I thought I knew what to expect from Cover Me, (University of Nebraska Press) by Sonya Huber but I was so wrong. This book is much more than a diatribe about medical coverage in the United States. This is a personal and blatantly honest look through Huber's own experiences which she hopes will prompt us to ask the question: "Can I tell my life story through the lens of my healthcare card." Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs weaves throughout this book like a threaded roadmap forcing the reader to realize that attaining even our most basic needs is often in conflict with or defined by our healthcare coverage. Suddenly the message of this book becomes very personal and very clear.
Huber's book is witty, funny and at times a sad and frustrating view of our lives through that lens of our health and well being with regard to our healthcare coverage. She bears all in this story from childhood headaches to crippling anxiety attacks as a young adult. She goes further, venturing into personal experiences from childhood testing to coping with losing coverage at the time of college graduation. She explores self-medicating colds and urinary tract infections and putting off illnesses until they result in a middle of the night emergency room trip. She then follows the trail of calls to billing offices, tracking down forms and relentless collection agency threats, when she discovers her student plan had no provisions for an "out of network" emergency.
Huber's stories become even more poignant when she talks about the fear that overtakes her when she discovers she is pregnant and doesn't know how she will afford the medical expenses involved. But she takes it even one step further and explores what happens to our self-esteem when we have no other choice but to opt-in to government programs.
"We used the milk coupons gratefully and wished there were coupons for vegetables, rice, or meat. I went to the grocery store in our neighborhood, where the clerks whipped through the WIC transactions without batting an eye ... I want to write that I got over the shame, because my brain disapproves. Do you think I am too good to be poor? The shame turned me inside out and shifted me slightly. Revealing my prejudices like a strobe light catching me in an awkward pose." (144)
Huber hopes that her readers see "the emotional and personal toll that the ‘for profit' healthcare system has on everyone." And there are stories in this book that will strike you on a personal note. I found myself sitting in the dentist chair reliving my own experiences with her as she weighs the decision to pull a tooth for $25 or spend the enormous fees for root canal and crowns. This is more than just personal experience; this is how Americans weigh our own worth when balancing options for our health vs. other basic needs. Do we go to the doctor knowing that along with the office visit fee is the elaborate cost of medication? Huber explores how we make these decisions, especially, when many times it means there may not be any money left over to pay the rent, electric bill, gas bill or possibly buy food for that week.
I sat down with Sonya Huber during the summer session at Ashland University's MFA Program where she is an instructor. When I asked her what she wanted her readers to come away with, she said:
"I think the one take-away for me is that I hope readers get a chance to see that their own seemingly small experiences in this battle also matter, that this system has an effect on all of our lives, and that realizing the effects of the system and talking about them can help us change the system and make a new one that works. I spent a lot of my life ashamed for my "incompetence" in getting healthcare, and I think a lot of people are ashamed for similar reasons, but the solution is to talk about it."
Cover Me makes us all a little more willing to share our stories and give a voice to our frustrations. This book isn't a radical call for change, it doesn't offer solutions; rather, it begins a much-needed dialogue. Political party battle lines and what ifs about medical care dissolve into the idea that medical care and our health are very basic needs that every United States citizen should be able to rely on without stress, frustration or embarrassment. This book illustrates, in a way that mere political rhetoric cannot, how the lack of accessible, affordable medical care negatively affects everyone on a personal, emotional and economic scale.
Here is more of the interview with Sony Huber.
Q. How has this project differed from other projects you have written?
A. With this project, I focus solely on myself rather than on my extended family, and I also use humor to leaven the serious subject.
Q. Do you have any recurring themes in your stories?
A. I think I am always struggling with the issue of the individual's role in society, particularly when the individual has an obligation or an opportunity to resist injustice. I am interested in the influence of ethnicity and specifically in sorting out what it means to be a German and also an American. I wrestle with being a mom, being a teacher, and being a Buddhist in a Christian society.
Q. Do you have any general writing philosophies you would like to share?
A. I love the quote from Carolyn Forche: "If I work only when the spirit moves me, the spirit will ignore me." I believe in working every day and having a regular schedule so that I can gradual build onto sentences and questions, in the power of gradual accumulation to teach us about ourselves.
Q. Do you have a quote or closing statement that you would like to share?
A. I really like this quote right now from Thomas Merton: "Although I am ruined, I am far better off than I have ever been in my life. My ruin is my fortune."
Huber holds a BA in Sociology/Anthropology from Carleton College, and a MA in Public Interest Journalism and MFA in Creative Writing, from Ohio State University.
Among other honor's Sonya's book Opa Nobody was shortlisted for William Saroyan International Prize for Writing (Summer 2010). She also received the Dorothy Golden Award for Excellence in Teaching with $1000 stipend from Department of Writing & Linguistics, Georgia Southern University (Fall 2009). She was the Iowa Review Creative Nonfiction Contest Finalist (Spring 2008) and the Press 53 Open Award Creative Nonfiction Contest Finalist (Spring 2008).
You can find other information on Sonya Huber, as well as an updated publications list at her website: www.sonyahuber.com.