September 9, 1997 in Features

Mental Health Club Evergreen Club Helps Members With Mental Illness Find Employment And Achieve Dreams Of Independent Living

By The Spokesman-Review
 

At one point David Rottmeyer believed the vacuum cleaner company he was working for was a front for a Colombian drug cartel that wanted to kill him. That’s when he became eligible for what might be the most exclusive club in Spokane.

The Evergreen Club is geared toward people with mental illnesses who want to be contributing participants in society.

Exchanging the traditional institutional environment for one where members feel like they belong, the Evergreen Club has had exceptional success helping people like Rottmeyer, a paranoid schizophrenic.

Rottmeyer’s symptoms of sleeplessness and erratic thinking surfaced in 1991, while he was working toward his doctorate in history at the University of Michigan. Three months later he dropped out of school and moved back to his hometown of Cheney.

“When I lost my mind, it was frightening,” Rottmeyer said. “I feared I would never be able to think again.”

After Rottmeyer’s first breakdown, he battled the continuing delusion. At his parents’ home he was terrified of a jigsaw puzzle and its connection to the drug cartel. During a car ride to see a doctor, Rottmeyer ducked in the back seat, hiding from the drug lords that were tailing him.

In fact, Rottmeyer admits that his delusions still make sense to him. But through his involvement with the Evergreen Club he has been able to overcome his fears and get on with his life.

“I went from a hapless schizophrenic to an employed teacher and I took it one step at a time with the help of the Evergreen Club,” Rottmeyer said.

The Evergreen Club helps its members by getting them temporary employment, which in turn builds confidence so they may achieve the long-term goal of living independently.

The club is run by both staff and members who work together in different operating units in the club, such as the thrift shop, the cafe, a clerical unit and member services, which includes a banking service for club members.

Despite his illness, Rottmeyer was determined to get back into the job force. But he couldn’t do it alone.

“I’d forget to take my meds and I could barely ride the bus,” Rottmeyer said. “I couldn’t just sit in the back and mumble to myself. I wanted to look like a regular guy going to work. That was hard.”

To join, club members pay a fee based on their income level. But they first need to be referred by Spokane Mental Health. Once Rottmeyer was referred, he began working in the Spokane Mental Health Library.

“That gave me confidence and honed my job skills - like getting to work on time. It made my self esteem better,” Rottmeyer said.

Now Rottmeyer teaches a class at Spokane Community College that helps people with mental illness make the transition into college.

Chris Weber works in the same program. She suffers from anxiety and depression and is also a member of the Evergreen Club.

“People here accept me for being Chris,” Weber said. “This is like a city. We’ve all got stories but it comes down to the same thing: We just want to be treated as people.”

Housed in a brick building at 2102 E. Sprague, practically next door to the Spokane Mental Health Drop-in Center, most of the walls in the Evergreen Club lobby are laced with serene paintings depicting water and floral motifs. Photographs of “Greeners” at various work sites are sprinkled throughout the halls, along with maps pinpointing other clubs that are part of the worldwide clubhouse network that began in New York.

To the immediate right of the entrance is an information desk leading to the cafe behind it. At flush left, member services, there is often a soft rumble of members and staffers pecking away at computers, teaching each other virtual tricks of the trade in the process.

When she is not working in SCC classrooms, Weber is usually one of the go-to people in member services.

Even though Weber works outside of the club, she thinks it is important to help members who are not yet ready for that step.

“Everyone is not capable to go out in the community,” said Weber, 47.

When Weber began work at SCC she always sat near the door, “in case I needed a quick exit,” she said.

At the club she began the way many members do - totally withdrawn.

Rita Whigham frequented the club for five years before she felt comfortable talking freely with the other members.

“The big joke is when I first came into Mental Health, they dug me out of a corner, and now they’d like to shove me back in,” said Whigham, who is now among the most vocal of club members.

Whigham, 62, of Spokane, had been living with her depression and suicidal thoughts for so long she thought they were normal.

“When I first came in the system, I was a basket case,” Whigham said. “I was scared of everything. Clubhouse taught us not to be afraid.”

Whigham was bounced in and out of hospitals for years. How many, she can’t remember. She has experienced all sorts of therapy, including shock treatment, the details of which are a fog in her memory.

“I couldn’t tell you to this day who the doctor was,” said Whigham, who could hardly remember her daughter’s wedding after shock treatment. “Most of my hospitalizations are pretty dim.”

When she wasn’t in the hospital Whigham was going to day treatment programs and taking classes that taught her survival skills and methods to ease her anxiety.

Whigham said that while day treatment was a negative experience, there was something missing.

“They taught us social skills, but you went home to an empty apartment. How can you use what you learn then?” she said.

Making the transition to the Evergreen Club was especially difficult for Whigham because she had grown dependent on the hospital, where most of her decisions were made for her.

Now she makes her own choices. She chose not to sell herself short because of her fears.

She had been afraid to interact with people for years. In high school she was nicknamed “Mumbles” because she wouldn’t talk. And only a few years ago, Whigham could barely step into a car. Flying in an airplane was out of the question.

But this July she spent a week in Sweden at an international conference for Clubhouse where she spoke on a couple of panels, representing the 300 members of the Evergreen Club. The club was recently honored with a three-year certification, a rarity for that club network.

Whigham has worked as a phone solicitor for Volunteers of America for about a decade. In the club she works in the clerical unit, down the hall from member services.

Just behind the clerical unit is a recreation room with a pool table and piano.

On any given afternoon a deaf man known at the club as Opie can often be found playing the piano. His mental illness hasn’t hindered his love for music any more than his hearing disability has.

Sue Grant, the club’s executive director, said that’s what the Evergreen Club is about: focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses.

“We’re saying, ‘Yes, you may have a mental illness, but you still have strengths. How can we help you build on those strengths?”’ Grant said.

Ultimately though, Grant said, club members’ progress depends on their initiative.

“The biggest predictor, no matter how well they handle their symptoms, is the desire to work,” she said.

Jill Jordan has shown such initiative.

After her bipolar disorder erupted in 1979, Jordan has had to weather a series of ordeals while trying to go to school between episodes.

She’s had to push her television and stereo in the corner to let the two machines “talk among themselves.” She watched as her boss at a department store she worked at levitated and soared above her. She was once catatonic; as a part of her recovery she had to relearn how to walk, eat, even cry.

“They put an onion in my face,” Jordan said. “(When you are catatonic) you’re trapped within yourself, and you know how to do these things, but you can’t get them out.”

She also went through an accidental suicide attempt, when she ate a box of Ex-Lax, mistaking it for candy.

Somehow, between these psychotic breaks, Jordan found a way to a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, and she is registered at Eastern Washington University to finish a second degree in recreational therapy.

Jordan has gained much of her strength through support from friends she made at the Evergreen Club, and they knowledge she is not alone.

“It was hard at first,” Jordan said. “I wasn’t used to talking to other members about my failures, but it made me understand that they know what I’m going through.”

For more information about the Evergreen Club call 458-7454.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo


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