I’m not going to sugarcoat how desperate my situation is to make myself look better, just as I’ll make it sound no worse than it is. I don’t care for sympathy, so as a general rule I don’t talk about these things. But I will tell these truths now in the hope that they lead to better at the University for graduate students to come.
My teeth are falling apart. I cannot afford to have the worst of them removed, let alone fixed. We’re talking over $6,000 out of pocket for the restorative work for one quarter of my teeth—and that was with the extra-premium dental insurance I was buying at over $30 a month. Twice when I have gone in to have an infected tooth removed, I’ve been told my insurance wasn’t going to cover it. The first time it turned out to be because I was on a medical leave of absence, so the University took away my insurance while I was on leave. The second time, last September, remains a genuine mystery. I still have the remains of that tooth I tried to get out in September; it’s turned infected again twice since then.
This didn’t happen overnight, and stems from a lifelong sensory-aversion to bristles on my teeth and the burning of mouthwash. Turns out I’m autistic; I only put that together in the last few years (you can read about that elsewhere here). I’m primed for dental distress, and because I’m a graduate student instead of a cog in the capitalist machine, the insurance available to me has been awful, and on top of that my salary has been so horrible that there has been no way to pay out of pocket for the dental work I desperately need done.
Things have gotten much worse over these last eight years of enforced neglect, and now that I know I need to take action, I can do nothing but witness the loss, deal with the frequent infections (which are themselves a problematic expense), and try somehow to go on with my duties.
Have you ever had an infected tooth? It is terrifying. There are two teeth presently threatening another round of infections, teeth that have already been infected, the one once, the other maybe three times. This is an entirely unlivable situation. How many years has this taken from my life? I’m driven to distraction constantly by that horror-filled realization. But I’m supposed to have been using my brain for the subjects assigned to me, not, as I often was, panicking about my teeth.
My only hope, like for so many other Americans, is to get a few thousand dollars together…somehow…and walk across the border into Mexico to actually get the work that I need. I do not regard my situation as unique. I know that it reveals systemic issues much larger than the University of Michigan, and yet the University is in the financial position to ensure that its graduate students receive the medical care they need when they need it.
Let’s talk general medical, too. I haven’t had a PCP since I was in my teens—not since I was 17 years and 359 days old, to be exact. Back in my day, children were removed from a parent’s insurance when they turned 18; so I turned 18 and, just like that, I was uninsured. Then Obama raised that age to 25 the year I turned 25. I didn’t get medical insurance until I turned 26 when I entered an MA program at the University of Arizona.
Fun fact about this insurance now through the University, such as it’s been: it requires that all care be orchestrated by a PCP—even mental health care! I’m supposed to have a PCP authorize the medication I need to manage AD/HD, despite the fact that my psychiatrist has prescribed it, an actual mental health professional, whom I have seen since 2006.
I once paid out of pocket to see my childhood PCP—I was eighteen—for depression. That experience taught me how little PCPs know about mental healthcare. I still endure occasional spells of vertigo, almost 20 years later, from that.
Anyway despite their uselessness for my mental health, I don’t have a PCP because I can’t afford one. But in order to have the insurance cover my anti-AD/HD medication, it has to be authorized by the PCP. How does this make sense at all?
What is covered? Catastrophic damage. Now that’s certainly good, because the other option is just to die in that kind of situation since I could afford that. It’s free to die—for the deceased, I mean (because it is actually pretty expensive post-mortem for the deceased’s survivors). But the vast majority of medical issues, relatively trivial on their own, are not covered. Yet all of those trivial things will pose problems down the road if they aren’t managed from the start. I can look forward to a lifetime of debilitating conditions because I couldn’t afford to care for myself as I needed at the start.
And just three days ago, Fresh Air did a show about the destructive forces of socioeconomic stress on the body. I actually couldn’t listen because they were talking about Black and Brown communities but also about me, and hearing it directly discussed how much this stress has damaged me physically, at the cellular level, is itself too stressful for me to sit through.
And I’m supposed to be developing myself intellectually…in the midst of the breakdown of my body and my teeth, and my mind as a result? I’m supposed to be professionalizing myself into a capital-p Professor, as my face is swelling every three months beyond recognition because I haven’t been enabled to get the care I need?
It is difficult to overstate how deeply destructive these years have been—as I’ve netted the University how much in profit from my students’ tuition dollars?
I’m appalled, actually, now that I’m writing this down, and I feel something more, something like betrayal. It never had to be like this, and that’s the hardest part.
This is a major reason why I’m striking in solidarity with my fellow graduate students at the University of Michigan, so that incoming grads don’t have to go through the horrors I’ve endured from the precarity in which I’ve been trapped as a graduate student here.
Ps, Separately from the strike, I’m calling for a Neurodiversity Constellation Center based on the results of a survey I conducted informally last fall. Read about it here: Call for a Neurodiversity Constellation Center at University of Michigan
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