Elizabeth F. set her purple golf ball down on the eighth hole at the Spring Rock Miniature Golf Center in New Hyde Park. "I don't like this hole," she said with mock dismay.
Directly in the ball's path was an obstacle: a rock making it impossible to shoot a straight hole in one. But Elizabeth's competitors on this sunny fall afternoon encouraged her, and she took the first swing.
This eighth hole is, in a way, a metaphor for the challenges that face Elizabeth, 28, who lives in Flushing, and her fellow players. Each of them is recovering from a mental illness -- a boulder that has thwarted their abilities to easily navigate the path others travel smoothly.
But through the Friendship Network of NAMI Queens/Nassau -- NAMI being the National Alliance on Mental Illness -- they've found each other. The Friendship Network (friendshipnetwork.org) offers social activities on weekends that are planned and staffed by Friendship Network employees -- miniature golf, tennis, bowling, square dancing, trips to Broadway shows. There's a schmooze group that meets some weeknights to chat. Some members have invited new network friends to their homes for barbecues and have even gone skydiving with them. Still others, through the group, have found love and married.
"I'm now dragging myself out of bed, taking a shower and socializing," said Elizabeth, who has a bachelor's and a master's degree in linguistics from the University at Buffalo. "That might seem really small, but for someone who has bipolar disorder, that's huge. Now I've done something to help myself. This provides built-in events for me to be able to do that, even in the darkest of winter."
The light in that winter was kindled by Alice Cohen, 86, of East Meadow. Cohen founded the Friendship Network nearly 25 years ago and still runs the group, which now has a roster of more than 200 members from Long Island, New York City and New Jersey. She was on the mini-golf course along with Elizabeth and two dozen others.
"I breathe this," Cohen said of the network. "This is my whole life."
FROM BLURB TO BLOOM
Cohen launched the Friendship Network in 1991, when she was in her early 60s. Her son struggled with mental illness, and Cohen attended a NAMI support group for families. She learned how isolated many adults with mental illness feel. "Lonely is not the word," she said. "They only thing they have is their doctor and television."
She approached NAMI about forming a matching service for people stable enough to socialize. "They looked at me like I was a little meshuggeneh," Cohen said. "I said, 'Give me a chance.' I put a little blurb in our newsletter." Soon The New York Times wrote a feature story about the network, originally called the Friendship Exchange, painting it as a dating service, a pre-computer era Match.com.
Cohen initially paired applicants from her home; she was living in New Hyde Park and working part time in a furniture store. She took over one of her grown children's bedrooms and would screen people by phone. "I would go by age, by the way they spoke to me," she said. "I had a gift for matching."
As the program got bigger and progressed to add group events, Alice's late husband, Cliff, who used to say Cohen was doing God's work on earth, told her it was either him or the Friendship Network in their house. NAMI then gave Cohen an office in its Lake Success headquarters (516-326-6111).
Cohen now receives a part-time salary and is helped by Nancy Schlessel, a social worker, and Barbara Garner, who plans the group outings. The network operates on a shoestring, Cohen said. It charges a one-time $28 application fee, and annual dues of up to $250 per person, calculated on a sliding scale depending on ability to pay, and subsidizes many group events. Mini-golfing, for instance, was $7 per person, and each participant paid for a Chinese dinner afterward.
When Cohen redid her will recently, her three children urged her to form a fund to allow people who couldn't afford to join the network to attend events. "She really did this as her legacy," said Cohen's daughter Lynda Kreitzer, a podiatrist in upstate Fayetteville. Cohen also has five grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.
'HELPFUL FIRST STEP'
Friendship Network members must submit letters from their psychiatrists giving them the OK to join. They must be living in the community, taking their medication, and working or volunteering in a program. But socializing is also a part of their recovery.
"Often individuals who are struggling with mental illness feel perhaps inhibited or uncomfortable in terms of social relationships," said Dr. John Kane, a psychiatrist and senior vice president for behavioral health for the North Shore-LIJ Health System. "Some psychiatric illnesses might affect a person's sense of confidence, sense of optimism about reaching out to people and making new friends. This is very helpful as a first step."
But because there is a stigma that remains regarding mental illness, some network members who were interviewed requested their full names not be published. Cohen doesn't probe for details about a member's illness; she leaves that to their mental health professionals, like Kane. "We're strictly social," she said. And yet, Cohen provides nurturing for the members.
"She's my emotional support," said Mark R., 56, of Brentwood. "She always wants to listen, wants to know how you're doing. She's not my family, but she's almost like family to me."
Cohen also helps break the ice for newbies. "The first time I was so anxious, I sat in the parking lot thinking, What am I going to do? What if they reject me?" Elizabeth recalled. "The people who run this -- especially Alice -- will make sure that you are not uncomfortable. They'll just grab somebody and say, 'Let's talk to this person. Let me introduce you.' "
The members say the socializing is invaluable. "It allows me to have a group of friends who understand the situation I'm in because they're in the same situation," said Ira F., 51, of Bayside. "It allows me to go out and be comfortable with myself."
At least two members were so comfortable with each other, they married. It was Cohen who suggested M. and J. might be a good friendship match. "I was so nervous. I was shaking," M. said about the first time she met J. Both were diagnosed with bipolar disorder. "He said, 'Why are you nervous? I'm not going to hurt you.' That touched me. I said, 'This guy is going to be something special in my life.' We talked about our illnesses; we talked about work. We got married a year and a half later."
Cohen attended the couple's wedding -- M. and J. have been married 23 years. "I think she's selfless," M. said of Cohen. "She's not a therapist or a doctor or a social worker, but she's helped a lot of people."
Back on the mini-golf course, some network members were wrapping up their competition. "It's about one thing," Elizabeth said of her game, "beating Eric."
Eric, 23, of Woodbury, wasn't even born when Cohen started the network -- something they both joke about. "I think she's amazing, how she's brought people who really need friends together, giving them a little push to move forward," said Eric, who has anxiety issues.
Cohen hurries the players along, so the group can make it to their scheduled dinner. She said she has no intention of ever leaving the organization she started so many years ago.
"Why should I?" she declared. "What am I going to do? Play bingo?"