Club Meds

The mental-health-care system says Lynda Sue Dale, a young mentally ill mother, is ineligible for treatment -- until she informs the bureaucrats she's talking to New Times

"I'm old," says 20-year-old Lynda Sue Dale, nervously running her long, painted nails through her dark hair.

"I been old for a long time. I don't really have a life, a social life, no more. I spend a lot of time in my apartment, staring at the TV or whatever. But I still can't help myself sometimes. What I have is real uncontrollable."

Lynda is a slight, striking young woman with a quick mind and a mercurial temperament. She zigzags about her life like a freeform jazz soloist, riffing like a precocious child, a flitty teenager or a world-weary woman.

Lynda Dale, when she was about 12. Less than two years later, she was a runaway who was living with a man old enough to be her grandfather.
Lynda Dale, when she was about 12. Less than two years later, she was a runaway who was living with a man old enough to be her grandfather.
Lynda Dale, when she was about 12. Less than two years later, she was a runaway who was living with a man old enough to be her grandfather.
courtesy of Dale family
Lynda Dale, when she was about 12. Less than two years later, she was a runaway who was living with a man old enough to be her grandfather.

She is speaking softly for the moment, sitting on the edge of a bed in the cramped living room of her mother's apartment. Lynda lives in the same complex.

Minutes later, she demonstrates what she means by "uncontrollable."

Lynda hears a baby's howl outside the apartment door. It's her 2-year-old, Devlin Jr., who's being looked after by her mother's longtime companion, Linda Bauer.

Lynda jumps up to see what's happening, which turns out to be nothing. The baby's just playing. But she takes the opportunity to berate Bauer.

"I thought you said you want what's best for me," Lynda shrieks. "Yeah, right. I thought you said you'd come through for me this one time, so I could tell my fuckin' story! It's myfuckin' story!"

Bauer shakes her head and walks away. Lynda's mother, Nancy Dale, looks as if someone has driven a stake into her stomach.

"You hear how many times she says the word 'me,'" Nancy says, lighting a cigarette with shaky hands, as her daughter tries to compose herself. "It's always about 'me' and it's always about how Lynda Sue is a victim. It's never about anything or anyone else."

That does it. Lynda starts to sob. Her longtime counselor, Ruth-Ann Robinson, hands her a tissue, asks Lynda to try to compose herself, then comments, "This is the way it is for Lynda -- up, down, up, down, up, down, minute after minute. It gets very tiring, for her and everyone around her."

Lynda has good reason to be weary. She's had a tumultuous relationship with law enforcers since she was 9. At 13, she lived with a sexual deviant (now in prison) old enough to be her grandfather. She's served time in juvenile jails. She's worked as a stripper on and off since she was 16. She gave birth to her son shortly after her 18th birthday. She was convicted late last year of beating her then-boyfriend -- the father of her son, D.J. -- with her fists, and was fortunate to evade jail.

Lynda Sue Dale has a serious mental illness. Among other things, she's bipolar, which a textbook defines as "a common, recurrent severe psychiatric illness that affects an individual's mood, behavior and ability to think clearly."

She loses control in a flash, often for no apparent reason, and can be a danger to herself and others. Those who love her worry constantly for her own safety, that of her son, and for themselves. She needs intensive help from all corners -- family, social service, behavioral health -- if she's to have a chance at the pursuit of happiness.

Even under the best of circumstances, Lynda and others in similar straits would confound any agency charged with her well-being. But that's their job. Despite Lynda's notorious record, however, the State of Arizona and its hired hand, ValueOptions, balked at providing help for months after she asked for it last February.

Authorities then rejected Lynda's application seeking sanction as a seriously mentally ill person. The reason? ValueOptions claimed it couldn't determine if her problems are caused by a mental illness, or by alleged substance abuse. And because it couldn't, it had chosen to do nothing for her.

Lynda claims she hasn't abused drugs or alcohol for years, though she admits to dabbling on occasion. Her mother, who sees Lynda almost daily and doesn't sugarcoat things, confirms Lynda isn't abusing anything these days. "Except those around her," Nancy Dale adds.

ValueOptions is a sprawling, for-profit managed-care company under contract with the state and Maricopa County to provide mental-health programs. The Virginia-based firm signed a three-year, $510 million deal that started in February 1999.

After three months of stonewalling, the firm -- actually a ValueOptions subsidiary, Alternative Behavioral Systems of Arizona -- abruptly reversed itself in Lynda's case May 9. It informed her in writing, "you have been determined eligible for seriously mentally ill services at this time."

This was a pleasant surprise. Little in Lynda's life had changed since she'd been neglected in February, other than she'd told an ABS employee that she'd been interviewed by New Times.

Her case offers a revealing glimpse into the local mental-health system's fickle, often cruel nature. A troubled young woman with a long and documented history of mental illness is told she hasn't made the cut for services because she's got substance-abuse problems which she may not have; several months -- and several manic episodes -- later, boom, she's in.

"I'm supposed to be the crazy one," she says, "but they keep going back and forth like they're crazier than me. I don't know if I'm coming or going."

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