PENINSULA PROFILE: Seeing them through their struggles

By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Profile

PORT ANGELES — One thing is clear right off: Birgit Talman enjoys her clients’ company.

Stopping by the Horizon Center to see these clients — men and women with illnesses such as schizophrenia — she breezes in, shining a sun-bright smile on one person after another.

“Hi! How are you doing?” she asks as each returns her smile; chitchat comes next as Talman and friends head toward the kitchen, where coffee is brewing.

Horizon is the day treatment center for Peninsula Behavioral Health, formerly known as Peninsula Community Mental Health.

Different approaches

Here, treatment for people with post-traumatic stress, severe depression and other conditions isn’t the usual medication-heavy approach. It’s the world dance classes Talman teaches. It’s bingo and other games. It’s yoga classes taught Monday by Olympic Iyengar instructor Robin Popinski.

Talman, one of a handful of clinical case managers at Peninsula Behavioral Health, likewise takes a nontraditional approach to her work with schizophrenics.

She’s a driver behind a new activity for the mentally ill here: equine-assisted therapy at the Native Horsemanship Riding Center of Sequim.

Talman couldn’t have known how her clients would react to the idea of getting up on a horse and setting out for a trail ride.

Appealed to her

But she had read about equine-assisted therapy; it appealed to her love of the outdoors, exercise and adventure. She pitched the idea to her supervisor, Wendy Sisk, and to Peninsula Behavioral Health Executive Director Peter Casey.

“They said, ‘Go for it,’” Talman recalls with an emphatic shake of her auburn mane.

Marginalized society

Now, this outing was not to be just a lark. Talman’s clients struggle mightily with their illnesses, and when they do go out, she said, they are stared at and scarcely spoken to.

“This is our most severely mentally ill population,” Talman added.

Peter Treibel, for example, was “almost catatonic.”

Still, she told Treibel and the gang they were going out for a field trip involving farm animals.

“I’m kind of like the Pied Piper,” she added.

As she and her group toured the horsemanship center, amazing things started to happen.

“Peter’s face opened up,” when he met the horses, Talman recalled. “He laughed — and this is a man who doesn’t talk.”

Melissa Smith, a client who moved recently to Port Angeles from New Jersey, had been shy and withdrawn.

“She was deathly afraid of horses,” Talman said.

“I was scared,” Smith acknowledged because, “I didn’t know anything about them.”

At the ranch over the past several weeks, Smith has emerged from her shell. Just like Talman, Treibel, and clients John Hutchison and David Scott, Smith loves being with the big, burly animals.

“The wow factor” is high even for Yvette Tworabbits Ludwar, the ranch’s certified equine-assisted therapist.

She’s worked with all kinds of riders: disabled children, teenagers. Earlier this year, she completed a training that enables her to work with mentally ill adults.

Ludwar guides Talman’s group through exercises, a game or two — and then everybody sets out for a trail ride.

The group has made progress, Ludwar said, that continues to astonish her.

The four riders sit up straight and tall on their steeds. They walk and trot, gently using their reins and soft voices to guide Reiki, Buzz, Glassiada and Bandit around the ring and up the trail. Afterward, everybody gathers in a circle to talk about the experience.

“This gets them out of the clinical setting . . . here on the farm, things they need to talk about start coming out,” said Ludwar.

Transformation

She and Talman have watched the transformation happen over the summer. Hutchison, 40, is another example: He was a shy, frail man who had isolated himself, never visiting the Horizon Center.

Hutchison now rides Glassiada, a big white Andalusian horse, out at the ranch. He also comes to the center — to play the piano for friends there.

“I never knew he played piano,” Talman said.

And since another client plays the guitar, she put a band together and invited the rest of the people at the center that day to join in however they could.

It’s not so complicated, if you ask Talman. “I said, ‘Come on, let’s dance!’ These clients don’t have a lot of fun in their lives. And I’m all about fun.

“Everybody was dancing and clapping,” she said. “It was a fun moment.”

Talman also started what’s called spa day, a day when her clients give one another manicures, pedicures and facials.

“These are people who don’t get touched,” she said.

Talman also has built friendships with local businesses, whose owners donate services for her clients: Renaissance donates massages while the Angeles Academy of Hair and Nails provides haircuts.

And on spa day, a once-a-month thing now, the men and women treat one another with sweetness — just as they do at the Native Horsemanship Riding Center.

One of the men was very fearful of the horses at first, and so Treibel said to him, “Do you want me to help you? Here: Try this.”

Treibel, 36, now wants to give back by volunteering at the ranch, Talman added.

All of the Peninsula Behavioral Health clients are riding for free, thanks to Ludwar’s gift of scholarships.

“This program is so needed,” Ludwar said. “I couldn’t turn them down.”

Talman also takes her clients on beach walks and hikes. As at the horsemanship center, they look after each other, helping each other over the rocks.

“Every day,” she said, “I see their kindness.”

She’s also seen her clients face their fears — and move through them to try something new.

Holding jobs

Several of Talman’s clients are now holding down jobs. As Peninsula Behavioral Health’s employment specialist, she helped them land positions at Goodwill, Safeway and on the lavender farms around Sequim.

Talman’s clients contend with an illness, she added, that can be as vicious as any physical ailment.

“But gosh darn it, they’re able to get up in the morning and go to work.”

Learning their interests

The key to working with her clients, Talman said, is simple. “I just look at each one as a person. I ask, ‘What do you like to do?’”

She has since learned that these men and women are artists, musicians and dancers, like the rest of us.

Ever since Talman was a girl growing up in Baldwin Park, Calif., she’s enjoyed a natural rapport with people like those she works with today.

“I’d be at a train station, and someone who was visibly mentally ill would come up and talk to me. At least now I’m getting paid for it,” Talman quipped.

Her background

Her hometown was, in her word, “ghetto-ish.” Talman got out by way of an academic scholarship to the University of Southern California; she earned a degree in psychology,and worked a variety of jobs in the Puget Sound area before coming out to the Olympic Peninsula. Before moving here for her position at Peninsula Behavioral Health two years ago, she worked for a decade as the family-community coordinator at Head Start in Aberdeen.

“She is very proactive; very passionate about what she does,” said Casey, who directs Peninsula Behavioral Health’s 96-member staff.

“It’s not easy working with chronically mentally ill people. Change is very gradual; it can be almost imperceptible. It takes really special people to work with that population.”

For Talman, it’s a matter of seeing the men and women not as “the mentally ill,” but as people, people who deserve to live with dignity — and among friends.

Last modified: October 01. 2012 2:57PM
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