Join the club: How a Lafayette mother and son turned a lifelong mental health struggle into a haven for others

Clarice Gallegos and Brian Boswell

Clarice Gallegos spent too many years waiting for that dreaded knock on the front door — the one most parents fear.

“We found your son dead on the side of the road,” the police would say.

As the mother of a “problem” child — her cross to bear — she always expected the worst. Whether her son Brian was near or far, those tumultuous years never seemed to yield or pause. They only grew in intensity, compounding her worry and anxiety.

But that knock never came.

If Gallegos, 67, knew then what she knows now, she admits, “I probably could have done so much better as a mother, but I’m so over the guilt trip.”

Clarice Gallegos is direct and to the point. She has made peace with the past.

For 46-year-old Brian Boswell, the past still lingers, and there are unresolved issues he muses about.

But that hasn’t stopped this family from joining together and creating a safe haven, Focus Clubhouse, for individuals who suffer from mental illness like Boswell does.

When the Lafayette nonprofit opened its door at 904 General Mouton Ave. in January 2020, it became one of 300-plus clubhouses in 30-plus countries affiliated with Clubhouse International. It is the only one in Louisiana. Boswell credits the clubhouse in Miami for turning his life around. He was in his early 30s when he found sanctuary and responsibility there. “I grew up. I became an adult in Miami,” he says.

Before and even after he was diagnosed as schizophrenic and bipolar with post traumatic stress disorder, Boswell flirted with suicide. It was nothing for him to call 9-1-1 and threaten to swallow his whole bottle of medication. And then follow through.

Hacked up at times on alcohol and crack, and whatever drugs he could afford, Boswell was sometimes ready to turn in his life pass. And other times, all he wanted was a warm bed in a homeless shelter so he did not have to freeze to death while sleeping outside. Warmer weather was the main reason Boswell chose Florida as his next destination after South Carolina politely kicked him out with a one-way bus ticket there. He was also inspired to head to the Sunshine State because the New Orleans Saints were playing that year in the Super Bowl in Miami Gardens. “That was my mindset at the time,” he says. “I was going to watch the Saints in the Super Bowl.”

Prior to his journey to recovery, there were lots of heartaches and horrors, the kind that destroy many families. And for Brian Boswell, they began at such an early age.

Gallegos remembers one specific event that seemed to define a future that she, like so many parents, was not prepared to handle, let alone accept. It happened when Boswell was only about 5 or 6 years old. That day she had to nearly force him onto the school bus. Later that evening, he refused to change from his school clothes into his play clothes. And when Gallegos tried to discipline him for disobeying, her world immediately turned upside down. “That little sucker slapped the heck out of me,” she recalls. “And it really scared me.”

She remembers thinking: If he did that at age 5, what would he do at age 12 when he was bigger and stronger? For Gallegos, these early days were also scarred by a love-hate affair with Ritalin, which was prescribed for her son, and feeling helpless but upset when her hyperactive child was placed in special education classes simply because he was a slow learner. She was certain that schools passed him from grade to grade simply to get rid of the problem child. And it did not help matters that Boswell had apparently become keen enough to blame his bad behavior on forgetting to take his medication.

Her son was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, and Gallegos was unsure what impact the lack of oxygen had on his mental capacity and life. “No one knew about mental health issues in the 1980s, and there was no middle ground for slow learners,” she recalls.

For Boswell, his troubles — and pain — are deep-rooted in what his mother describes as “a horrific incident.” It occurred when he was about 7 years old. His parents were divorced then, and he was staying with his father at the time. It is the reason for his PTSD.

According to Gallegos, he had “the lighter” because he was probably stealing cigarettes from his father to smoke. Whatever the case, Boswell and some boys were playing, and then one boy poured gasoline on another. “Brian didn’t pour the gasoline, but he supplied the lighter,” Gallegos says. The little boy died.

“It changed my life,” Boswell says today. “Being a little normal kid, I was not understanding what just happened. I was not able to process it the right way.” The incident continues to haunt him, and nightmares only reinforce his anguish. “Something that’s traumatic changes you,” he continues. “You’re not normal afterwards.”

That tragedy compounded his self-esteem problems. “I hated myself throughout my life. I had trouble at school,” he says. “By the time I was 15, I was using cocaine and drinking alcohol at the same time.”

At 16, Boswell quit high school. Although he worked afterwards, he partied. “And I did every drug known faithfully to mankind except for heroin. I was always under the assumption that you had to use needles,” he says, noting his fear of needles.

Then, about a decade later in 2001, his dad, a Vietnam veteran, died of cancer. The loss devastated Boswell, who was close to his father.

As the years became decades, Gallegos tried desperately to help her son until she realized she’d been enabling him. 

She’d bought vehicles for him only to see them destroyed. There were countless nights she paid for hotels. She was never sure if he actually spent the nights there, or bought more drugs. There were the rehab stints she underwrote.

She always had an overwhelming sense of guilt, and thought she had to help him no matter what he did.

One day, she says, she got sick and tired of being sick and tired. “I didn’t know if he was going to live or die. I had no idea where the child was,” she says.

What she knew for certain was that she could not go on like this. So the next time he called, she lied and told him that she did not have any money to send him. “He knew I was lying,” she says.

But tough love had kicked in, and just like that, her son had lost his enabler.

“I got off the phone and cried and cried and cried,” Gallegos recalls. “I cried like a baby. But I couldn’t let him know.”

Her action definitely made an impact. “I didn’t hear from him after that for a long time,” Gallegos says.

Clarice Gallegos and Brian Boswell
Teachers treated Boswell, left, as a “problem child.” His struggle with mental health was compounded by trauma at an early age. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Joining the club

While the Miami clubhouse was not the first clubhouse model Boswell had encountered, it was the first that made him believe he could remain sober and drug-free, and have that life he really dreamed about. The clubhouse concept made him feel like he was no longer an outsider — no longer the odd man out. He had finally found his tribe.

“You’re not around ‘normal’ people,” Boswell says. “You’re around someone going around similar issues you’re dealing with every day of your life.”

Like in clubhouses across the globe, there are members of the Focus Clubhouse who have tried too long to fit into the so-called normal world. And it has brought them needless sorrow and pain.

“What I love the most is the gratitude that the members feel for the clubhouse,” says Gallegos, who serves as the clubhouse’s director. “They really enjoy their time there. It’s just a sense of accomplishment for me as well as them.”

Member Dawn Koch, 51, gets chills just talking about the powerful impact Focus Clubhouse has had on her life, and what it means being around like-minded individuals. “We all work together,” Koch says. “We’re like a family with one another.” And that means checking on one another, and caring about each other. “When I get in isolation, people worry about me,” Koch says. “I’ve tried to commit suicide three times.”

Now she looks forward to her days, and the camaraderie she feels with other members.

Diagnosed with depression at age 28, and bipolar affective disorder later, Koch wants the public to understand how important it is to have a safe haven where other members understand what they have gone through or are going through.

Family and friends, according to Koch, need to understand that little triggers can set individuals with mental illness off. That is why it is important to have the right diagnosis.

They have shared their stories, and aired their laundry, so the public can get a glimpse into their world and be able to better understand and help their own family members and friends who may have mental illness, or even themselves.

Gallegos dreams of the day when Focus Clubhouse has a larger building (it now has about 10 active members), and is able to help more individuals supplement their Social Security disability checks for mental illness with 15-20 hours of employment through a work transition program. She also wants to eventually build a garden where they can harvest their own food.

To donate to Focus Clubhouse (your donation can help with Uber rides so that members can get to and from the clubhouse daily), click here.

Most of all, their goal is to become an accredited clubhouse, which they estimate will take another two to four years. They’re in it for the long haul.

When Boswell decided he wanted to come home, he called and asked his stepfather, David, for permission to move back to Louisiana.

His mother remembers when he called her. “For some odd reason, I said yes,” she recalls. “I always blamed it on God.”

Coming home to Louisiana for her son meant finding the nearest clubhouse so he could remain on his road to recovery. But there were not any clubhouses in the state. And that was when Boswell made a big decision that changed everyone’s lives: “Well, I’m just gonna start one.”

At first, Gallegos was reluctant to embrace his venture. But when she saw that her son was serious, she came out of her recent retirement and joined him. The Louisiana clubhouse does not provide medical and clinical services, but members already have such providers. That does not stop Gallegos from urging everyone not to let stigmas hold them back from seeking help from professionals if they suspect they have a problem, whether it is a counselor, therapist or psychiatrist.

Looking back, Boswell acknowledges his life has been that fork in the road. “You can go the good way, or you can go the bad way. I went the bad way,” he says. But he has no regrets. “Personally, I wouldn’t change it for the life of the world,” he says. “I realize why God kept me around — for the clubhouse.” 

For member Koch, it is important the public understands who they are.

“People with mental illness are incredibly gifted people,” Koch says. “And if they find a place where they’re comfortable in order to get help when necessary, they are very capable and effective. Many of us work and continue to work, and are very good at what we do.”