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The Living Room: Helping anyone feeling troubled or overwhelmed confidentially and for free

DeKALB – Annette Halbmaier of Sycamore was walking out of the Circle K gas station convenience store when a man walked up to her and gave her a hug.

“He was saying thank you, thank you, and I had to take a step back and ask him who he was,” Halbmaier said. “He said, ‘You were in The Living Room the night I was and I talked to you. I’m alive right now because of you because before going into The Living Room, I planned on leaving the earth. I planned on committing suicide, and because of The Living Room, I didn’t.’ ”

The man promises that every time he sees Halbmaier around town, he’ll hug her and say thank you for helping save his life.

The Living Room, which is housed within Northwestern Medicine’s Ben Gordon Center, is an acute crisis program for adults. There is no charge to visit The Living Room, and all services are free and confidential.

The Living Room has been open for about seven years and has been at its current location for five.

It is a safe, comfortable, non-clinical space for adults experiencing overwhelming symptoms due to life circumstances. The goal of the program is to provide a calm, safe environment in which guests can resolve crises without more intensive intervention.

Every person that comes to The Living Room is greeted by a peer support specialist – staff who have experience with mental illness or substance abuse and can provide crisis intervention and support.

Barb Paulson has been a peer support specialist for about three years and Harold Drake for about two years. Paulson is studying to become a certified recovery specialist and Drake is studying to become an addiction counselor.

“What makes The Living Room different is that we’ve had problems, life experiences, battled mental illness or addiction and we can relate,” Drake said. “We want to offer hope and strength and courage. We know it takes a lot of courage to just walk in through the door.”

Paulson describes The Living Room as “help and a safe space for the community.”

“We have resources available for [Alcoholics Anonymous], housing, food, shelter, clothing, therapy and counseling,” she said. “We want to take the stigma away from mental illness. We want to emphasize that they are a person, they are not their disease or illness.”

Before the pandemic, as many as 60 people visited The Living Room a month and visitors could play games, color and look at magazines while talking with others about their difficulties. Since the pandemic started, fewer people are allowed in the room at once and mask wearing and social distancing are enforced.

“It’s a place where anyone can go with or without a problem or situation where they can talk and share experiences,” Halbmaier said. “Some people sit and listen and don’t say a word. Others, like me, can sit and talk for hours. There’s not a topic that can’t be talked about.”

Kathy Lueken, a licensed clinical social worker and director of crisis and admissions at the Ben Gordon Center, described The Living Room as “the place you go to when you don’t know what to do.”

“It’s where you can feel safe, vent to someone and be listened to,” Lueken said. “It’s hope for people that feel like what they’re going through is hopeless. We help give you resources and show you a way out of a dark situation. We also teach coping skills, like how to take deep breaths and calm down.”

Lueken said she worries because the number of visitors has gone down since the pandemic started.

“People are going through a lot right now with health, money, employment and isolation,” Lueken said. “Those are all big problems. We’re here and available to help anybody going through a difficult time. Reach out and we’ll do what we can to help. If we can’t help or provide a service, we’ll link you to other agencies and facilities that can.”

Halbmaier said that she will continue to visit The Living Room three to five times a week because “it really does help and make a difference.”

“The Living Room saved that man’s life and it saved me, too,” Halbmaier said. “I’m sure there’s many more people out there that have been saved and will be saved because of The Living Room.”

The Living Room is located inside the Ben Gordon Center, 12 Health Services Drive in DeKalb. It is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information, call 815-756-4875. The 24-hour crisis helpline is 866-242-0111.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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