Monday, October 22, 2012

Cathy Coone-McCrary's Voice

Dear Governor Romney,

I didn’t have my father’s stocks to sell in order to pay for college. But I still paid my own way, working as a waitress, among other jobs, in addition to being awarded numerous scholarships. In less than four years, I graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and was accepted into a straight-PhD-track program in English at the University of Georgia. While there, I won a teaching award, mentored new teaching assistants, and passed my oral exams with distinction. By age 29, I had earned my PhD.

Surely by now you have concluded that I cannot possibly be one of the 47%, that I could not possibly be a victim who takes no responsibility for her life. Well, people are not percentages, and the truth is always infinitely more complicated. 

At age 13, I considered suicide for the first time. When I was sixteen, I looked very seriously at a bottle of Drano and considered drinking it—a death, I recently learned, that would have been excruciating. In college and graduate school and then throughout my thirties and into my forties, I continued seeing suicide as the ultimate escape route: an ejection from a burning ship into outermost darkness. I do not exaggerate when I say that over the past 32 years of my life I have considered suicide thousands—yes, thousands—of times. 

Have you ever considered suicide, Governor Romney? If so, then you know all too well what suicidal depression feels like, its fingernails-being-ripped-out-of-their beds agony. But if you don’t know what it’s like, Governor Romney, please allow me to explain. It begins like an avalanche, without warning. You’ll wake up one day terrified of the world, galled by its white bright light and its sound of emptiness. You’ll lose twenty pounds, the weight will just fall off you, and you won’t be able to find where it went, or why, except that food will be tasteless and you just won’t care. You’ll hear death in the next room shuffling his papers and you’ll wonder when he’ll come in the bathroom for you; you’ll think it’s all your fault, if you would just try hard enough, if you would just stop being a victim and, for God’s sake, take some responsibility, stop being one of “those” people, buck up, stop being so damned lazy when the rest of the world has it way worse. 

Eventually you’ll go from wanting to die to thinking about how to. You will weigh the advantages and disadvantages of how to kill yourself, because you will not want to come back, you will not want to fail. Somewhere in the darkness you will wonder how you will look when you're found in your bath tub, and whether your face will be so swollen and disfigured that the one who finds you will not be able to recognize you, but at the moment you ask that question, you will have concluded that those you leave behind will be better off without you, that your death will destroy those you love but that they will move on and live happily ever after with another. A state like that is not exactly conducive to paying one’s federal income taxes, Governor Romney.

For the last fifteen years I have been in treatment. For the first ten of those fifteen years, I was not diagnosed correctly; it wasn’t until 2008 that I learned I have Bipolar II, a mood disorder characterized mostly by depression, but also by other mood irregularities called hypomanias and mixed states. To this day I am still working on finding the right cocktail of medications (yes, a full fifteen years after starting treatment), all the while dutifully going to therapy, week after week, trying to clean my head out, trying to let the light in. I wish I could have been treated overnight in an ER, Governor Romney, but Bipolar II just isn’t that easy to fix.

And yet I’m one of the lucky ones: my husband has always had health insurance, and he is a very good man. Even so, my thirties, when I first started getting treatment, were the lost years, in which I could never feel safe, could never know for sure if I was going to stay alive or not, whether there was anywhere in the world for me. Still I managed to continue pursuing my passion for writing, while working at a series of low-paying jobs (for which, you may suspect, I paid little in the way of federal income taxes). I so desperately wanted to do something, wanted to make some kind of contribution—and yet I still continued to struggle with the constant water boarding of depression, the old demon of suicide. My biggest fear? That my husband would die or leave me and I would end up homeless, forever condemned, forgotten, a victim, lazy, irresponsible, for whom the solution was to just get a job and pay my federal income taxes. And my plan, such as it was? I decided I would somehow get to Hawaii and survive on the beaches there. I knew that at least I wouldn’t freeze to death there.

But this isn’t a story that ends in despair. It is a story that rises. It is a story that rises because I have refused to give up, Governor Romney—I have always said that I will take down this disease before it takes me down, and I have always felt that there was a reason for my existence in this world. What is that reason, you may ask? Well, it’s pretty basic: to help others. My job in life is to educate the public about serious mental illness, so I tell my story to anyone who will listen and I teach others like me how to tell their own stories. Yes, it isn’t the kind of work that will ever, very likely, allow me to build elevators for my numerous cars, not the kind of work for which I will pay much in the way of federal income taxes, but at least I know what it is to see people as people, not numbers, and to elevate them.

Cathy Coone-McCrary

Cathy Coone-McCrary earned a PhD in English from the University of Georgia in 1997; her dissertation, a collection of poetry, is entitled Counting Down Our Small Time. She has been published in national magazines, including The Greensboro Review and The Southern Poetry Review. Since 2007, she has worked with the National Alliance on Mental Illness as a speaker in NAMI’s program In Our Own Voice. NAMI was started in 1979, with the mission of providing education, support, research, and advocacy to individuals with serious mental illnesses and their family members. NAMI’s website is, where there is a listing of state affiliates as well. The hotline number there is 1-800- 950-NAMI (6264).