Monday, May 14, 2012

Rainbow Heights Club Helped Restore My Soul

By Julie A. Cipolla

It’s important to have a special place to go

8 ½ years ago my life was very different than it is today. I slept 15 to 18 hours a day and saw no one (I live alone and have no family).

I’d been on Social Security Disability for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder for 7 years already. I was not doing anything with my life. I was merely existing in the haze of semi-suicidality so common to people with my diagnosis and family abuse history.

The one bright spot in my life was a monthly group I started and ran for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people with disabilities, called “Disabilities Who Need Each Other.” The group was held the second Sunday of the month from 2-4 p.m. at the LGBT Center on 13th Street in New York City.

One day a nice young man attended the group and told us about a club for LGBT folks with mental illness that he worked at as a peer specialist. I was so intrigued by his description of the Club that I decided to go.

I walked into the building at 25 Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, saw the sign for Rainbow Heights Club and I went to the 4th Floor. There I met a smiling young man who introduced himself to me as Christian Huygen the current executive director of the Club.

I was given a tour by the peer specialist who had come to my group that Sunday. I was impressed with what I saw. There was a gorgeous, huge kitchen, a cozy, sunny club room with a huge rainbow flag and couches. There was also a computer room with newly installed Internet access as well as a large art room with a real kiln for firing ceramics. All around the room were pieces of artwork made by club members. “Ah!” I thought, “I am home!” Then there was the day room which I was informed was referred to as the “Gay Room,” by members.

I was handed an application for membership and on it was the following question: “What can you offer the Club?” I was floored! Here I was being asked what I could contribute—I was not to simply be a passive recipient of help from higher-ups who were “wellies.”

So I mentioned my Karate skills (I am a first-degree black belt, acquired before I got sick). I also put down my writing skills, and that I was a good listener.

Then I went to the kitchen where Christian was preparing the 4 o’clock dinner. I was encouraged to participate in preparations, so I put some mild spices into the Black Bean Soup and I felt very happy that I was trusted to add the spices and that my input was wanted.

That day I sat in on a group that was constructing a “Code of Conduct” for the Club. I made some suggestions about the wording which the group adopted into the final version.

Next, I sat in the kitchen and talked with a member who seemed to need a listening ear. We talked for an hour before dinner and resumed the conversation afterwards.

When it was time to leave the Club at the end of the day, I felt so happy because I felt I’d helped somebody and I’d contributed in a meaningful way to the Club. That was on January 28, 2003.

I returned to attend such groups as the Assertiveness Group, where I learned strategies for setting boundaries with people, and expressing my needs. There were (and still are) other groups such as Thoughts and Feelings, Lesbian Group, Art Group, etc.

Eventually, I offered to lead various activity groups at the Rainbow Heights Club and in my 8½ years there, I have variously led the Stitch n Bitch Group, the Writing Group and gave a short course in Karate.

I’ve also served on the Community Advisory Board, I’ve prepared taxes for the Club members, cooked at some of the Club barbecues, and I also took a turn working at Rainbow Heights as a peer specialist, which was very rewarding.

Currently, I’m no longer a peer specialist, but instead I’m a regular member. I’m not leading any groups right now. But I do attend several groups every week, including the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Recovery group because I have an eating disorder which is now in remission.

Today, I no longer sleep 18 hours a day, just 8 or 9. I have a whole host of friends at the Club. We support one another. The staff is outstanding and is very responsive to our needs, whatever they may be at any given moment. Just the other day, before Hurricane Irene blew into town, I asked to sit in the director’s office while the director did some paperwork. Just sitting there with her helped to quell my fears about the impending storm.

Rainbow Heights Club is family to me—it’s my second home. It’s where I go to share all of my tragedies and triumphs. It’s a place where I feel heard and loved and I extend this to the other members—we do this for each other. The staff provides an atmosphere of mutual respect and belonging for us members. And we have a heck of a lot of fun, with Bingo and movie nights, karaoke, birthday parties, open houses and barbecues. We also have outings to such places as the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens.

Yes, my life is radically different and better because I belong to Rainbow Heights Club.

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