Two weeks ago I gutted my soul, catfish-like, in these very pages ("A Beautiful Mind's Uncertain Future," May 5)in the process becoming Tennessee's Mental Illness Poster Child. I've never been a poster child before. It has its merits. It has its miseries. I never know from hour to hour (heck, minute to minute) if I'm going to cry, and if the tears are from the joy of touching a stranger's life, or from a kindness pressed into my soul so firmly it actually hurts. Or from the reality sinking inby summer's end, I may be sweating more than the humidity calls for; I may have a letter from the state of Tennessee: Dear Enrollee, We regret to inform you that due to state budget limitations...
But as of May 16, I don't see much regret around Capitol Hill. So when that letter shows up in my mailbox, I guess I'll have to be ready. (But first, I'll cuss.) I'll have a regular, full-time job, so as not to be a burden on the rest of the taxpaying Tennesseans. I'll work for a company that provides a health care plan for its employees. I will discover that at many companiesnot just Wal-Martthere are full-time employees who can't afford to pay the premiums for the company's insurance policy, so they're on TennCare.
Suppose the Scene said, "Bernie's been floatin' around here for 16 years? Hey, we need a janitor. Put her on the payroll." I'd have to pony up for those premiums, tooand lucky for me, it's just me. No self-employed, freeloading husband; no snot-nosed, soccer-playing, arm-breaking kids to worry about. Just me and my high-dollar psychopharmaceuticals habit.
Oh, wait. Upon closer inspectioninvolving a few frustrating phone calls to someone in a cubicle in Sioux FallsI learn that my "pre-existing condition" precludes my participation in the employee health care plan. "Been hospitalized?" the bodiless voice asks. "What, did you have a bad case of the flu? What's that you say? Two psychiatric admissions? Gee...let me look...I'm sorry. We don't cover psychiatric. And we're unable to issue a regular policy with that pre-existing condition. But we do have a catastrophic policy available for high-risk individuals such as yourself."
And it's about a kajillion dollars a month, give or take, to insure myself against a major medical crisis, like if I were the Wacked-Out Witch of the West and a house fell on top of me. (There'd be a $1,000 deductible, of course.) That's how it feels, like the tornado is whirling, the house is spinning down, and it's aiming straight for me. Soon my little booted feet will stick out from under, and they'll shrivel up and I'll be done for.
Or, we'll have a car wash. And a bake sale. And a benefit concert. I have lots of friends in the music biz, and I'm sure they'd rent the Ryman for me, load the stage with luminaries and pass the buckets. Cash for the crazy girl. Keep her out of the nuthouse for just a year, 'til we figure out what to do next. She's the poster child, for cryin' out loud. The voice of the SPMIs, the Severely and Persistently Mentally Illthe Spammies. The girl can write. The girl can talk. Let her have her meds, and she'll rescue the rest of the 30,000.
A couple weeks ago, I was listening, as is my habit, to Teddy Bart's Round Table, where they talk about TennCare just about every dang dayactual civil discourse, no lessand my editor's the special guest and no one brings it up. I wait until almost the very last minute of the two-hour show, and while they yak about the governor's new blog and Sen. Frist's new church membership, I fire off a slightly pissy email to co-host Karlen (marked "confidential," since it wouldn't be proper to have her read on air, "Hey, are ya gonna talk about my story or what?"). I mention that they talk about TennCare just about every dang day, and I wonder why, when the Scene editor has a great story on the cover of the paper that very weekwhy did they choose this day not to mention TennCare, not even a peep? Especially (I do not mention this in my email, either, which fortunately bounces back) since the very next day I am going to Capitol Hill with the advocacy people to lobby the legislators, maybe even the governor himself, should God and the governor's staff allow. The very politicos who never miss a day (so I like to imagine) of this intelligent, highly regarded radio broadcast might have heard, might have been moved to think...but, alas, no.
I feel like a third-grader who didn't get what she wanted for her birthday. At this point, I don't even care so much that it's my story (bullcrap); I just want the issue discussed. There are 30,000 people headed for psych units, jails and God knows what because the little pills will stop coming in the little plastic jars. And the people who don't take them don't know, and don't understand, that we are S.C.R.E.W.E.D. I cussed at the radio. I yelled, and, yes, there were tears. (How 'bout them swingin' moods?)
I don't know whether to be hacked off at Teddy Bart or God or the governor. For an hour or so, I'm not feeling so warm and fuzzy about my editor, either. (What? She couldn't have said, "Hey, everybody, shut the hell up about John Fordisn't our cover story fabulous? Do I know how to pick writers or what?") It would appear the emotional rollercoaster wheels are leaving the track. Everything's going to be all right, I know. I keep saying that to myself, to others. Everything's going to work out.
Don't worry, my 30,000 Brethren and Sistren of the Psych Unit Wristband. Your Mental Illness Poster Child will take care of it for you. Nashville's Best-Lovedheck, Tennessee's Best-LovedManic-Depressive is on the job, at the wheel. I won't let you down. I'll march right up there to Gov. Phil's office and look him right in the Yankee eye and give it to him straight: gov'nuh, yuh pays now or yuh pays later. Bite the bullet, chief. Do the right thing. Your governorship, there's something special about this potential Protected Class: we have a chance of getting better. Way worse, too. Some of us will die if we get dumped from the program. That 10 to 15 percent bipolar suicide rate is pretty creepy.
But some of us, if we continue on with the treatment we have now, will get stronger and more stable and more productive. We'll be better able to do the things you need us to do to make this a great state. We'll get off your TennCare rolls. There are great success stories too, as some people find stability, get off TennCare and make great contributions to society (and the tax base). Yes sir, I've heard that, for every five people with mental illness in a jail or a hospital, there's one who's in an office, on their meds, doing great things. Maybe even in your office, governor. Have you asked? (Don't. It's illegal. But you knew that.)
Yes, we could relapse. Then again, even you could have a health crisis of some kind that could take you out for a while, something that might eat up all your sick days. We don't know how many good days we're given, any of usnot even the marathoner or the brain surgeon. It's not up to us.
But some things are up to us. I spend a lot of time waiting in the mental health clinic. I watch overweight people stick dollar bills in the great big Coke machines and chug 20 ounces of colored water with 12 teaspoons of sugar and caffeine enough to give their Prozac a whackto wash down their Snickers bar and M&Ms.
We can't legislate healthy lifestyles. I don't understand food issues, the same way some people don't get my mood swings. But I know from experience that my mental health has a fighting chance if I do certain things in addition to taking those precious meds: get rest; exercise; eat right; sleep; breathe fresh air; pray; meditate; contemplate your navel; contemplate someone else's navel; cut back on TV. I go to support groups: DBSA (Depression/Bipolar Support Association) has been in Nashville for 16 years, and there's a meeting somewhere in town, several times a week (www.dbsa.org). It's a lifeline, knowing you're not alone. There's nothing like the camaraderie of shared suffering.
Make us accountable, governor. Don't let us get our meds until we sign off on a treatment plana real one, not just, "I promise not to slice my wrists unless I warn you first." This stuff is expensive, Mr. Bredesen. You know that, I know that. Yes, we need the drugs. But if we don't take care of the rest of ourselvesthe mind-body-spirit connectionthen we're just hooked up to the machine. And that's no way to live.
Be a hero. Save the 30,000 Tennesseans like me who will hit the skidsfastwithout mental health care. And save the state from paying the fiscal consequences of all of us showing up in your emergency rooms, psych units, jails and morgueswhich will cost more than keeping us at status quo. You'd better keep an eye on us, governor. Take it from the poster child: there's no telling what we'll do. We're crazy.
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