Never Leave a Man Behind

The following are excerpts from Pete Feigal’s keynote speech from the Mental Health Parity fundraising event June 15th, 2007 in Philadelphia. Rep. Patrick Kennedy and Martin Sheen were the guests of honor, with Sen. Ted Kennedy participating by videophone.

Thank you for the honor of spending this time with you. I’m not a psychiatrist or psychologist; all my degrees are “honorary.” But I am a mental health professional as I’ve personally battled mental illness for 35 years. Technically, with the speaking I do around the country, I am a mental health ambassador or spokesperson. Personally, I like to think of myself as a kind of “mental health male centerfold.” But in reality, I guess what I’ve become is a Professional Mentally Ill Person.

A few years ago I had the chance to speak to the governor of Minnesota, who shall remain nameless … Jesse “The Body” Ventura. Governor Ventura had just said some “uneducated” things to the media about people with mental illness, so I reminded him about the NAVY Seals. Governor Ventura is justifiably proud of his connection to the Navy SEALS.

The SEALs’ greatest point of pride is not their combat abilities or toughness but that they never leave a wounded or killed comrade behind. Having the confidence that they will not be abandoned, that they will somehow make it home, is one of the keys to why the SEALs perform with such distinction and bravery. The SEALs have learned the greatest, almost paradoxical, secret of valor: that you fight hardest for each other, that you must never forget or be unworthy of each other, that the bond that truly unites people is not toughness or a common foe, but love.

I have multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease of the central nervous system that is destroying my body—crippling my legs and blinding my eyes. And I have depression, a disease of the brain that makes me feel despair, and alone and afraid. But when I compare the two, it’s not even close. My MS is a piece of cake. Going blind is tough, but not unbearable.

Mental illness is hard. People ask how going blind can be easier than depression. I tell them that my MS is a “politically correct” disease that is only destroying my central nervous system. But mental illness (MI), that’s something that goes after your soul. Even with the medical breakthroughs about MI, it still comes with a stigma, a myth, a prejudice, a lie. Beyond the unbelievable suffering the disease brings, there is the additional burden that somehow it’s not a real disease, that the fault lies with the person himself, that it’s his or her own fault, that it is his inherent weakness, laziness and flaws of character that are responsible.

With my MS, even on the worst day when I can’t get out of bed (and I was an athlete), or recognize my own mother’s face (and I was a professional artist), I still feel connected with family and friends. I’m still “Pete.” With the depression, I felt totally alone, deserted not only by man but by God. I believed that everything I said was stupid and trivial, that I was deformed and ugly. I couldn’t hold a job, make a friend or date a girl. I couldn’t see color, hear music or tell day from night. As Jim Morrison of The Doors sang: “I’ve been down so long, it looks like up to me.” I cried what millions of people with brain disorders have cried: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That is the essence of mental illness.

Millions of wounded Americans—family members, neighbors and friends—are being “left behind.” They are wounded by physical brain disorders like depression, bi-polar, schizophrenia, OCD and anxiety disorders. Many who suffer do so in silence, afraid or unable to seek care because of the uneducated judgment connected to this disease, or because of inequities within the health care system. As one mental health professional once tearfully put it, “They come to us in flames and we treat them for sunburn.”

As someone who battles two chronic illnesses, I’m someone who knows the importance of health insurance. Know it even more intimately because of its absence; over the last two years, I’ve become one of the 50 million Americans without health insurance. And I want to thank the insurance companies for giving me what I so desperately needed, another character builder! I’ve learned that to get effective help for my depression, I have to be either wealthy or destitute.

I was proud to have Senator Paul Wellstone as a friend.

Paul Wellstone, from the suffering within his own family, understood the chronic nature of these illnesses. He knew that there had to be something besides the “revolving door” treatments where no real healing can take place. These illnesses need long care, advanced medicine and much love and patience. People need to understand that the most terrible side-effect of these diseases is how our SPIRITS are broken, and how we feel damaged and toxic, with nothing to offer the world.

The Parity bill that Paul and Senator Dominici first put together addresses the cruel inequities and additional financial crises that come when insurance does not share the cost of care. These illnesses of the brain, because of their complexity, have been the hardest to treat and the slowest to be understood. They have been shrouded in mystery and dread since the Dark Ages. We with these illnesses and our families know that we judge political success not by what we’ve been given, but by what we haven’t had taken away. The way people with mental illness have been treated in this country for almost 300 years is still one of the last, evil bastions of unaddressed discrimination in America. We rarely get a fair word or a fair fight, but the Parity Bill offers the chance for both. It’s an exciting time, not unlike the Civil Rights struggles of the ’50s and’60s.

Note: Next month, we’ll print more excerpts from Feigal’s speech in Philadelphia.

Pete Feigal can be contacted at PFeigal@aol.com  Now that Pete’s eyesight is failing, he has discovered new careers as a national speaker and writer. Pete’s art is actually selling better now than ever. He says jokingly, when he dies, like all artists his art will become even more popular. “That’s when I’ll REALLY clean up!”Pete’s amazing aviation and motorcycle fine art prints and t-shirts can now be seen on Pete’s fledgling Web site at www.art-that-moves.com