Friday, March 8, 2013

Pursuing Disability Income

Read my latest piece, Easy Off, at the online noir magazine The Big Click. For the record, the accompanying image is perfect. Writing and performing this was real therapy for me -- by the time I was done, I'd lost my fear of myself.

Not everyone has that reaction.

So, I've been forced to make a very difficult decision. For those unfamiliar with the story, a couple of years back, I was hospitalized after vomiting blood for three days. I was told that my problem was stress, and was sent to a public mental health clinic, where I was diagnosed with PTSD, OCD, a particularly intricate mixed-state bipolar condition, fetal alcohol syndrome, and a debated and hypothetical big brain injury of some kind. There was one point when the shrink interviewing me put her hand on my arm and gently asked, "So, can you go out at all, or do  you have to stay inside?" The word 'unemployable' was repeated over and over, like a mantra.

I have a back condition, and the accompanying chronic pain that I've dealt with revealed itself in the wake of this situation. I'd allowed my stomach to get into such bad shape because at its very worst, the pain in my stomach was about two-thirds of my chronic sciatica. I've been reporting that pain as threes and fours on a scale of one to ten, and it easily beats hot stomach acid on an open wound.

And sometimes the pain in my back is serious. If I make bad decisions, sometimes all I can do is lay down and hurt.

I have done everything I can to try and find a way to make a living that allows me to generate an income while living with the constant possibility that I might lose my ability to function at any time, and in some cases I might be out of it for months. It hasn't been wasted effort. Even with my down-time, I produce a reasonable amount of work in a year. There is a very real chance that I will make it as an artist and writer at some point. I've sold to the big-money end of the market, and have been made to feel welcome there. But while things are happening for me, money isn't a big part of it yet. And I'm the kind of artist where going after the dollar hard might screw me up.

So for a while now, friends and family have been encouraging me to apply for disability.

I have resisted, but things are looking a little grim around here. This week my dad flat-out told me it was time, and when I spoke to my counselor, she agreed, and told me to contact the doctor for my back and the mental health facility where I was 'treated.' (The medication they gave me screwed with my bipolar, and for a few months we were worried that I might have to be institutionalized. Their handling of the situation was thoroughly irresponsible.)

This is one of the reasons I haven't been posting much lately. On one hand, my career is swell. I have exciting projects, full control over my creative life, and what seems to be a growing reputation; you would not believe the crap people say about me. It would make you vomit. That people are proud to introduce me to their friends and so on and so forth is delightful. It is bringing me to life. I'm a new man, and much happier. My counselor says she's never seen anyone make the kind of progress in therapy that I have.

So I feel whiplashed between the conditions that I regard -- emotionally, not intellectually -- as the very top and bottom of the social ladder. That I actually am on a first name basis with a certain number of people in the top and bottom one per-cent, that I actually see what life is like for the very poor and the fairly rich, is a source of tension.

I see two potentially serious issues with applying for disability, once you disallow the possibility that I might not qualify.

First is stress. I am someone who can be reduced to a helpless, weeping ball by a tax or student-loan form. I have a very difficult time coping with adversarial institutions. Waiting rooms are physically painful, and provide a too-easy opportunity to obsessively worry. Ambiguity and uncertainty strongly affect my ambient stress levels, and once they get to a certain stage, I get sick. Maybe I vomit, maybe my skin comes off, maybe my body invents some new means of tearing itself apart.

It sounds silly, but I have to take stress seriously. I do not have the luxury of 'being strong,' or 'toughing it out.' That's how I wound up in the hospital. I had to puke blood for three days before I weakened enough for a woman from Queens to be able to push me around, don't talk to me about tough. What I need is to find out how to be gentle with myself, how to take it easy. Believe me, I would not be taking that path if there wasn't blood on the line.

My other worry is that by getting a disability check, I will acquire a disabled persona.

Right now, people who meet me casually would never imagine that I'm facing these issues. I have discovered that rather than reading as a miserable, tortured wretch, I project a somewhat-deceptive quality of vigor, presence, and competence. (I figured this out last year when I saw myself on video. Life makes a hell of a lot more sense if I think of myself as an attractive person. Thank you for more therapy, performance.)

This affects the way people view me. I have screwy boundaries, and I take on the identity people project on me. So if people see me as a heroic figure, life is great fun. If people see me as a hopeless sad-sack, behold! Thusly am I transformed. (I'm working on this.)

So when I go into this disability thing, how is contact with this system going to affect the way I look at myself?

Or to put another slant on it, if I am drawing a paycheck for being a crazy cripple, am I going to do what I do at every other job, and try and earn more than I'm paid:? Am I going to wind up putting effort into being really crazy and really crippled? Because I have done some really dumb shit in my life, and that would be typical.

All I know for sure right now, is that I don't like the situation, and I'm in it. Oh, well.