Eulogy for an Unknown Citizen

As professional ethics preclude mental-health practitioners from disclosing anything about their clients, I won’t reveal identifying details about the person our community lost this week. I will, however, use “he” so as not to obscure the man for the words. And while it might not be entirely ethical to publish this at all, I am profoundly moved by his passing and am, therefore, bound to write him a tribute. Still, this has been no less disheartening for its catharsis; in life he was anonymous, and in death he shall remain.

A trench at the common grave on New York City’s Hart Island

I’m required as part of my graduate degree to complete a year-and-a-half externship at a mental health facility. Four months into this placement, I “lost my first patient.” The truth is, my role couldn’t be any more limited. As a student, I’m not licensed to treat anyone—to say nothing of being, as yet, technically or emotionally capable of it. Most importantly, I can’t claim ownership over any of the facility’s clients (nor should anyone for that matter). Quite the opposite, they’ve been my most generous and sensitive teachers. I’m privileged and honored that they share their lives with me.

This is where I met the man I’m writing about. From the first day, I felt an instant connection to him. (I would learn only after he fell ill that everyone shared this connection.) He was debating another member about the week’s upcoming football schedule. (I think he picked the Giants to win.) We smiled at each other but didn’t talk. The next week, however, he beelined to the table where I was sitting and opened up to me immediately.

He needed to speak—and to be heard.

A quick word about the type of facility where I’m placed: It’s what’s called a “psychosocial clubhouse.” Wikipedia has a great primer about the history and philosophy of these programs. And, if you’re in New York, I encourage you to tour Fountain House, the organization that pioneered the model and continues to set the standard for how effective and powerful it can be. (Full disclosure: I’m not affiliated with them in any way.) The important thing for the purposes of this eulogy is that, at a clubhouse, one is not his or her diagnosis.

As such, I have no idea what he “suffered” from and only a vague notion about his health issues. I know only what he had an urge to share with me. So I’m well aware of his love of kung fu movies. I’m sympathetic to the housing struggles he faced in his last months. I have a sense of the complexities of his treatment plan and the labyrinthian nature of the public health services to which he was relegated.

And I know that he died alone in a city hospital.

I also know that he loved politics. The 2016 presidential election will go down in history for all of the wrong reasons. But for me, it is inextricably linked to this person—this unknown citizen. We occasionally watched the news together, and he had strong feelings about the candidate who eventually won. He might have been deferential to the other members of the club or confused about the dates and times of his medical appointments, but, when it came to politics, he was crystal clear about where he stood and what he believed.

Barack Obama said in his farewell address that the promise of our American democracy relies on “each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging.” Though unknown, this man was just as much a citizen and saw that pendulum swinging in the wrong direction.

Obama warned against retreating into the safety of our bubbles, but I can attest that the fears about the new administration aren’t limited to my social media feeds. I’m not “friends” with nor do I “follow” any of the members of the clubhouse. Yet, nearly to a person, they’re convinced their lives will be substantively worse over the next four years. The impact will be real, and the man about whom I’m writing knew that.

The week before the election—the last week I saw him alive—he was especially despondent about the prospect of a Trump presidency. That next Wednesday, he didn’t show up to the center. Soon thereafter, he was in a coma, with no family to advise on the course of his medical treatment. I bring this up not to indulge in liberal hand-wringing (or create a false causality) but instead to acknowledge his reality and his truth.

No one wants to be on SSI or Medicaid in exchange for his autonomy or mental well-being. So I implore the Republicans licking their chops over the repeal of the ACA: Acknowledge in your hearts and minds the degree to which your stake in the debate was never about guaranteeing the health of all Americans. Then consider the lives of the unknown citizens you (ostensibly) represent when it comes to the plans you (ostensibly) are drafting as a replacement for “Obamacare.” Again, I mention this not to indulge in any self-serving political opportunism. I do so to echo, even if it’s only a penny in a canyon, the now mute voice of the man we lost.

He felt ignored in life; I beg everyone not to ignore him in his death.

The unknown soldier embodies the anonymous men and women who sacrificed themselves in serving our country. Likewise, there are unknown citizens who die every day, struggling merely to glimpse the freedoms these soldiers so bravely guarantee. These are Americans who, because of the severity of their illnesses, are often a mystery even to themselves. Yet they are invisible to us not because they live in the shadows but because we overlook them. In our cowardice—our fear of the tenuousness of our own sanity—we pretend not to see them.

It’s as if they are a mere hallucination.

But this man had a name. I can’t repeat it here, but I will always remember it. And I will do everything I can in that name to help advocate for and treat the mentally ill.

He will be missed.