The right medication proved to be the foundation that my son needed to begin his road to recovery. But as I have written before, it took much more than a pill to help him get his life back on track. A good friend of mine, Sam Ormes, (click his name to read a blog about Sam) recently introduced me to someone who illustrates that point of view.
Dr. Leonard Aschenbrand’s first serious bout with depression came while he was completing his fourth year of medical school. He became so sick that he was hospitalized for a week. After he was discharged, he returned to his studies, passed all of his classes and began an internship at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. Again, there were difficult days when he felt deeply depressed, but he managed to plow through them.
Although he had studied internal medicine, he enjoyed pediatrics and joined a pediatric practice in Brooklyn after he finished his residency. For the next twenty years, he had a successful career. At his high-point, Dr. Aschenbrand was the associate director of pediatrics at a New York hospital, responsible for setting up the pediatric emergency room and pediatric clinic. He was happily married to his college sweetheart, Judy, and together they had four children. Life was good.
But his depression lurked in the background. In 1999, his world came crashing in.
Facing tremendous pressure at work, Dr. Aschenbrand fell into a depressive episode that was so severe it caused him to become suicidal. He was hospitalized and diagnosed with acute depression and bipolar disorder. His doctors tried electric shock therapy and an assortment of different medications but nothing seemed to work. After four years, Dr. Aschenbrand’s psychiatrist finally found a cocktail of drugs that helped him. Dr. Aschenbrand became stable, but he felt uninspired and defeated. He spent eight months lying on a living room couch.
Dr. Aschenbrand’s doctor realized that his patient needed something more. He telephoned Kenn Dudek, the president of Fountain House in Manhattan and arranged for Dr. Aschenbrand to visit its clubhouse.
“My recovery began the day I walked through Fountain House’s front door,” Dr. Aschenbrand told me during a telephone interview. “My self-esteem started to come back. There is no such thing as a failure at Fountain House. If you make it there in the morning, that is an accomplishment. No one at Fountain House is admonished for what they can’t do. They are praised for what they can do, and for someone who is ill and feels defeated and beaten down, that praise is renewing.”
Fountain House members would later tell Dr. Aschenbrand that he had been pretty “ spacey” when he first became a member. That revelation surprised him because no one had treated him as if he were different or a problem.
I wasn’t surprised when I heard that Dr. Aschenbrand had been accepted at Fountain House without being ostracized. I’ve visited it twice in Manhattan and toured a dozen of Fountain House’s clubhouse affiliates in other cities. I’ve always been impressed by the program and its leadership. Fountain House traces its roots back to 1944 when ten people met at a YMCA as part of a self-help group called We Are Not Alone. At the time, they had a revolutionary idea. They believed that people with mental illnesses could help each other get better. Today, Fountain House assists more than 1,300 individuals in Manhattan and another 55,000 internationally through its network of affiliates.
One of my favorite programs at Fountain House is its job sharing initiative. It helps members build their resumes by putting them to work at real jobs in the community that pay real salaries. Let’s say you are recovering from a mental disorder, but not well enough to hold a traditional forty-hour job. Fountain House will send you to a transitional job where you might work for three hours per day before being relieved by another Fountain House member who will complete the remainder of the shift. Members who can’t work outside the clubhouse are assigned tasks inside it. They may sweep floors, make sandwiches, clear tables. Everyone has a responsibility because jobs give individuals a purpose in life and a feeling of accomplishment. Each member also has a voice in what happens in the clubhouse.
Shortly after joining Fountain House, Dr. Aschenbrand met Esther Montanez who asked him what he liked to do. He mentioned that he had been taking photographs as a hobby since 1968 when he was twenty years old and his father gave him a Nikkormat EL camera. Montanez told him about Fountain Gallery, a showplace operated by Fountain House that features original art work by its members. She encouraged him to submit some of his photographs for possible exhibit.
Encouraged by Montanez, Dr. Aschenbrand says, “My images became better and better. I’ll never forget the feeling that I had when someone bought one of my photographs to display in their home.”
In the past eight years, Dr. Aschenbrand has garnered praise from his peers, been featured in a one-man show at the Jadite Gallery in Manhattan, and won favorable reviews from local critics. He has sold many of his photographs.
“It took my psychiatrist four years to get me on the correct medication,” Dr. Aschenbrand says, “but even though the medication stabilized me, it took more than medication to help me fully recover. It took Fountain House.”
Dr. Aschenbrand is now hoping to return to work in a pediatric practice.
It hasn’t been an easy road for him to get where he is today. He is grateful to his wife, his family and his psychiatrist. But he also credits Fountain House for offering him acceptance, helping him regain his confidence and self esteem, and for giving him hope.
“I was bitter, very bitter when I got sick and lost my job and career,” he says. “Now I realize that the illness is one of those things that happens to some people in a lifetime and I have gotten over the bitterness. I used to be ashamed, but now if someone asks me if I have a mental illness, I say, ‘I have bipolar disorder and depression, but I am stable and I don’t care if you know it.’”
Here is a sample of Dr. Aschenbrand’s work, courtesy of him.