I’ve been on hold for over an hour involuntarily listening to some unidentifiable muzak loop, droning over the speaker phone, interrupted every twenty seconds by an automated voice telling me I could be doing this online. Which feels both patronizing and torturous as I did do everything online only to have EDD mail me a “Call-In Notice” that says it’s mandatory I actually talk to someone in person. “To help us assist you in processing your claim for disability benefits.”
This is the third day I’ve tried to get through. The third day I’ve been forced to listen to this same recording. The third day I’ve experienced a dull unsettling rage that borders on homicidal. Dark visions of strangling whoever composed this horrible tune come and go while simultaneously thinking there must be a way to end all of this.
As some of you may already know my left vocal cord has been paralyzed and I can’t cohesively communicate. For someone that has a lot of opinions, snide comments, and sarcastic retorts, this not only sucks but it’s starting to take its toll on my mental wellbeing as well as affecting me financially. Even though I’m a bit of a recluse, I attend meetings, I talk to friends, I counsel people with mental health and substance abuse issues, and I teach college. But if I can’t talk, I can’t do any of that, especially not work. No one is looking to pay a mute that doesn’t know sign language.
This has been going on for over two and a half months. Having originally been misdiagnosed with chronic laryngitis, it now turns out I need an operation to “fix” a paralyzed vocal cord. Unfortunately that surgery has been mysteriously categorized as “elective” and won’t happen until all the covid patients dwindle down to a “nonemergency” level and there’s room for me at the hospital. Only the way the majority of people are unable to deal with the simplest requirements to stop the spread of covid we’ll continue to see surges and mutations. And at the end of the day I’m still shit out of luck, mangling the English language in a prolonged scratchy whisper, and nowhere closer to seeing the inside of an operating room.
Meanwhile as one can well imagine if I’m not pulling in a salary then my finances are dwindling into nonexistence. Yet my bills keep coming and piling up (especially the medical ones). And without an immediate solution anywhere in sight, this is causing me a ton of fear and worry. The worst of which is reliving all the old traumatic memories around the lack of money, being destitute, power getting shut off, and the eviction notices taped to the front door.
Back in my twenties and thirties when I was a full on drug addict I lived well below the lower rungs of financial stability. Every cent I had went to buying heroin. Things like rent and bills came second, if at all. I was evicted several times. Roommates asked me to pay up or leave. There were liens on my accounts. The few jobs I actually worked the authorities garnished my wages until I quit. I lost cars that I was living in because I couldn’t keep the registrations current and the city would tow them. I had dug such a financial hole that I couldn’t get out from under the ever increasing debt. I was stuck in the cycle that many poor people experience, but the reality was that I was poor by choice (if addiction is really a choice) and I had created this hell all by myself.
At one point, in a rare moment of clarity, I filed for bankruptcy with the hope to avoid prosecution for writing a multitude of bad checks. But that was short lived and soon thereafter I continued my journey down the ever spiraling out of control descent of addiction. Unfortunately I wasn’t interested in staying clean, or walking the straight and narrow path of legitimacy, or bettering my living conditions (or myself). I was very zen-like in the moment and living for the here and now. My idea of planning for the future was deciding what crime I was going to commit or figuring out where my next hit of dope was coming from. My world was very small. I had the tunnel vision of an addict and I wasn’t even in the running for achieving anything even close to poverty level. Yet my feelings of hopelessness and despair were very real.
However I do want to make note here that I’m not comparing my “past self” to people that are poor due to the systematic racism that is amerikkka, or the not so silent class war, or this new aristocracy that the radical right is hell bent on perpetrating. But what I am trying to say here is I’ve experienced what it’s like to not have money. And even though in the last twenty years I have come up from county welfare (while in rehab), to minimum wage (my first jobs in sobriety), to where I am now (or should I say was, pre-pandemic). I still harbor fears that I’m not that far from losing everything and going back to how it was then. I worry about the future. I have nothing for retirement (see the earlier mention of spending all my money on heroin). I wasn’t paying into a 401K at the junkie’s union, and like a huge majority of Americans I’ll probably be working well into my 80’s or at least until I die. This shouldn’t be happening in a country with an annual budget of nearly 5 trillion. But it is.
“Hello? How may I help you?”
“Yeah, I got a notice to call in.”
“Sir, could you speak up? I can barely hear you.”
“I’ve a paralyzed vocal cord. That’s why I’m applying for disability.”
“Did you submit a DE 2501?”
“I guess so.”
“What’s your claim ID? Or your CAN? SSN? Have you been receiving EDD benefits?”
It’s like she’s speaking in code. I’ve never been on disability. I don’t really know what this woman is referring to other than the numerous forms I filled out online. I log onto the EDD/SDI website, quickly scan through my claim, and relay the numbers she’s requesting.
“You work full time, or part time?”
Apparently there’s this complex configuring of what my pay was, hours I worked, how much I make a year, and what percentage of all that they’re going to give me.
“When you going back to work?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sir, you’re going to have to do better than that.”
Like many of us in America I feel that my government doesn’t care about me even though I am one of its citizens, pay taxes, vote, and put money back into my community (all of which in turn benefits the economy and keeps them in “business”). I don’t try to weasel out of paying the IRS. I believe in funding schools even though I don’t have kids. I think we should be rebuilding our infrastructures, subsidizing public transit, and maintaining roads, highways, and community spaces. I want there to be money for libraries, social security, welfare, medicare, and hopefully someday nationalized medicine.
But at the same time I’m not a big fan of government. And all those bozos in power don’t instill even the slightest bit of faith that anything is ever going to work like it’s supposed to. Politicians have been out of touch with the people for as long as I can remember. The entire two party system is corrupt, and those that say it isn’t are delusional. The majority of politicians controlling all three branches of the federal government are millionaires. In contrast millionaires make up just 6% of the population. If your finances are going to be affected due to possible legislation that you’re in control of… are you really able to make impartial decisions? Yes, I know it’s their job; they took an oath, blah, blah, blah. So um, yeah, when was the last time you voted against your self-interest? Hmmm, unless you’re a republican living in poverty, then lower your hand. There’s nothing to see here. Move along.
Yet what’s even more concerning is that people with money can’t begin to really understand the choices poor people make every day. They’re just too far removed. When was the last time (if ever) they had to choose between paying for food, or the bills, or housing, or some other necessity because there’s never enough? Are their children starving, is the rent way past due; has the power been turned off, and the list goes on. To go without is a disparaging struggle. And in this wealthy country the fact that anyone is going without is outrageous. But hey, here’s a one-time payment of $1400. Now get a job during this pandemic you lazy-ass-slob.
Although as a side note, not once have I recently considered an armed “insurrection” as a method to change the political outcome of this country. I mean sure, when I was young and embraced the ideology of anarchism I just wanted it all destroyed. But I wasn’t in the Weathermen or the Baader-Meinhof (if you’re too young to know Google them) and I’m not really that stoked to have to kill people, even though they would probably kill me without batting an eyelash. Yet half of America did engage in or support an armed insurrection and have gotten away with their first attempt and are probably well into planning the next.
Meanwhile the seditious politicians that enabled them are still in power. The like-minded insurrectionists (and possible participants) populate a third of our military and an even greater percent of our police. And a recent poll revealed that 40% of all Republicans think political violence is justifiable and could be necessary. But nothing is going to happen to any of them. More voter suppression will be enacted. More rights will be abused. More police killings. And in the meantime the minority party will do all they can to regain dictatorship. If not, another coup is inevitable. But hey lawmakers, if you’re not too busy giving yourself more taxes breaks, do you think you could possibly begin to attempt to fix this terribly broken system?
And in the end without a voice, figuratively and literally, where does all this leave me?
It turns out that vocal cords are really important and do more than just allow us to talk. They also protect our airways and keep us from choking on the food and liquid we swallow into our stomachs. Because we only have one opening to eat and breathe, they also regulate the flow of air into our lungs. When, like me, you have “unilateral vocal cord immobility,” then only one vocal cord is working and the ‘valve” is left open on the paralyzed side. The most common symptom is a wheezy inflection or loss of voice. It can also lead to choking and coughing, especially after eating or drinking liquids. The weakened vocal “fold” cannot fully close the larynx during swallowing and food or water may leak into the lungs. It’s hard to get air. It’s impossible to talk. It doesn’t get better by itself.
A few weeks ago I went through a grueling “medical procedure” that I had hoped would fix this problem, but only a fraction of my voice was restored, and as I said I have to have surgery. From the very beginning I’ve relayed all of this information to my work and let them know I was going to be out for a while. I got a doctor’s note that excused me for a week, then two weeks, then three. The last one was for a month. I’ve used up all my sick days a long time ago. Now I wait for state disability to kick down a few of those thousands of dollars that over the years I’ve paid into a system that doesn’t care.