An angel pushed me down the stairs

One of our members is on the edge of crazy. I cant discuss the
details, because it is too personal and too private right now.  But
madness in community is a rich topic and I want to explore how my
unusual home deals with odd and sometime problematic behaviors of our
extraordinary members.

sometimes everything falls apart

We are not a therapeutic community.  And yet we have significant
therapeutic affect on some fairly  strange people who live here.  We
have a fair few people who talk and sing to themselves, others are
sociophobic and work mostly at hours when no one else is awake.  We
integrate them fairly effortlessly.  We relatively gracefully handle
the cook who breaks down crying dramatically in the dining hall when
it is at peak capacity.  We have members with anger issues,
depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, alcoholism, neurosis and a
host of other issues.  And we deal, adapt, comfort, embrace, enable,
disable and distance ourselves.  It is not like we are collectively
immune to the effects of mental health struggles, but for a whole big
range of odd we are more accepting and tolerant than the mainstream.
A dear friend of mine with multiple personality syndrome spoke
recently about his work with past domestic terrorist organization and
how he identifies as a dog.  Members take this in stride.

What we worry about institutionally is how we deal with someone who is
functioning outside our comfort zone.  The challenging work is trying
to figure out how those zones are defined and how (or if) we can
stretch temporarily.

One quick way to fall out of our comfort zone is not taking
responsibility for your part of the problem and instead blaming others
for things which go wrong.  This will crash relationships and
ultimately your standing with the community.  You can also erode your
connection to the community by blowing off your work shifts and
especially kitchen cleaning shifts [basically the only mandatory work
in the community is cleaning dishes once every week to 10 days, you
will assigned a “K shift” by the labor assigner – unless you have a
medical or other exemption from it.]  If you can work demonstrably
less than quota and lie on your labor sheets, or not lie on them and
this will build resentment towards you.

can we help you back from the edge?

So how do we do a good job of handling a mental health break down?
When we are on top of it, we pull people off their K shifts and other
obligations, we build up care teams around them and we send in the
folks from our mental health team.  Why it is certainly not required,
many members who serve on the mental health team have first hand
experience with these struggles.  Empathetic compassion turns out to
be a highly desirable  characteristic of a mental health crisis
adviser and care giver.

Being on a crazy (or just struggling) persons care team is often an
challenging question for me.  If it is someone I am emotionally
attached to, I almost always join up, and often play a coordinating
role in the function of the care team.  But if the person struggling
is someone I know but we are not close, I often think of joining.  I
feel like these are services we should be providing collectively, we
have the resources to do it and taking care of our own who are
struggling is one of the important things which sets us apart from
mainstream culture.  My experience with people who are struggling in
the mainstream is they often are committed to mental institutions,
even temporarily, because there is no one (or not enough people) who
can get off work to support them.

the master of surreal and illustrated madness

I remember distinctly the mental health team asked me to advocate for
a member who had hidden a pet cat in their room (in violation of our
agreements) and was in a sexual identity crisis.  I remember before I
was asked, I felt like it would probably be best for the community if
this person moved on.  But when I was asked in, my perspective had to
shift.  Like the public defender who represents people who have
committed the crimes they are accused and then gets them off via a
technicality, I was quite confident that if I did what I was being
asked to do, this problematic member would quite likely be able to
stay in the community.  Which was exactly what my “client” was asking
me to do as their advocate.  They mostly followed my advice, accepted
my edits to their public statements, dragged out the evaluation
process as long as possible as I suggested.  And this person lives
here today. They are much healthier and they contribute quite a bit to
the community and they are still exploring their complex sexual
identity.  This is from inside a place of having convinced us that
they can fit, their initial manias and uncooperative behaviors are
passed and while they are still quite unusual in their manner, they
are fully accepted and viewed as responsible communards.

For me the acid test is that if we can see that someone is likely not
going to be able to stay here because their needs for care are beyond
our capacity, that we dont simply give up on them.  That we deal with
them compassionately, and make the efforts to permit them to stay, if
there is anyway we can figure that out.  And one of the things which
plays into our ability to deliver on compassion and acceptance, is how
long the member has been here and what their work ethic is.  When
someone who has been here for a long time and has supported the
community a lot falls into a mental health break down, we will go far
to land them safely and back here.  For newer members, we can show
less compassion and flexibility.

And of course there are many stories from these incidents.  One member
was being criticized for taking to many sick hours and just as they
were getting better, they feel down a set of stairs, hurt their leg
and were unable to work again.  When interviewed about the accident
they said “An angel pushed me down the stairs,” Which was the
beginning of their unraveling with us.

it is not about bad luck

And as good as I think we are, we still have along way to go and make
many mistakes.  We have had members kill themselves, while in crisis
and in our care.  This is devastating to the community.  We have had a
member simply stop working and just watch videos in their room all
day.  This simply breed resentment, but because this person was well
liked when they stopped working and we were slow to do anything about
this withdraw.  They said they were listening to voices in their head,
which they felt we some deity.  In the feedback we had for this
person, one member said “When you hear voices in your head, and you
are trying to decide if it is god talking to you or you are crazy, you
are probably crazy”