Monday, March 2, 2020

Monday, March 2, 2020, National Women's Month: Coco's Essay "Yearning to Breathe Free"

Yearning to Breathe Free

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (people) are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that
among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (Declaration of

         What happens to those who suffer with mental illness in terms of upholding
that unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness? What happens when the
government turns a blind eye and continues to pass the buck onto another
sanction? Not my problem, too expensive to fix, not enough resources -
we have heard every excuse as to why we have yet to resolve the human
condition in a peaceful manner. Anxiously awaiting a time when justice
is no longer blind, and available for purchase to the highest bidder;
what chance does anyone have in truly pursuing happiness?

         According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI),
serious mental illness cost America $193.2 billon in lost earnings
per year.” The top two largest budgets items listed on the U.S. Debt
time clock are Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. Recent news
reports are stating both programs are doomed to face insolvency
by 2034. In other words, there will be no funds to pay out any
benefits to anyone. How can we fix it? Band aid fixes such as
raising the age, raising the cap, and adding additional qualifiers
are not a well-liked resolve amongst Americans.

Currently applications for both programs are hitting an
all-time high, and initial approval of benefits are hitting all-time
lows. According to blogger Chris with
“Out of those millions of applications received by the Social Security
Administration, only thirty percent are approved at the initial level
of the disability claim process.” That means that seventy percent
of all initial claims are denied! As a person who battles PTSD and
Major Depressive Disorder, I can say from personal experience
these denial letters only cause more damage to the already
suffering applicants. USA Today writer Mark Johnson wrote
in December that “In fiscal year 2016, 8,699 Americans died
on the disability insurance waiting list. That number rose to
10,002 in 2017.” Which begs to ask the question, will I be
just another wait list tragedy? I nearly killed myself on
multiple occasions, because like most suicidal Americans,
I felt the world would be better off and that no one really cared
anyway. Life would go on, my kids would be fine, and no one
would even notice I was gone. On good days I know this is far from
the case. This process of applying for aid leaves many like myself in
desperation, frustration, anxiety, and despair that our voices go unheard,
because our illness is invisible. This often results in acts of violence, self-harm,
hospitalizations/forced mental health holds (a.k.a a 51/50), and unfortunately
for many it ending in suicide.

I can recall without hesitation both times I was denied last year. Frantic calls
to the suicide prevention hotline. Panicked tears soaking my skin as if I had been
out in a terrible storm. Hospital visits and psychiatric holds had me feeling
imprisoned both physically and mentally. Feelings, thoughts, voices of memories
from my aggressor tormenting my already delicate mental state repeating…
protesting my freedom “No one will ever believe you. I will always win. No one wants
to hear your problems. Pull your tits up and get over it!” My first 51/50 that I ever
experienced; I was taken in handcuffs by the police from my residence. I was being
treated as if I were a criminal! Walked out, hands cuffed behind my back and
shamefully escorted through my community complex to the back of a squad car.
The whole-time police officers repeating, “you are not under arrest; this is just for y
our own safety.” Do my neighbors know that?! It certainly felt like I was being
arrested! I most certainly didn’t feel like I was being kept safe. It felt more like
this was to keep everyone else safe from me.

My next encounter was no better. Although the second time I was taken
in an ambulance from my therapist office. The restraints were an upgrade from
the handcuffs and at least I had a human being looking over me. It was much
more comfortable and less degrading to be in an ambulance rather than in
the back of a police car.

However, the locked mental health ward I was taken to, seemed like a
cruel punishment rather than a place for me to feel safe and heal from my
mental anguish. My intake felt as if I was being processed for a crime I never
committed. They checked my hair twice for lice. Stripped me of all my
belongings right down to my necklace. I was patted down, told to show my
naked body to a nurse to “check for scars and bruises”, and then handed two
hospital gowns to wear during the course of my stay. The room itself had
15 “beds,” no privacy, and a public phone mounted to the back of t
he room. I imaged that this would be, reminiscent of collect calls made
by inmates to the outside world. Hospital beds were more comfortable
than the roto molded hard plastic behavioral furniture I attempted
to sleep on. There was no mattress, a thin twin sized cover sheet,
a plastic pillow, and two thin sheets to use as blankets. Alongside
the bottoms of every “bed” dangled four metal hardness clips
just in case the unruly patient, oops I meant uncontrolled symptoms
required that the patient be strapped down. Is this really the best
our government can do to provide a “safe” environment that fosters
the pursuit of Happiness”? We need Congress and our Government
to step up and resolve these issues at its core. The mental health of
the Nation deserves more.
I am still waiting for the third time now; to hear from the
Social Security Administration about my application. After four different
Psychiatrists (simultaneously), multiple therapists, crisis counselors, and
even the social security workers at the main office who conducted my interview
say, “there should be no reason why you would be denied.” Yet here we are,
denied twice to receive disability benefits. Hopefully this third time is a charm
and I am able to receive the aide I so desperately need. In speaking with my
mental health care doctors, they are baffled why I was ever denied in the first
place. Indicating on my medical records that my condition is “severe,” has had
“multiple suicide attempts,” and “hospitalizations,” … I hope you get the picture.
I don’t think the burden of proof should fall on the applicant, especially those
who suffer from mental illness. I think it is the responsibility of the institution
(i.e. our government).In recent interviews with my medical health care professionals,
they all had the same response when it came to the process of applying
for Social Security:

           Huma, a Health Right 360 therapist, for an intensive outpatient program

the Department of Mental Health said; “I don’t think I have ever seen anyone get
approved right away on the first try. It usually takes two or three times before
someone gets approved.” Mary, a Kaiser Psychiatrist, recommended that I seek
legal counsel. “These people making these decisions aren’t even doctors, “she stated i
n efforts to assure me I wasn’t the only one that had ever faced this problem. “I see it
every day! Patients like you having to apply two, three times, get an attorney and
finally get approved.” Mary stated in frustration. What about the people who can’t
find an attorney? What about the people that just give up and end there lives
because they feel there is no other option?   

           To date, there are no national laws to protect the mental health and well
 being of its citizens. More importantly there is very little that protects the mental 
health of our workforce, students, children, and future leaders of tomorrow. How 
can any physical or tangible results be had without first looking to how our 
environments shape the world around us on a psychiatric level? As mass shootings, 
acts of violence, and suicides continue to soar what is being done to prevent these 
heinous acts from reoccurring? Stricter gun laws are not the resolve. Imprisonment, 
prosecution, locked wards and psych facilities also do very little if anything to deter 
potentially fatal outcomes.

           Prevention begins with acknowledging what is the root cause. In many of these 
unfortunate events, mental health issues and bullying were the key factors. Still, nothing
 has been done to grant the support and resources citizens need to maintain mental 
health awareness and preservation. State laws have done very little in making a 
significant difference within the mental health community. Something needs to be 
done at the Federal level across the U.S. as the preamble of the Constitution states;

          “…in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic 
Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, 
and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…” – U.S. Constitution

            It is this nation’s responsibility to care for the needs of the people, protect and 
uphold our Constitutional rights, our Civil rights, as well as our unalienable rights. 
Although in section one of the fourteenth amendment the language changes from 
“the pursuit of Happiness” to “life, liberty, or property” the whole premise of 
The Constitution was based off of the Declarations stand that our Government’s 
main charge is to secure our “Safety and Happiness”. It should be a crime to use 
psychological warfare, inflicting intentional emotional distress, as well as bullying 
both in the school systems and in the workplace.

            Many California schools have already adopted anti-bullying laws, as well 
as additional supportive accommodations in high level education. According to 
the New York Times “Studies show that hiring additional therapist helps keep 
students healthy and enrolled, which can be a good return on investment for 
an institution.” As someone who personally battles mental health issues and 
attends college, I cannot thank the staff, the educators, the councilors, 
disabled student services, and my supportive college community enough.
School gives me a sense of purpose and something I look forward to on a day 
to day basis. However, my illnesses do not always permit me to function in a 
normal classroom setting like everyone else, which in itself causes anxiety. 
That inner feeling of it isn’t fair to everyone else. Something I have come to 
learn is that creating a better, more comfortable environment to learn and 
work in benefits not only myself but the entire classroom as well. Since 
admitting my disabilities to myself, and getting help from disabled student services, I
 have found a new safe place for me to learn, grow, and share my talents with others. 

          In this modern everything at your fingertips society, why is it so difficult to put 
something together? We can face time our friends and family from the security of our 
homes, but we can’t seek help without leaving our safe environments. What is
preventing additional training across this internet surfing society? Instead of creating
an app to virtually drink a beer on your phone screen, how about more apps like
“Calm” and “Headspace “that teaches mental health techniques.  A how to interact
with a bully app or a therapy app. Come on millennials I know you want it. Apps for
educators, business people, students that can all link to the same source for gaining
knowledge, skills, and training about mental health awareness.

        Greg Eells, director of counselling and psychological services at Cornell
University went on to state “If your tuition is $50,000 a year and your counseling
budget is 1 million, your counselling center doesn’t have to retain that many students
to make up that cost.”  Further evidence that proves a happier, healthier mental state
of being impacts not just the individual but the whole of their community as well as
the economy. What happens however when not all of the college staff are trained
efficiently in handling these new mental health, or disabled student accommodations?
In this “trigger warning” based society it can have serious ramifications not only to the
disabled student but to the class and the educator as well. Drawing from personal
experience when I was called out in front of my class by an educator who chose
not to abide by ADA standards, and ignored the Classroom Accommodations Plan
set in place ended up in a very heated conversation that resulted in getting
Disabled student services involved.

       It went from zero to one hundred quicker than a Thanos snap! I could feel the fire 
behind my eyes as I tried desperately to keep my inner Hulk from surfacing. 
Contemptuous banter back and forth between myself and the educator about the 
nature of my disability and dismissing my needs by stating: “we need to protect 
the computers”. This sent my fight or flight mode into overtime by my sending back; 
“just because you aren’t educated properly in how to respectfully treat persons 
with disabilities. I am going to report you to Disabled Student Services!” My
statement, meaningless to her feelings of being the one in power and that I should
just abide by her rules disdainfully remarked; “you do what you have to.”
Her comment was like pouring gasoline on the already raging fire inside of me.
Destructive, spiteful rage with thoughts of destroying every monitor and computer
station with my chair. Thoughts of strangling her to death in front of the entire class
with no sense of remorse whatsoever. In my mind she attacked me first and her
untimely death would have occurred in my self-defense. Words are powerful
destructive nuclear bombs within the mind. Those unknowing that they pushed
the wrong button, the wrong time, broke the last straw that held their sanity together.
Mr. Biehn an Ithica College student describes his lowest moments to the New York
Times as; I’m basically dead to the world, even though there’s just enough breathing
going on to call me alive.” This is a feeling many others who struggle with mental
disorders shared in their stories of what life is like going to with an invisible disease.

    NAMI shared the following Key Mental Health Statistics on their website:  


It is estimated that 90% of people who die by suicide show symptoms
of a mental health condition. – We have the ability to reduce our
debt, keep generating this benefit, help the economy all from fixing what we
have negated to acknowledge since our forefathers wrote it into law, but we
ignored this most essential right in pursuit of personal gain. It is most
eloquently stated in  Emma Lazarus’ poem The New Colossus:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

    Who do we turn to for protection from ourselves?  
    When, if ever, will any of us truly “breathe free”?

© 2020 Coco

Bio: Coco is a Pasadena poet, public speaker, and performance artist. Her work 
is born of trauma and overcoming medical impossibilities. Writing is her secret to 
enduring. Coco is the author of Unicorn Psychosis, a collection of poetry, and has
 been published in Lummox 8, the Altadena Poetry Review (2019), Spectrum, and 
through Animal Heart Press. Coco is Spectrum Publishing’s Historian, Los Angeles 
Poet Society’s Archivist, Askew Lit co-host, and Fall 2019 INSCAPE Director of 
Operations – Chief Consulting Editor. Coco also loves being a mother, mentor, 
and mental health advocate.

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