Affirmative actions

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November 3, 2003 // UPDATED 11:06 am - April 30, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

John Rischmiller, self-advocate

When John Rischmiller gets discouraged, he looks to the affirmations he wrote down years ago, framed by multicolored threads of yarn and lining the walls in his apartment -- "Trust yourself. You know what you want and need." They serve as his compass.

John made his first such poster at a group home in Golden Valley shortly after he joined Arc Hennepin-Carver, an advocacy group for people with developmental disabilities. It hangs in his bathroom and reads: "Be not afraid, Arc is my home."

John, 42, credits Arc with empowering him to live independently and self-advocate -- to assert himself, manage his anger and reach out to other people with disabilities.

Born with cerebral palsy and recently diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), John, who uses a wheelchair, has also battled mental illness, including depression and borderline personality disorder.

John has lived in a number of group homes (in Eden Prairie, South Minneapolis and Golden Valley) and a 212-bed residential program for people with mental disabilities, Andrew Residence, in Elliot Park. Now he lives in a small publicly subsidized apartment in a Stevens Square high-rise. Several other people with disabilities reside there and work with assistants from a program called New Beginnings. His living room window features a panoramic view of Downtown.

While he says he enjoys the increased freedom, John admits there are days he thinks of returning to a more structured environment. He has since developed a philosophy to help him get through each day, regardless of where he lives or what he encounters: "I don't look at my life as my whole life," he says. "When I look at my future, I get really scared. I take one day at a time. A day can be divided into hours -- hours into seconds."

Early riser John wakes at 5 a.m. and usually begins his day with stretches to loosen muscles that tighten overnight. A personal care assistant comes to his side to assist when necessary.

After stretching, he sometimes wheels into his small bathroom to read his artful affirmations. Although mostly suppressed by an antidepressant, his depression tends to surface in the morning. When he feels it coming on, he says, he reminds himself of all he's been through and asks, "Do I want to go all the way back to the past?"

His past includes a battle with severe depression and alcoholism during his 20s, he said. Things got so bad that he tried to run away and started driving south. An Iowa snowstorm hit; John turned around and drove to his family's church in Bloomington.

In the parking lot of St. Bonaventure Church, he spoke with a priest. Then and there he decided to confront his problems head on. "That day sticks with me; I've never forgotten it," he says.

Now, John uses humor to disarm troubled thoughts -- "If I had to take everything serious everyday, I wouldn't make it," he says -- and he keeps busy. He journals, attends programs at the Courage Center in Golden Valley and volunteers with Arc, where he has held leadership roles over the years but now focuses on mentoring other leaders.

Although he hasn't spent a lot of time getting to know his new neighborhood, he occassionally visits his old neighborhood near Andrew Residence. He also goes to the liquor, corner and video stores.

He prefers cabs over Metro Mobility, the $2.25-$3 van service provided by Metro Transit. That way he doesn't have to call days ahead to schedule a ride.

'Push-tug' John lives independently but relies on New Beginnings staff for assistance. He carves out his daily routine on his own and forwards it to staff, so they know when to help him stretch or administer his dozen-plus prescription drugs.

He describes his relationship with staff as a "push-tug. They keep telling me I have control; I'm pushing to get away."

John says he has considered moving out, in part because he misses having roommates, but also because he's upset that staff have not installed a wheelchair ramp or regularly assisted him with balancing his checkbook.

New Beginnings Site Supervisor Colby Tushaus says the program has requested state funding for installing the ramp and is awaiting a response. Colby also says he helps John balance his checkbook once a week.

John also says he has privacy concerns, "They knock and then walk right in." Colby says staff respect the autonomy of residents and that a recent survey indicates that 98 percent of residents are happy with the program.

John also points to the positive aspects of his living situation. His rent is $200 -- an affordable rate given his $800 monthly income. And he eats staff-prepared "home-cooked" meals for just $100 a month.

He's also much more critical of his previous housing arrangements, particularly group homes. Their structured format, he says, could never provide the independence he wants.

"Arc helped me realize I didn't want to go back to them," John says in his candid, assertive manner.

A support system Staff and patients at Courage Center in Golden Valley, much like his friends at Arc, have become like family to John. They challenge him to see past his physical limitations.

"If they're willing to work with me, I can't say 'I quit,'" John says. "If you say 'I quit' three times, the door might shut."

John has joined a group of people with MS who meet in the center's 92-degree pool for Watsu therapy. "It's an environment where the [MS patients] can let go," says Mary LeSourd, the physical therapist who runs the sessions. "It helps retrain the brain."

John says the therapy has alleviated chronic pain in his legs and bones, and "makes everything move easier."

The benefits reach beyond the physical. "The therapy sessions create an emotional support system so [people facing similar challenges] don't feel so alone and isolated," Mary says. "People want to know where John is when he's gone."

John also attends group therapy sessions, covering everything from anger management to relationship issues. "They cover all the gamut,"

he says. "They don't pussyfoot around. Nothing is off limits."

Blaming God While therapy has helped John become more centered and even-keeled, he says he still feels lost some days. When his largely positive outlook is overtaken by harbored resentment, he speaks with a Courage Center chaplain.

John blames God for his disabilities. "I hate the guy," he says. "I would chew Him out if I could."

Despite these feelings, John says he maintains his spirituality and remains committed to the Catholic faith of his upbringing.

While he speaks to his mother on the phone every day, John says his parents are yet to visit his Stevens Square apartment. Instead, he takes a cab to visit them in Bloomington.

His mother, Florence Rischmiller, says the family is busy and usually gathers for important functions and holidays.

Coping with loneliness While he has made many friends through Arc and the Courage Center, John says he has other needs.

Recently, he says, he received a warning from Minneapolis police officers about a $40 massage from a friend of a friend that turned sexual.

When she left his apartment, John says, he couldn't find the $400 he'd just won at a casino. He called the cops about the alleged theft. In turn, the officers told him he had offered to pay for prostitution, not a therapeutic massage.

Police let him off with a warning, he says, after he explained that he didn't know his activities were illegal, as each adult had consented.

John says he turns to massage for a variety of reasons. For one, it relieves the pressures on his back. He also enjoys "the companionship, having someone to sit down and talk to," he says.

Aside from interaction with care workers who administer medication and assist with stretches, he says he isn't touched very often.

"Bottom line: people with disabilities aren't supposed to have human needs -- that's the stereotype," he says.

Therapy sessions at the Courage Center also help John overcome bouts of loneliness. Sometimes someone will give him a hug, he says, which can make all the difference on a difficult day.

At home alone, he turns to his artwork. It keeps his fingers active, which keeps the depression at bay. And when he's done, he has another affirmation to further his retraining of his mind. "If I'm down, I focus on the opposite," he says. "I focus on living -- on staying busy."