When you live in the land of opportunity and yours passes you by, a life that began with lofty dreams and unlimited potential can result in devastating humiliation.
I know because it happened to me.
Not long ago, my sister received a call from an old classmate of mine who had been looking for me. She gave him my number, but when he called, I didn’t pick up. As I told my sister later, I was too ashamed and embarrassed to take the call. My life has not turned out particularly well, and I had no desire to compare notes.
Total recovery from the ischemic stroke that struck me last November is doubtful. As is common, the impairments that remain are not obvious but to the most observant and those who know me well. I worked for 20 years at Exxon as a process operator, and after that I helped run my family business, managed a retirement community and worked as a security guard.
But now it’s hard to work. I can’t drive, and public transportation is unavailable in Channelview, Texas. Some of the brain damage is irreparable and affects needed reflexes. I’ve been told I’m unresponsive to common stimuli. Of course, I haven’t noticed.
The floor in the house I’m renting is a constant companion with whom I am intimately familiar. Such is the consequence of looking down all the time. I leave the house only to walk down the road a mile or so for exercise. As a result, I am well acquainted with all of the cracks in the sidewalk. This is all new to me, but I have the constant fear that I will soon be well accustomed. At least, that’s the prognosis.
From what I can tell, many who are disabled and on the dole feel the same way. There may be some folks receiving disability benefits fraudulently, but I do know I got a good going over. A few weeks after my stroke, when I realized I wouldn’t be able to work, my wife drove me to the Social Security office to apply for benefits. After stacks of paperwork, it took several months before my first trip to the doctor, for a psychiatric exam, where they asked me to count to 100 by sevens. It should have been simple, but about halfway through, I stumbled, and felt humiliated. More questions passed, and more confusion. A very thorough physical exam came next. Then there was a very thorough check of our finances, including the number of cars and bank accounts we have. Months on, I still haven’t received a single check. Despite over 40 years in the workforce, I would be homeless without help from family. To them I am forever grateful, but also deeply ashamed.
In a world where we’re all expected to carry our own weight, I fully understand why my fellow taxpayers don’t want to carry mine. But what I don’t understand is that the lady who helped me with the paperwork at the Social Security office told me disability was not charity. What I am to get out is based on what I put in. She told me to stop crying because it is money I have earned. So why do I feel so much shame?
I was raised with the feeling that public services should be kept to an absolute minimum and that people who received government assistance have no class and should have taken better care of themselves. Three weeks after my stroke, my wife of 41 years lost her job too. She was upset about my prognosis and spent so much of her time caring for me (making sure, for example, that I could turn off the burners after cooking and make it around the house on my own) that it was hard for her to make it to work. Without her job, we had to apply for food stamps. When we first received them, I was so humiliated I wouldn’t even go to the store with her. I was afraid and demoralized.
I would gladly work, just to hold my head up again. And I believe most folks like me would prefer a hand up to a handout. It’s just that a hand up is much harder to come by in circumstances like these. I didn’t grow up poor, and I didn’t intend to become poor: Somehow, it just happened. The poor are rarely in a position to defend themselves. I see that now, and I refuse to judge a panhandler these days. I just thank God I’m not in his shoes yet, if he has any.
Robert Fowler is trying his hand as a freelance writer.
The Washington Post