A place of hope, respect, activity and employment opportunity for those recovering from mental illness.
At Terrell High School, Athena McClendon sat on the student council and was elected student body president. She took part in speech and debate. She played in the band.
She also served twice as student mayor of Terrell, a town of 16,000 due east of Dallas.
“I was high achieving,” she says. “At least I started out that way.”
McClendon, now 44, also earned degrees in psychology and speech communications from East Texas Baptist University and the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
In 1998, her younger sister was killed in a car accident.
“That threw me into a little bit of a tailspin,” she says. “I was just trying to find my place in the world as a college graduate, and then I had to deal with grief at the same time. It was difficult.”
She tried to seek therapy but was discouraged by her family.
“If I can’t get what I need from my family,” she thought, “I’ll get it elsewhere.”
Things got worse. Up until a year ago, her physical health suffered and she struggled with severe depression.
McClendon found refuge at the Austin Clubhouse, a quickly growing community — it recently added a second Austin location, on Ben White Boulevard — that offers hope, respect, activity and employment opportunity for those recovering from mental illness.
The nonprofit Austin Clubhouse, one of 300 internationally, follows the model of New York’s Fountain House, which was founded in 1948. The Austin group is run primarily by the members, including McClendon’s friends Martha Koock Ward and Jesse McCrum, who join dozens of others cooking meals; organizing meetings, classes and outings; and generally maintaining the club’s airy rooms and garden behind the Hyde Park Christian Church on East 45th Street.
There’s also a small staff led by Executive Director Joanna Linden, a longtime figure on the Austin nonprofit scene who knows about what some of the members have experienced.
“On the outside most people wouldn’t know, but behind my smile and cheery outlook on life I have suffered from chronic and debilitating depression for most of my adult life — while raising children, maintaining friendships and working full-time jobs,” Linden says. “Recovery at times seemed insurmountable, but with the right support and healing I was able to find resilience and hope.”
“People don’t know what to do when they are trying to support somebody who is struggling,” McClendon says. “You feel helpless and powerless. The Clubhouse lets you know that you have options. All the labels get left at the door. People just have to show up. You just have to walk through the doors.”
McClendon’s friend Jesse McCrum, 44, went to church often as a kid in West Texas.
“I was raised around church meetings that were like lectures,” he says. “And I was philosophically curious.”
He did well at Coronado High School and took college courses in the Air Force before transferring to the University of Texas, where he studied communications, especially new media. He delved into the Texas Advanced Technology Program, researching virtual reality and augmented reality.
“I loved it,” McCrum says. “I was exposed to postmodern thinkers. Had great lessons in film. I interned and then became a full-time location assistant on the movie ‘Hope Floats.’”
He didn’t graduate but nevertheless landed a multimedia job with a software company in Portland, Ore. He had a girlfriend and traveled to Thailand, Mexico and Europe.
He returned to finish his studies at UT. Then, at age 29, something snapped.
“Boom! I had a break. A psychotic episode. In class,” McCrum says. “There was a very distinct change in the way I was thinking. A paranoia. A narrative ran through my mind. I thought that I was part of an experiment in virtual reality. I was at the whim of my mind. My mind was creating these stories.”
He now understands that someone should have recognized that he needed to go to a doctor.
“I should have had been diagnosed with schizophrenia,” he says. “It took me quite a few years to get into a situation where I got the right medication.”
What eventually worked for McCrum was the antipsychotic drug Invega. He goes to a nurse every 28 days to get an injection.
“The longer you are on that medication, the healthier you are,” he says. “Some people feel good and then quit taking it. I have a perspective on that: I’ll never stop taking the medication as long as it is available.”
Despite the improvement, McCrum remained at home, isolated and depressed. A team from the Veterans Affairs took him to the Austin Clubhouse for lunch.
“It was very reassuring, because you normally just don’t meet people who are willing to talk about their diagnosis,” he says. “It was the fact that everyone was walking around with a sense of purpose. I could relate to what they were saying. I found people who really cared and who could relate to what I’ve been through.”
The rediscovered habit of work — this is a common thread in members’ life stories — helped him land a delivery job.
“When you have been sick for a while, it’s hard going back to work,” he says. “It takes some confidence-building, and this place gave me confidence. The Clubhouse is open to anyone over 18 with mental health problems, and it’s for life. If you ever decide to leave, you can come back.”
Unlike McCrum and McClendon, Martha Koock Ward is a native Austinite and part of a large, well-known family that has included the owners of Green Pastures restaurant as well as lawyers, judges, cooks, authors, entertainers and civil rights activists. The creativity gene did not skip Koock Ward, who is a reputable poet.
Forty years ago, she first slid into a dark depression. Every five or 10 years, it returned.
“It was never a roller coaster of being in and out of things,” Ward, 68, says. “It was triggered by something I was experiencing. I’d feel hyperstressed with some level of mania, but it was always on the depressive end.”
She sought therapy. It helped, as did medication. She discovered that her eldest uncle on her mother’s side had been diagnosed with a similar condition and treated at the Austin State Hospital.
“The protocol back then was electric shock treatment,” she says. “He was a brilliant man with a photographic memory. He also happened to be bipolar.”
She received her own bipolar diagnosis when she moved back to Texas after living on the East Coast for 10 years.
“I only became more aware of the manic side after I came back to Texas,” she says with a smile. “Texas will do that to you.”
It turns out that her siblings were more aware of her precarious state than she was. They had her hospitalized briefly.
“I think it’s a dance,” she says of bipolarity. “Because I’m not clear that even those researching mental health have a handle on it.”
Ward thinks the United States is probably one of the worst places among rich countries to go through mental illness.
“Elsewhere, there is a context of inclusion,” she says. “I see the Clubhouse as an inclusive environment. The staff and members participate in tasks. The destigmatizing is crucial. And as more people of note come out, there is more of an embrace of who they are, how their lives function, not dysfunction.”
She takes a low-dose medication that stabilizes her moods. After she reached a sort of recovery, she found out about the Clubhouse, which was in her neighborhood.
“It was easy for me to come down and sign up,” she says. “It’s nice to be in a loose but structured format.”
There she discovered that a woman was offering poetry classes.
“I think when I first came to a class, I thought, ‘Oh, what’s this going to be like?’” she says. “But then I was just in awe and filled with respect for people in the class.”
She started facilitating classes, and the group published its first anthology in 2016.
Like other members, she has wrestled with holding a steady job.
“I was a long time in sales, then an advocate for people in long-term care, then 20 years at the state of Texas in a variety of roles,” she says. “When I started at the state, I had been in an extremely stressful time, so within six months, I dove into deep depression. It turned into intolerable, unmanageable circumstances.”
It is also difficult to interact with family and friends who are inexperienced with outbreaks of mental illness.
“It’s a set of incidents that are never discussed,” she says. “I think it’s important that it is discussed. It affects the whole family.”
McClendon comes from a place of profound faith. Her father is a Baptist pastor, and her mother is the church’s bookstore director, along with all the other responsibilities that come with being a pastor’s wife.
“I come from a spiritual Christian background,” she says. “We are supposed to pray and live by the spirit of God.”
After watching her father continue to preach in the wake of her sister’s death, she thought, “If he can do it, I can do it.”
McClendon tried all kinds of things to counteract her barely disguised grief and depression. She relocated to Virginia. She worked with at-risk kids at a Boys and Girls Club, and then got into intense family counseling.
“I became desperate for change,” she recalls. “That’s when I became physically ill. I pushed myself hard, but my symptoms compounded. I came undone.”
She was sent back to Austin on Oct. 31, 2009. She headed to the emergency room 30 minutes after she landed. Four days later, she was diagnosed with lupus, which includes inflammation of the skin.
“I was at the point of death, with my skin and internal organs shutting down,” she remembers. “I was losing a tremendous amount of weight. It was pretty dramatic.”
To complicate matters, she wasn’t completely aware of her physical condition because, as it turns out, she had also entered an episode of manic psychosis.
“I sought psychiatric help, and I was discouraged from doing so,” McClendon says. “My life had changed completely. I couldn’t even move my body without excruciating pain. I was a wreck.”
She was prescribed Prozac for a while, but her rheumatologist would not sign off on an extension, even though it had helped.
“Things were getting darker,” she says. “How do you support someone this needy who is supposed to be an adult?”
One thing that helped was conversion to Judaism.
“My rabbi gave me compassion and watered my intellectual curiosity,” she says. “And my girlfriends were wonderful, too.”
She lived on a farm for a year with one friend. Another soothed her with herbs and oils and food for her soul. Still another provided something she sorely needed — unconditional regard. She moved back to Austin into a single-occupancy property owned by Foundation Communities. That nonprofit helped her obtain therapy from Capital Area Counseling.
But up to a year ago, she was still missing a community. Her lupus was under control — she is out of danger — but she feared a return to the hospital at any time.
“I was afraid, alone and suicidal,” she says. “My cognitive function was greatly impaired. I could not process thoughts, read or remember.”
Then an Austin Clubhouse member at Foundation Communities led her to 45th Street.
“I put it off,” McClendon admits. “I drug my feet about it. This was exactly what I was needing, but taking the step out of your shell is hard. I took the tour. But I still drug my feet about the application, then coming in.”
Once she joined the Clubhouse in 2016, things fell into place.
“I got my life back,” she says. “I did not know I could have myself again. The recovery is real. It does happen. The Clubhouse was the catalyst for me. I came in that day thinking that I would observe. Next thing I know, I’m at the afternoon meeting, and I’m involved in activities. I jumped in with both feet.”
The group’s Wellness Recovery Action Plan set her on the right path.
“It helped me to realize that I was in crisis,” she says. “I’m not crazy. I now have a plan of action if it happens again. I can manage the crisis rather than being taken out by crisis.”
She is seeing a nutritionist, which has helped her overall health. She works part time as a substitute teacher and at the Capitol. In the end, the Clubhouse made all the difference in her world.
“They made me feel that I mattered,” she says simply. “They saw me.”
Where: 610 W. 45th St. South Satellite Clubhouse: Skyline Terrace, 1212 W. Ben White Blvd.
To join: Membership is open to anyone in the Austin area with a diagnosed mental health condition. While doctors, caseworkers or other professionals in the community may make referrals, the Clubhouse also accepts self-referrals. There are no dues or fees. You can arrange for a tour by calling 512-925-5877. Pick up an application right after the tour.