mental state. “Stability comes when you’re just truly yourself,” Athena says. “It’s being able to say, I’m having a bad day, and that’s okay. I can still go to the clubhouse.”
Creating a Place to Belong
As the relationships Athena built with other members and staff grew stronger, she came to take on roles that she hadn’t anticipated. Her involvement with the clubhouse’s Poetry as a Tool for Recovery program in particular became an unexpected source of nourishment.
Athena now facilitates the program, through which she teaches participants how to access and express their innermost emotions. “We share confidences, we share feelings, we share experiences—and it’s safe,” Athena says. “I don’t have to worry about feeling embarrassed or ashamed.”
Like most items on Austin Clubhouse’s agenda, Poetry as a Tool for Recovery not only reinforces the community’s vocational circle of care, but also challenges members to engage their struggles in a socialized setting.
“There’s laughter, there’s sharing, there’s catching up,” Athena says. “That hug, and that wave, and that acknowledgement—that reinforces the challenges. That reinforces the nurturing. They’re probably both the same thing.”
Such is the goal of recovery-oriented services. “A clubhouse is more than a place to be,” Athena says. “It’s a place to belong. And for me, that’s what I was looking for. In my depression and isolation, that’s what my heart really wanted.”
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