Image: Prints created by participants of Art Studio in the first year of programming at Sheena’s Place.
I stand across the street from the house. I spend hours there, deciding whether or not I should go in. Will they like me? What if I tell them all the horrible things I’ve done?
I do this same thing every day for two months, until one day it rains so hard I have no choice but to run through the front door.¹
As soon as I’m in, I think I’m in the wrong place. The walls are decorated with artwork; some messy, some serene. The living room is filled with comfortable couches that surround a fireplace. And the lady I meet makes me feel like I’ve always known her.
Is this place home?
Julie Notto, the Program Co-ordinator, has been showing me around, and tells me most people who first walk into Sheena’s Place have already been battling an eating disorder for many years—sometimes up to five.
I wonder why it takes them so long.
“When someone actually picks up the phone and says, ‘I need help’ it takes a huge amount of courage,” Julie says. “And that’s why such a big part of our service is to support people when they make that first move—to have information available so they can come in and find out in a gentle and supportive way what it might be like to be here.”
And being at Sheena’s Place is unlike anything I, or you, would expect. As South Asians we shy away from outside help, especially from strangers. We don’t mind leaning on our third cousin’s family friend’s brother’s wife, but we will absolutely not walk into a support group and tell people our secrets.
But the more time I spend at Sheena’s Place, the more it reminds me of my maternal grandmother’s house in India. That house had a large circular veranda in front, and my grandmother, unable to move much, would seat herself there at the start of the day. As the hours went by, women from the neighbourhood would come and go, often sitting together for hours cutting vegetables and talking about their marital problems, children, and I suspect, sex lives. There was always someone to talk to without feeling ashamed. Dare I say this was a support group in disguise?
We no longer live communal lifestyles. Independence has brought with it a sense of isolation. And perhaps we need to start becoming more open to leaning on people we don’t know, people who have sometimes had almost identical experiences to us, albeit miles away behind concrete walls.
In the hopes of breaking down some preconceived barriers to support groups, I want to share all the things Sheena’s Place is NOT.
1. It does NOT cost you.
Although it takes almost a million dollars to run Sheena’s Place every year, the generosity of donors allows for people to take part in support groups and programs free of charge.
2. You do NOT have to tell anybody.
“There are people that come to Sheena’s place and nobody in their life knows,” Julie says. “Whatever group you come to here, it gives you support and tools to figure out, ‘How do I tell the people who are closest to me without feeling like I let them down?’ Maybe right now telling your family is not the thing to do. What it might mean is taking some time to figure out how you want to talk to them.”
3. You do NOT have to do what someone else thinks best. You are the expert.
“They (the participants) are the experts of their own experience,” Julie says. “It’s not a doctor saying, ‘Go on this meal plan.’ I’m not the expert either. I’m the facilitator. I’m here to make sure the space is safe, to facilitate the group rules, to reflect back things to people, but I’m not the expert. They are the experts of their own experience.
So to be able to come in here and be taken seriously, and sit in a room and hear other people say, ‘Oh my God, that’s exactly what’s going on in my own head!’—it sounds simple, and it is, but it’s incredibly profound when people feel supported. It reduces the isolation, it reduces the shame, and it reduces that feeling of, ‘Oh my God, I’m crazy.’”
Sheena’s Place is not a crisis centre, does not offer medical support, and is not a residential institution. It is simply a place to share stories, express feelings, and support each other.
4. You do NOT have to talk
Sheena’s Place offers numerous programs that involve expression through art, movement, and the likes that do not involve having to verbally explain your feelings.
To name a few: Yoga, Art of Collage, Connecting Life to Beauty Through Weaving, Group Drumming, Nia Technique, Art Studio, and Life Skills Toolkit.
5. You do NOT have to have an eating disorder to get help.
There are support groups and programs for family, friends, and partners of people with eating disorders.
¹The voice of a fictional South Asian woman suffering from an eating disorder.