As a girl growing up in Clare, Debbie Greer early on demonstrated the drive that would enable her to become Michigan's first female U.S. senator.
In high school, she played clarinet and piano, twirled batons, won a cheerleader spot, starred in "The Diary of Anne Frank" and edited the yearbook.
That's part of the public record. But Debbie Stabenow has not shared the difficulties her family faced in her teen years, as her father's warmth and energy turned to mania.
She talked about that experience last week with me, in service of a cause: Her effort to win passage of the Excellence in Mental Health Act — a bill she is sponsoring with Republicans and other Democrats — to improve and expand community mental health services and the quality of mental health care.
Sponsors say the bill could treat an additional 1.5 million people living with mental illness, including thousands of new military veterans.
The bill's gaining a foothold in the Senate, in part because it's been introduced in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, amid heightened concern about untreated mental illness.
In tiny Clare, Stabenow's father, Robert L. Greer, was a second-generation Oldsmobile dealer. The man she knew as "the most lovable and kind man" was generous to a fault and neither violent, she says, nor a substance abuser. But in her teens, he began to stay up all night, talking, imagining books he would write, sharing ideas that grew large in his head as night turned to day. By seventh grade, she could see her mother Anne Greer, who as a nurse had abundant patience, was overwhelmed and exhausted by her father's feverish late-night talks and his daytime generosities.
He also gave away services, cars and money that the family couldn't afford.
He was hospitalized, diagnosed with schizophrenia, and treated with drugs that made him too lethargic to work. Then he'd go off the medication in order to work. While she was still in junior high, the family was forced to sell their comfortable home and move to a smaller one.
In the early 1970s, psychiatrists began to treat the disorder, by then understood as manic depression — now called bipolar disorder — with lithium.
It was daughter Debbie, by then a college student, who made the clinical diagnosis: She heard a professor lecture about manic depression and lithium, instantly recognizing her father's disorder and possible treatment. "I asked the professor, 'Can you help with my dad?'"
The professor did, successfully, treat her father.
Her father died in 1982, just as she ran for her first term as a legislator; her mother is now 86. Stabenow has been a staunch advocate for mental health treatment since. Her passion is fueled by the power of childhood experience and the knowledge that proper treatment changed the course of their life as a family.
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