My Aunt Marian walked around on a broken leg for twelve years.
Unbelievable, isn’t it? Before that happened to her, I had never heard of a non-union fracture. I had no idea that something like that could happen.
Marian dealt with it. Just like she dealt with RA, MS, GERD, COPD and colon cancer. Oh, she complained about it; don’t get me wrong. She was no hero who suffered bravely in silence. We heard every day just how much she hurt and how angry and bitter she was toward the world in general, her nieces in particular. She wasn’t a nice person before her body started falling apart, and years of constant pain did nothing to improve her disposition.
I was asked to speak at her retirement party, and I repeated a story that we had heard all of our lives. Supposedly, Marian got fired from her first job, when she worked in the fields in her small town. It wasn’t her fault that she lost the job; she was unable to work because the state mandated that she must stop working so she could start Kindergarten.
I assume the story was a bit of an exaggeration, but I also got the point of the story: Go to work.
Marian was the youngest of seven siblings, children of an illiterate woman and a drunken jack-of-all-trades. They were one of the first families in Allegan County to go on Welfare, and the youngest kids helped earn money by working in the fields and coming up with crazy schemes, like selling celery door-to-door from a battered little wagon lined with wet newspapers.
Dad drank like his father. Lawrence and Don drowned together when they were 21 and 31. The Girls –as everyone called the remaining four sisters—moved in together to pool their money and combine expenses. Noni owned a beauty salon, Verna and Ida worked as secretaries, and Marian climbed the ranks of the Upjohn Company. They scrimped and they saved and they taught my sisters and me the value of hard work.
If you don’t work, they seemed to believe, you have no worth.
I earned my first money in fourth grade, when I cleaned the neighbor’s house on Saturdays. I was babysitting by the time I was eleven; at age fifteen I got my first waitressing job. Later, I worked in fast food to support myself in college. I often worked two jobs at a time, and even tried three jobs for a while during my twenties. I have been an ice cream parlor hostess, waitress, babysitter, tutor, cashier, jewelry sales clerk, lingerie salesperson, secretary, hairdresser . . .sometimes, it seems as though I’ve tried it all.
I didn’t want to file for Disability.
When people see me, they see bad posture. They see laziness, perhaps. They see a woman who spends a lot of time sitting on her ever-increasing butt, a woman who is too lazy to hold her head up straight like the rest of the world.
What they don’t see is how hard I have to work just to keep my head upright.
Do me a favor. Stop what you are doing for a moment and think about your head. Is it staying up there on its own? Or does it wobble to the sides and occasionally flop forward? Are you able to hold it straight up and look people in the eye, or is it canted forever to the right? Can you get through as much as a single minute of your day without having to focus on where your head is?
My neck, my shoulders, my arms, my upper back, my abs, my lower back . . . every part of my upper body must be tense, tight, on-duty 100% of the time. Alert, working, exhausted. All the time. Every waking moment of every single day for the rest of my life. Until the day I die.
And that’s just to keep my head up. That doesn’t include the bolts of pain that shoot across my back and shoulders when I raise my arms for very simple tasks like washing dishes. Lifting a pot of pasta to the sink to drain it. Carrying a laundry basket up the stairs. Walking to the mailbox. Trying to sit on the bleachers long enough to watch my son’s football game. Wishing I could tilt my head back far enough to see stars in the night sky instead of forever staring at the ground.
It’s not laziness.
I’m not asking the government to support me while I party.
I don’t spend my days sitting on the couch, eating bon-bons and watching soap operas.
I filed for Disability because I want to contribute to my family’s income like I always have. To do so, I had to swallow my pride and devalue my worth as a human being. Filing for Disability went against everything I was raised to believe, everything I was taught, every example that was set for me by the adults in my life.
None of that matters anymore, because I was denied.
When you see me in public, you don’t see me cry. You don’t see the exhaustion caused by never-ending pain. You see me talking and laughing and smiling, and you assume that I am just fine, that I filed for Disability because I am “milking the system”. You can’t see my depression, my feelings of being a worthless human being because I am not working, You can’t see what it takes just to get through a day, because some days my greatest accomplishment is just being alive by bed time. Because some days, all I can think about is that I wish that damn tree had been just a little bit bigger, fallen just a little bit harder.
Before you rant and rave about people “milking the system” and being on Disability when they don’t deserve it, stop and think for a minute. Sure, you may see people out there who are “worse off” in your opinion. Maybe you think you are “worse off”.
You have no idea what that person is going through until you are living it.
You know what hurts even more than my neck? The comments that you all think I can’t hear.
I have pain, too. I chose to work and live with it.
Why should we have to support you?
You could go back to work if you really wanted to.
Get over it. You think you’re the only person who ever broke a bone?
Must be nice to be able to stay home all day and sponge off the government.
Oh, just cheer up. You have no reason to be depressed.
Maybe I don’t deserve Disability. But I do deserve understanding as to why I filed for it, and what I go through every day. And maybe, just maybe, I deserve an ounce or two of respect for being stronger than you think I am.
Because some days, being strong is all I’ve got.