Vermont's One Small Step: Adrianna & Phoebe
In this first of a series of conversations, 65 year old Phoebe of Brattleboro speaks with Adrianna, a 51 year old mental health professional in Burlington. While Adrianna has worked in the field for some time, Phoebe has had to navigate the system. Despite their differing political views the two connect over a mutual love of art and how their personal experiences have shaped their views of mental health.
Phoebe: I believe that society should provide housing, food, health care and education to everyone regardless. And I think a radical acceptance of people is what society should be teaching as well.
Adrianna: I registered as an independent, so I've voted for republican presidents. I've voted for republican governors, I voted for democrats, I voted for independents. I base it more on the person and what they do, their actions.
Adrianna: Do you mind sharing more, you said you were mute?
Phoebe: I suppose you would call it elective or selective mutism because at home, I was afraid of my father, so I had to speak. But at school and other places I just didn't. Life was difficult for many years.
Adrianna: Can you share more about that?
Phoebe: I was diagnosed with a severe mental illness, and was in and out of hospitals. I met somebody in Vermont who actually helped me to understand a lot of things and and she did it through basically just accepting me unconditionally and loving me, in a funny way, into being. I no longer believe the DSM labels. And I think labeling people is the worst thing possible to do to somebody who's suffering,
Adrianna: I love that you are able to speak to that, because my daughter had a really hard time. She had a friend try to commit suicide, and she was the one that found her. That put her over the edge. And she was put in a hospital diversion program, because my husband and I made a conscious choice not to send her to a hospital. And instead of saying she's broken, which is what she was saying before that, 'I'm broken, I'm broken, there's something wrong with me', looking for something to label herself. And those ten days where she was unplugged and in this place where she could be with people who felt the same way she did, and have those conversations and not worry about a label. And they kept saying you don't need a label. And I kind of agree with you that the DSM is a useful tool. But it does cause labeling. I wish we could see mental health as a spectrum and accept people on both ends, and give them the tools they need to manage it themselves.
Phoebe: It's either or.
Adrianna: Yeah. And that's why I'm at the table because I believe in both, and. The more personal and the more you hear somebodies stories, the more you can relate and find in common. And that's how change happens. Right?
Phoebe: Yeah. If I had been told in advance that I was going to speak to somebody who worked at the Howard Center, I might have said I can't do it, I can't do it. My experience with people who work in that field has been horrible. You are not the person I expected you to be in that I expected you to be somebody who was rigid and believed in labels as a mental health worker or something. You were totally delightful instead. It was good, it was very good.
Betty Smith: These two women experienced a powerful feeling of connection, especially evident when Phoebe talks about her introduction to Art. And Adriana responds by describing an art initiative in which she participated. It's called the Violet Protest. And it upholds core values like respect, courage, candor and compassion. Rather like One Small Step.
Adrianna: Do you mind if I ask you more about what brought you to art? I was an art major in college. My grandfather was an artist and an art teacher. So I'm really curious about how you folded it into your life and how you went from hating it to loving it.
Phoebe: Well, I didn't fold it in, oh, maybe I did, but I started beating very fast! I had a voice in my head that said, 'You have to build a human, you have to build a human.' So I took out flour and water and paper and built a paper mache life-size woman in a chair. It took me about three months, and I haven't stopped doing art since then.
Adrianna: Wow. That's incredible. What is it about building a human that you you think stuck with you?
Phoebe: I think it was telling me to build a life. And my life had a lot of difficulty in it before art, and even after art. But art was a way to find me. And I think that that was building a human.
Adrianna: So you're the human. I love that. Yeah. A lot of people see art as a skill or something that you're born with, or something beautiful that you create. But I see art more as a way of speaking to the world and working through who we are. The art piece that I just did. It's a quilt project that's nationally done. She's an artist out of Arizona. And she asked artists across the country to create quilt squares out of whatever fabric they wanted. You don't have to be a professional artist to do it.
Phoebe: It's like the aids quilt.
Adrianna: Exactly. So you had to use red and blue in this color range, because from a distance they make purple. So her goal was to create this living artwork, and she had it on display in Phoenix. But as she's breaking it down, she stacks it in the letters U.S.. And each of the members of Congress are going to get 50 squares with a message from each artist.
Phoebe: So it's almost performance art as well as art by making the quilt square.
Adrianna: Exactly. You create your personal piece based on how you're moved. And then you share it with the world in this art installation. And then it gets shared with the people we're trying to speak to. That's what I think the world needs right now. And I believe there's a lot of us out there that believe in 'and'. Right?
Phoebe: Yeah. Not either, or.
Adrianna: And that's the only way forward, but it's really hard to do. You're an amazing lady.
Phoebe: So are you.
Adrianna: I want to see more of your art.
Phoebe: I want to see more of you and your art.
StoryCorps’ One Small Step is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.