To Put Into Words

Six days post-election here in the U.S., and it feels like every day is different.

The night of the election I stayed awake until about 11 pm until it was clear that Trump was going to win the electoral votes. I refused to watch TV; I couldn’t bear to listen to voices yelling in disbelief, but rather I listened to my own favorite music and instead refreshed Google and saw everything roll in real time.

On Wednesday morning I woke up with my alarm clock – or rather, I woke up with alarm, saying to myself, “Fuck, Trump is president.” I went through the motions of getting ready for an appointment; as luck would have it, my regularly scheduled counseling appointment just happened to be that morning. Above and beyond my normal anxiety and depression and PTSD, I cried for all of the kids that morning who my friend as a teacher said were scared in her classroom about being targeted by racism and ignorance because of their immigrant status and religious beliefs.

On Wednesday afternoon, I was shocked by a call I received out of the blue. Back in August I wrote a letter to the POTUS regarding the sluggish process of applying for disability and antiquated means of qualifying, when people like me are clearly disabled but can’t qualify because science hasn’t caught up to our diseases. This woman was a staff member of the Obama administration and she had the unfortunate task to call me the day after the shitty election to talk to me about my letter to make sure my immediate needs were being met. I assured her that my hospital bed finally came through (it should be here in a few hours this morning) after trying to get it since January. Then we talked about how my current governor chose to expand medical assistance (“Medicaid”) to everyone at or under a certain income level (which comes out to be around 120% of the poverty level, or $1313/month for a single person without children in my case). In two years when my governor’s term is up and he has indicated that he will not be seeking another term, our new governor has the option of continuing this, or only allowing people with children and/or only allowing people who are federally recognized as disabled (which I cannot get) to continue receiving medical assistance.

So to be clear, I could lose my last line of access to healthcare. I confirmed that with her because I just needed to say it. We both cried on the phone together.

She gave me her phone number and told me to call her in case I had any follow-up questions for her. I will call her this week to see if she has any connections at the NIH to see if I can get anyone to reconsider my case, but I think that’s all that I can ask of her.

There are so many things rolling around about Trump already. I’m not sure I can remember all of them and they change hourly, so please excuse my imperfect recall. First, there are rumors flying about his desire to only spend part of his time in the White House in D.C., and part of his time in his place in Manhattan. It can be argued that not all presidents lived at the White House 100% of the time, but that was probably before there was electricity and running water and the Secret Service and, you know, technology. It’s not like his Manhattan penthouse has a bunker in case he starts a nuclear war by being a complete asshole – and let’s get real, it’s not such a far-fetched expectation.

I’m not sure what to think about him actually making it to the swearing in ceremony. Is he truly going to trial for rape and false imprisonment of girls under the age of 18? Are those cases going to suddenly disappear just because some judge is going to feel sorry for a guy who has been elected, just like judges feel sorry for star athletes?

And Jesus H., why isn’t anyone bothered by how many times he has filed bankruptcy? When I worked for Bank of America, we had to pass strict financial checks, and I just worked in the tech area. We couldn’t be hired on if we had bad credit including bankruptcies or foreclosures or judgments. Also, during my years as an escrow assistant, I was especially skeeved out when I had to work with mortgage brokers who had no scruples about giving financial advice to customers when I knew that the brokers themselves were on their own fourth or fifth bankruptcy filing (they told me how they played the Ch. 13 system before the laws were made more strict).

After his first visit with Obama, he walked out telling everyone that he wasn’t going to reverse everything about the Affordable Care Act, specifically the bits about the pre-existing conditions. That means that he has already reversed one thing he promised the ignorant, writhing masses who were convinced that “Obamacare” was responsible for their rising premiums – not the greed of the insurance companies trying to make a profit off of our bodies at the widest margins possible.

So if Trump doesn’t get sworn in, does that mean we’re stuck with Pence? I’m screwed with him too, since I no longer have my uterus, and he thinks that’s all that I’m good for – bearing babies and overpopulating the earth. That’s all he’s concerned about. Read “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood for reference.

On Thursday I had my very first psych evaluation test, ordered by a neurologist I met on Monday. It took about six hours to go through everything and I was mentally exhausted. It’s one thing to explain to doctors that I lose my words when I’m speaking and writing (you can’t see it, but sometimes it takes me 7-8 tries to write words that used to come easily to me), so this test was supposed to help pinpoint my deficiencies. From what I could tell I had pretty good picture and spatial cognition, but when it came to actual word gymnastics, I had a really hard time. One really painful portion of the testing was coming up with words that began with a particular letter. I think we did four or five letters total, but I only remember two letters – “A” and “S”. With the letter “S” I came up with about 10-12 words in 60 seconds that had multiple syllables, and with the letter “A” I came up with about 5 words and they were 1 to 2 syllables at most. It felt like the bottom of my mind had dropped out. This is actually what happens now on a regular basis and is one of the reasons that before every phone call I make I get a fair amount of anxiety, even if it’s just to make an appointment.

So after I went through all of that (I won’t get results for at least a few weeks), I got my usual cab ride/medical transport. I’ve been taking pictures of the cabbies and asking them questions and posting everything on Instagram. I asked this particular driver what he thought about the election because he was an immigrant and had only been living here in the U.S. for five years. He said he supported Trump because “Obama hadn’t done everything he promised to since he was elected.” I was absolutely floored. This guy was everything Trump (and all of Trump’s supporters) hated. I feel like his safety is at risk and I don’t want him to find out the hard way. I feel like all of us are at risk.

All of us, that is, unless you are a white guy between the age of 18-70 and you’re telling everyone else that they have to adapt to Trump/Pence and that you’ll be “fine” having your rights and/or access to basics taken away from you. Because, you know, ‘Murica.

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The Tiers of Privilege

Minneapolis and St. Paul feel like very different cities from when I moved away 20 years ago. There was a palpable difference between Minneapolis and Albuquerque; in Minneapolis in 1995, my neighbors were white, black and Hmong (thanks to new policies welcoming large numbers of Hmong refugees from Thailand, Laos and Vietnam seeking a better and safer life), and in Albuquerque, the population was largely white, Hispanic and Native American. I felt as if I had moved to a different continent. The way that people interacted is something I can’t easily describe, except that I learned the “manana” (“tomorrow”) concept from my co-workers the hard way, and was told by employers that I would always be valued because I was a Midwesterner and therefore more “uptight and on time.” The population in Phoenix now closely resembles Albuquerque from 1995 – again, the residents are largely white, Hispanic and Native American. Because the southwest didn’t shift in any obvious way, I didn’t expect the Midwest to either.

When I moved back to the Twin Cities, I was not prepared for the greater diversity in the population, but my traveler’s heart is quite excited by it. A lot of the cab drivers I have had for my medical transportation have immigrated from Somalia, some arriving the same year I left Minnesota, telling me stories about how they excitedly called their relatives back home to tell them that powdered ice was falling from the sky (snow), and their relatives always asked the same question: “For free????” There are also now large Hispanic communities settled especially around the cities where living wages might be available. All of these groups are bringing their wonderful musicianship and dancing and food and willingness to endure countless hardships as strangers in a strange land because they know that turning back is not an option.

Why am I talking about all of this anyway? Well, the U.S. has always been a country of  tiered privilege. The caste system does not only live in India, my friends; it’s alive and well, even here in Minneapolis/St. Paul, where we pride ourselves on this appearance of being so tolerant but then have something so stupid/needless/heartbreaking/violating/sickening as the shooting of Philado Castile happen. But it’s not just race that determines where you land in the land of privilege – there’s a lot of “ands” that are the deciding factors.

Let’s start at the top. Your average white dude is the ultimate king of the food chain, born with the silver spoon in the mouth. Guys, you just are. If shitty things happen to you, the system isn’t against you in “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” You might want to feel sorry for yourselves, you might want to stomp and cry and try to convince us that you are being picked on and we should feel sorry for you, but I can’t. I can’t.

We can take it down a notch and look at white men who are physically handicapped by a chronic illness. Men are believed faster/more often than women when it comes to pain. Why? Medical sexism. On the tiers of privilege, white men who are in some way physically deemed “less valuable” by society are on a lower tier than ordinary white men.

I’m pretty sure my place is on the next tier down from that. I’m a white woman.

But wait: knock me down a few more rungs, because I’m a white woman who is also physically disabled. Since I’m a woman and I’m physically disabled, I have absolutely no value whatsoever, a “non-person,” specifically. My cane and paralyzed face make me invisible to nearly everyone (and if you don’t believe me, you should walk through a store or down a sidewalk with oncoming foot traffic with me).

But yet…where do all of our friends and neighbors of color fit in?

My Filipino ex-boyfriend was educated and articulate (except when it came to actually being in a relationship – but that’s another story); his status as a man was relatively high, but as a man of color he ranked lower. Unfortunately he suffered from bipolar disorder, so that could be seen as a detriment, but then again, he was believed – his gender saved him from medical sexism. He always claimed that strangers looked at us distastefully when we were out in public. I think he is valued much more than I am, even though he would deny it.

My most recent Native American boyfriend had a much harder upbringing. He grew up on the largest reservation in the U.S., the Navajo reservation on the New Mexico side. Poverty, crime and mental illness brought him into adulthood. He left the rez to get an education, but for one reason or another, he has clung to the the things that have only brought pain and destruction to his life. Where does he fit into this world?

And then there are the women of color who earn even less than the men, who are physically and sexually assaulted, are obviously valued less when they are forced to remain silent in the company of men or to walk a few steps behind them. Add an “and” to them – a physical disability – and really, how much lower can one go in terms of value as far as society is concerned? I startled a Somalian woman in a waiting area once; I carry cough drops and I noticed she was having a coughing fit, so I offered her one. Her interpreter arrived a few minutes after that and she was called back for her appointment, but she made it a point to tell her interpreter to thank me in English. I did not consider it an insult that she did not know how to say it herself when she was on her own, but since I know how the public at large acts more often than not, I could just imagine that even that simple interaction added stress to her afternoon. Like me, she walked with a cane. I wondered how she was treated by her peers and family.

I am always disappointed when I see/hear someone say, “Why don’t they just ____”? as if we are simple creatures and there’s a one-size-fits-all answer. There isn’t. (That’s why they should stop just conducting medical studies on middle-aged white men if they want real-world results. I mean, hey, we finally figured out that heart attacks are worlds apart between men and women!) The most important thing to understand is that just because things look a certain way from where you’re sitting doesn’t mean that everyone else feels the same way. If you can’t see past yourself, then your world is very small indeed.

Can You Describe It To Me?

This week I’m getting ready to attend the 14th National Conference on Hydrocephalus (http://www.hydrocephalusconference.org/conference-information/conference-fees/) that is happening right here in Minneapolis. I’ve got my t-shirts ready. I’ve got my binder of medical history ready. I’ve got my boyfriend ready. I’ve got my transportation ready. I’ve got the hashtag for Twitter ready (#HACON2016). I’m getting mentally prepared to be upright for 9 or 10 hours for three days in a row (only about three hours for the fourth day because everyone is flying home Sunday). It’s going to be really, really tough, physically and emotionally. I just don’t know what to expect but I’m trying to prepare for every variable.

I’m starting the conference by meeting my attorney for the first time because he’s about five blocks away. He doesn’t know that if I detect laziness from him, or a “can’t do” attitude, I will kick him to the curb. At this point, I cannot be the only person fighting for me. I don’t know if actually seeing me and my physical challenges will change his attitude, but he has not been impressive over the phone so far. I keep getting flashes of Boss Hogg a la “Dukes of Hazzard,” all oily, fat fingers and labored breathing. (I realize I’m being very harsh and am one step closer to Hell. Maybe I’ll see you there?)

Then I’ve got to figure out how to be succinct. My t-shirts do half the battle for me. The weather we are having is both a blessing and a curse for me, because if anyone sees me outside, they will witness me at my worst – my face will be almost completely paralyzed, so that means my eyelids will be mostly closed. However, air conditioning helps with temperature, pressure and humidity, so it will take longer for the pressure to build when I’m inside. When it’s bad, I want to die. It’s not an exaggeration. I have trouble explaining it. It’s not a headache. I associate headaches with dull or shooting or throbbing pain; this is more like my brain is being suffocated and crushed by an elephant sitting on it while my head is submerged underwater. But how can I explain that without it sounding like an outrageous exaggeration? It’s not like I keep elephants in my back pockets to demonstrate to others on the spot what is happening with my body for times like these.

I’m also dealing with my left shoulder and right hip giving me loads of trouble. I babysat my nephews Sunday night while my sister and her husband attended a concert, and I had to block a body shot from my 7-year-old nephew, which made me nearly weep with the pain it stirred up in my shoulder. It hasn’t stopped since. I knew my physical therapist would ask for a number to rate it today. I struggle with the pain scale, because as I pointed out to a fellow blogger, my “7” is someone else’s “21.” My PCP thought I was dealing with an inflamed tendon, but since therapy has not been a steady upward improvement, I may in fact be dealing with tears in the tendons and/or ligaments in my shoulder for laying on it for the first three years of shunt surgeries being done on the center and right side of my body. I’ve got an appointment with an orthopedic doc who only specializes in shoulders a week from today.

But even my crying “10” isn’t my real “10.” I would say that my worst pain has been when the CSF has been overdraining – both after my very first surgery, and then for almost all of 2014 when I had a leak in my shunt but my doctor wouldn’t operate because he wanted to find out which parts I was allergic to. Almost every time I got up, I cried. It really did feel like I was being beaten. I know it’s because my brain was coming to rest on my cranial bones. What would be worse? Read my fellow blogger’s description of her “10.” http://www.thehurtblogger.com/post/15492551756/evaluating-the-1-10-pain-scale
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to try to track down a reduced-rate or free dental clinic that will do three crowns for me. I can’t chew on the left side of my face because I’ve been in so much pain that I’ve been clamping down with my jaw in my sleep and I cracked three teeth on my left side.

Would You Like Some Abject Poverty With That?

I left a message yesterday with my apartment manager regarding my lease, which is ending on May 31st. I had signed a notice and turned it in on March 17th indicating that I wished to stay another year when my lease expired, but I haven’t heard anything since then, and we don’t have many days left until the end of this month. I have a certain amount of money in my bank account from the sale of my car that I have been using for living expenses but I figured that if I was going to sign another lease, the apartment manager wanted to see proof of income or a certain amount of reserves in the bank, so I decided to call the administrators of my 401k to pull all of the funds and close it out.

The simple act of getting on the phone causes me anxiety. In all of the jobs I’ve held over the years, I used to field anywhere between 50-100 calls a day, so just know that that’s highly unusual for me to dread picking up the phone and try to figure out what to say without fumbling.

It’s also unusual for me to not have one or two or three jobs simultaneously. The 401k is my last lifeline and the only thing standing between me and homelessness. Right now I have to operate under the assumption that I will never have any money coming in ever again because I have no idea what the outcome of my disability hearing will be in 2017.

The call to the 401k plan administrators only took a few minutes. The first representative couldn’t confirm or deny which penalties I would be subject to, even though my CPA said that I could probably avoid a 25% and 10% early withdrawal penalties because of my indefinite disability status. A second rep – presumably the guy who did the calculations and released the funds – advised me that he had to take out a minimum of 20% for taxes and that I should set aside an additional 10% for penalties, all in a blaring and bored voice, as if he heard this stuff all the time, as if it wasn’t a big deal for me to have no other choice.
I have a few big purchases coming up. First, I have to take care of a crown and root canal completely out of pocket because medical assistance won’t pay for any of it. Second, I need a new bed; this one started to sag about five months after I purchased it last year because I spent so much time in it, but the store wouldn’t cover it under warranty because I moved out of state and the manufacturer would only cover a small percentage (this time around I’m going for the bargain Sleep Number C2 – no inner springs and it costs the same as a traditional inner spring bed). Third, I want to buy a different a/c window unit because the one that was provided with the apartment is gross and inefficient.

After those purchases, I will have to live off of the same amount of money slightly more than what workers make at minimum wage in the U.S. I don’t know how people do it. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. It’s not like I can go out and get more jobs, or a better job.

This is the song of our people. Poverty. Desperation as our bodies shut down, especially in my case (and others out there) when I don’t have a name to attach to it or a prognosis to go by. My counselor has told me not to think a year ahead and allow myself to be swallowed up by the fear of what comes after the money runs out, but how can I not think about that? My life is already so different than it was even just a year ago; I can’t even whisper the words, “How much more can I lose?” That’s like setting up a new dare to the universe.

Hanging up with the Merrill Lynch rep, he wrapped up the call with the requisite, “Is there anything else I can help you with?” The old, working me would have awarded him 10 points for asking the question. The new, disabled me wanted to tell him to suck my ass.