Georgia Chrisikopoulou rebuilds her life after a rehabilitation scheme co-funded by the European Social Fund.
“I think that talking about my life will help other people,” says Georgia Chrisikopoulou simply. “I used to be very negative. I would not accept that I was ill and I didn't want to ask for help. I still know people who won't take the doctors seriously.”
As a result of mental illness, Georgia, 36, has spent years in and out of hospital in her native Corfu, Greece. But since 2006, a far-sighted rehabilitation scheme has helped her move out of residential care into her own flat, and to start work. It is run by the New Horizons Cooperative, co-funded by the European Union through the European Social Fund (ESF).
The cooperative is based in the heart of Corfu town, in a building where it also runs a café, its terrace shaded by orange trees. Students read and drink coffee at the tables. Casual customers might not glance twice at the tongue-in-cheek name of the establishment: Lunatico. And they might be unaware that the elegant buildings surrounding it – their iron gates thrown open – were the former Corfu secure mental hospital, the oldest in Greece, now converted into university departments.
Onset of illness
Georgia is part of a team of gardeners tending the surrounding flower beds and lawns, all dressed in grey overalls and caps. Her story is one of hardship and courage. The eldest of three children, Georgia remembers her parents treating her harshly. “I was too young to understand if I was doing something naughty,” she says. “I was shown no love until I was much older.” At 12, she began to lose her hair, and was diagnosed with psychiatric problems. By 17, she was pregnant, and attempted suicide. Despite her parents' opposition, she left school, got married, and went to live with her husband's parents. But the marriage was not a happy one. The couple started to drink heavily and take drugs, and he became violent.
By the age of 24, Georgia was seriously ill. “I started hearing voices, and I thought I was cursed. I imagined that the television was speaking to me, and that I had telepathic abilities. I could not tolerate my child, and took everything out on him and my family – I was fighting with everyone. I wanted to kill myself.”
Finally, she went back to her mother and father, and from that time on, relations improved. “In the end, it was my parents who saved me,” she acknowledges. She started, unwillingly at first, to take medication, but tells how she still heard her husband's voice in her head, threatening her. She left Corfu and went travelling, ending up in Stuttgart where she worked in bars and clubs. “It was more nightmare than night work,” she recalls bitterly. She suffered from eating disorders and got into debt. Exhausted, she returned home. But as her condition worsened she still refused to believe she was sick.
In 2002, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, but her husband came to take her out. “He was being quite nice in the beginning,” she recalls, “but he soon returned to his old ways.” In 2005, Georgia finally realised that she could not get better on her own. Two events played a crucial role: her younger brother Prokopis was killed in an accident, and on Christmas Eve, her father died of a heart attack. Georgia resolved to find a healthier life.
She returned to hospital, and a year later transferred to the rehabilitation programme. For six months she lived in a hostel at Thinalion. And in October 2006 she was well enough to move to a protected flat with another patient, Corinna Mouzakiti. She also started to work for the cooperative's gardening and environmental team.
“I love everything about the job. It has changed my life completely,” she says, “especially the planting. I have always enjoyed gardening – I like being close to nature. In the evening when I'm watching television I miss it. I would rather be working.” Yet she has to be careful. “Hot weather gives me trouble in my head,” she admits. She has to stop and take a break. The team leaders understand this and avoid giving her the toughest tasks. “Georgia is very proud, and she tries hard,” says her social worker Helena Moshat. A team of professionals monitors her progress, and she can call for round-the-clock help from her own doctor.
New Horizons has 70 employees, including 45 patients who work alongside the other staff. As well as the café and the environmental team, they run a cleaning service, a car park and a restaurant and bar named Dusk, in Corfu town. Set up in 2005, the cooperative has grown from ten people to 183 voting members, 98 of them patients. The governing board always includes at least two former inmates.
The environmental team has a contract with the local authority. Dmitris Vlachos, the team supervisor, is proud of the fact that it offers a professional and competitive service. “Our customers are very happy with the work,” he confirms. “We teach our staff to do a good job.” All the workers have training – to handle the power tools, for instance – and wear full safety protection. Georgia starts every morning at 8 am, sometimes travelling by minibus with her workmates to more distant locations. She earns €500 a month for four or five mornings a week, plus the support she gets through the health services, while the flat she shares is rent-free.
“We don't tell clients that some of our workers are patients,” explains Thanasis Papavlasopoulos, a social economy expert who helped to set up the cooperative. “We don't want any of them stigmatised, and you would find it difficult to tell who the people with problems are. Ten of them are already completely autonomous. You can see the difference the ESF project has made in four years,” he adds. “In 1997, there were 350 inmates in the hospital from all over the island. Now there are only 15 beds, for absolute emergencies. It's real progress. Reintegration is the most important thing, and our main aim is to give people an opportunity to work and enable them to be independent.”
An ongoing fight
Georgia herself has started to take up some of her old hobbies. She loves to cook and do embroidery, and used to paint and write music. “I always loved music. I once wanted to be a dancer,” she notes wistfully. She regularly visits her mother, brother and sister, and is close to her sister's two children.
She still has a daily battle to keep her life on track: she depends on medication three times a day. A few months ago her condition suddenly worsened again. “I felt very angry. I was screaming,” she explains. “I went to the doctor and asked for help, and we spent a month fighting to stop me going backwards... and it really is a fight.”
What keeps her going? “My character, as well as having a child,” she replies. “And I have a good family. I didn't want to hurt them.” Her son Antonis now lives in Athens with his father. They talk twice a week on the phone, but Georgia says their relationship would be better if he were not so far away. She is determined to get well enough to have a home of her own where her son can join her once again.