Recovery Story: I am not alone

David Malatesta
Publication date: 
8 February 2018

I am not alone

By David Malatesta (Norway)

I know there are many of you here today, just like countless millions more, who suffer/have suffered from the symptoms of the scourge that is mental illness. The feelings of shame, humiliation and guilt. That we are the cause and solely responsible for the problem, even though, many try to convince us we are not, it is a real challenge not to believe it.


The stigma, that forces us to withdraw from our close ones, drop out of our social networks, and hide from our work colleagues. And the pain from the noise we are forced to endure, that is the deafening silence of isolation, trapped in a living, lonesome nightmare.


My story starts as a child, growing up in a dysfunctional family. A bitter, miserable, pill popping, alcoholic mother, filled with lies and emotional blackmail. My violent father, who knew how to use his fists and feet on my sister and me. He was an uneducated Italian immigrant. A harsh upbringing and witness to many horrible things as a child himself, was probably not the right recipe for being a parent. However, through hard work and sacrifice, he became a very successful, self-made restaurateur and hotelier in England.  Unfortunately, to his great disappointment, I was not the little Italian boy he had dreamed of. Was that my fault?


I remember one time, sitting next to my father in the car, I must have been about 4 or 5. I was just repeating everything he said while he was driving. Suddenly, there was an incident on the road with another driver, that caused him to swerve and as we drove on, he swore in Italian. I did not have a clue what he was saying, I just repeated it. His reaction, was to stop the car and beat me for swearing.


Growing up there was little trust and protection. The consequences of crossing confused boundaries could be severe. It was no surprise then, one day when I was 13 years old at school, I tried to commit suicide, but I was discovered and saved.


At home things only became worse. To this day I can still hear my father’s voice, the countless times he told me “You are rubbish, no good and when you are 18, I am going to throw you out, because then I will no longer be legally responsible for you, and I never want to see you again”.


I did leave home, in fact I ran away without telling anyone, first to Denmark and then Norway, where except for a year in Germany, I have lived ever since.


Like many in my situation, I had a very low esteem, my education had suffered, for a time I had mixed with the wrong crowd and became involved in things which I am not very proud of. Things that even today, send me powerful pangs of guilt.


This was the real world and I had to deal with it. Inside, I felt worthless, I was too scared to become emotionally attached to anyone, to build close relationships, for the fear of getting hurt.


I have never felt, that I have ever been in the position where I would be able to offer the kind of security, stability, a good life to a child where it would be able to prosper, so I have purposely avoided becoming a father, or becoming emotionally attached to anyone who wanted children. The truth is, that I want my father’s cursed genes to end with me. Is that right? Is that the way it should be? That is the way it is for me.


Sure, I have had success, taken my opportunities and missed others. I actually used my immense inferiority complex, to drive me back through adult high-school, and then on to university.


I have achieved some amazing highs. Unfortunately, with the highs come the lows. And believing that one is all alone, I allowed myself to be swallowed up into the dark, depths of depression, with only the world of professional psychiatry, preventing me from drowning.


I arrived at the Clubhouse, Fontenehus i Oslo, with nothing, no hope, no will to continue. I had become a recluse, afraid to leave the house, with only my dear partner supporting me. Of course, I was unsure, what is this place? What do they want? What and who lies behind it? Questions that could only be answered through my participation. I was afraid those first weeks. Yet I was welcomed so warmly. They genuinely seemed happy to see me. It felt like I had been diving in the deep, and now I was able to slowly swim back to the surface, and take some deep breaths of fresh, clear air.


And by volunteering and taking part in a few easy tasks, washing the entrance hall floor, sitting on reception for 30 minutes, carrying the dirty coffee cups up to the kitchen, I really did feel a sense of a simple structure in my mind that felt right. And senses of achievement that I was actually able to contribute something, to what I now know as the work-ordered day. For me, this really was meaningful work. And I was rewarded with a genuine, deep feeling of satisfaction. Though I was still too scared to go to the breakfast meetings, but at least I knew that now, I was not alone.


But I have to say here, that one of the most important things that kept me in the Clubhouse, was the fact that everything is voluntary. Had I felt in any way that I was been forced, or coerced to do something that I did not feel comfortable with, or obliged in any way to do something, that would have been my last day in the Clubhouse. And if that had happened, I really don’t know where I would be today. When you do something in the Clubhouse, it is because you want to, and that is what is real, it comes from the heart, it is truly genuine, it feels right and you are always encouraged to try.


Officially, I am termed disabled and mentally ill. And in that world, where is the hope? Yet in the Clubhouse world, I am active, alive, and because there is always so much to do, I genuinely do feel appreciated. When I stop, and look back at my time in the Clubhouse, I am just amazed at many of the things I have done and achieved, by allowing the Clubhouse, to reach out to me.


One of the great Clubhouse pioneers, Susan Omansky said ‘I need to engage in something from which I can derive my own sense of pride, accomplishment and self-satisfaction from the inside’. She is so right, and Clubhouse continuously offers me this type of engagement. Why? Because the Clubhouse is filled with so many opportunities, but the bottom line is, it is up to one to grasp these moments.


When I first walked in through Fontenehuset i Oslo’s doors, I never envisioned that soon I would be a part of a team, that was successful in developing our first website. We desperately needed pictures for our webpages, that nobody seemed to want to take, so I ended up taking them myself. Soon, I became the unofficial Clubhouse photographer. Before Clubhouse, I never had the confidence to show my photographs to anyone, now in the Clubhouse they are both published and exhibited. I was then asked to talk about the process of how we built the website, in a workshop about Clubhouse Relationships, at the European Conference in Stirling, Scotland. Next, I was asked to join an employment committee, which was responsible for hiring two wonderful members of staff. When a poster appeared on the Clubhouse notice board about Comprehensive Clubhouse Training, several people, both members and staff encouraged me to apply. After a lot of thought, discussion, would I be able to travel to London and be away from my partner and home for 3 weeks? Remember I was a recluse. Even my psychologist advised me against it. But in the end, I thought this was an opportunity that probably would never come along again, so I signed up and was chosen. But would I be able to do it?


After only two days at Mosaic Clubhouse, I had become so inspired, that I decided to completely immerse myself in the entire training experience. My self-confidence was given a massive boost, not only by how I was welcomed and received, but also by how the Mosaic community encouraged and allowed me to develop, while taking part in the discussions and their work-ordered day. This really was a life changing event for me. Ask anyone who knew me after I returned. One staff member described it ‘as if a light had been turned on inside me’. I could feel the extra step in my stride. In fact, I still do.


Not long after, I was taken completely by surprise, when I was asked if I might consider applying for the Faculty for Clubhouse Development. Now to be perfectly honest, my first reaction to this idea was incredulity. The notion was galaxies off my radar. At first, I did not respond, but after discussing it with a staff member and then the director, who both thought it was a great idea, I filled out the application.


I now have the great privilege, honour and responsibility, of travelling to, and getting to know, other Clubhouse communities on accreditation visits. I also have the opportunity, of working closely with some truly inspiring, Clubhouse International individuals.  And being a member of the Faculty, actually allows me to feel that I am now in a position, to give something back, to the Clubhouse community. However, I have to tell you this, being accepted for Faculty training, literary forced me to face and cross one colossal mental barrier. Up until then, I had no problems working in any of the Clubhouse units, except for one, which I absolutely dreaded. The culinary unit. Now everyone knows that if you want to get to know a Clubhouse quickly, and what goes on there, go and spend some time chopping up vegetables in the kitchen. Which is an ideal place to be on an accreditation visit. Some people have a fear of spiders, mine was kitchens. This goes all the way back to my childhood and my father’s catering profession. I cannot put into words the psychological terror that I went through, when I asked to join the culinary unit for a couple of weeks. And the courage I had to muster up, from where I really do not know, in order to show up to that first, early Monday morning kitchen unit meeting. At least they seemed pleased to see me. I immediately threw myself into everything, from the buying, chopping, cleaning, counting, laying, stirring, washing and wiping, I did it all. And you know what? I absolutely loved it. What a personal victory that was for me.


And since my Clubhouse, Fontenehus i Oslo has now become Clubhouse International’s 12th and newest international training base, it was only natural that I was asked to join the training team, which I just find so fulfilling. Yet, after all this and much more, I am the first to admit, that I still find a return to the world outside Clubhouse, and everything it entails, daunting. But by being a part of the Clubhouse, which just seems so good at encompassing and adapting to my needs. I really can say it has given me the opportunity, to safely push my boundaries and comfort zone. And now I am confident in the knowledge, that as long as I remain active in the Clubhouse, and continue to involve myself, there is always going to be hope.


And just like every other Clubhouse member, I know when I do well, the community will celebrate, and when things are tough, they will always be there to support me.


I am not alone!