Today I cried for the first time in as long as I can remember. It’s been at least a few years.
I’m on the type of person who cries. It takes a lot to make me want to cry, because I go through every waking moment dealing with social anxiety, generalized anxiety and migraines. I never know when one of those monsters will be ready to attack, and when it’s time, I have to simply let it happen. I have to walk around for the rest of the day with that sack of rice on my shoulder. I have to hold it up and pretend like nothing is wrong.
Having a chronic condition is not like getting a cold or having to have your tonsils out. When you’re sick for a little while, people feel sad for you. They want to do nice things for you. They give you a little extra because they know that it’ll help you to get better. But they have limits. Just hypothetically, if you had a cold for 15 years, you’d see people start to slowly move away from you. They’re sad for you but they just can’t take anymore. Usually they don’t say anything about it, they just don’t come around as often. Or they take longer and longer to respond to your text messages until they aren’t responding at all. The slow fade. Your world becomes smaller and smaller until it’s just you and maybe one or two people who drop in now and then to give you a hug and tell you they understand. And you have people who want to be your friends and they give it their best shot, but then, like everyone else, after a while they find their limit and move on. You get used to thinking of friendships as temporary arrangements and you learn ways to let people know it’s okay, that you value the time they give you, and that when it’s time for them to move on you’ll understand. If you want to have lasting relationships you have to shoulder up the burden of your disability and pretend everything is okay. It’s a compromise.
It means saying nothing when you’re driving down the freeway with a friend in the passenger seat, you’ve got a migraine that has been going on for three days and you feel like you can’t possibly stand one more minute of headache and dizziness, and then you have a panic attack. So now you’re smiling and carrying on a casual conversation to keep them comfortable while your head is pounding and you feel like you’re going to die any minute. You somehow survive the trip and drop them off without them finding out what’s going on inside you.
For the past year you’ve been struggling to make ends meet because you got into a roommate situation with someone you thought you could trust, who turned out to be an abusive junky, who left you with an apartment you couldn’t afford on your own to go mooch off of someone else.
Your employer promises you in your initial interview that they’ll start you at a low rate, but after 90 days when you convert to an employee, they’ll give you a raise to a more reasonable rate. You accept the bargain. 2 months in, your employer is so pleased with your work performance that they decide to start the conversion process early. You’re excited. You’re thinking of all the things you’ll be able to afford that you’ve been putting aside, when you get that raise. The offer letter comes. It’s for $2 less than you’re already being paid. You call your manager because it must be some kind of mistake. He tries to explain away the pay reduction, but the explanation doesn’t make much sense, and even he is surprised that the company isn’t offering you at least what you’re already being paid. You explain that you’re barely covering your bills, and that if they take away any more of your income you’ll be destitute. So he goes to HR and negotiates back to the low rate you started at. You’re stuck at this rate because the company never grants raises of any kind. No merit increases, no cost of living increases. You realize that eventually, because of the increase in cost of living, you’ll have to move to another job.
Fast forward six months. You’ve been basically homeless camping inside your apartment. You’ve given up every possible product and service you can live without. Your apartment has an AC unit but you’re getting by with fans. You have a handful of USB batteries that you charge up at the office and you only use those for electricity whenever possible at home. You have a battery powered camp light for lighting. You’re showering at the office to shave a few bucks off your water bill and living off of the $250 per month that’s left after your bills are paid. That $250 has to cover the month’s groceries, any miscellaneous expenses, all of your social expenditures of which you can barely afford any, and entertainment. Your few remaining friends are concerned because it seems like you’ve fallen off the face of the earth. To save on expenses, most days you go straight to work and straight home, where you prepare your own meals. You feel like if you have one more spoonfull of rice or beans you’re going to throw it right back up. You eat out, fast food, maybe once a month. The end of your apartment lease is coming.
Even though you live in a rent control complex, you know they will jack up the rent the maximum percentage allowed and that you’ll be priced out of your home. The increase in rent per month amounts to $200, leaving you with $50 per month to live on, which is beyond your capability, no matter how frugal you are. But you have a friend, the one your ex-roommate is now mooching off of, whose lease is ending at the exact same time yours is. You ask him if he’d be willing to share a place with you, and he agrees it would be a good move for both of you. So you’re set, and you stop worrying for a little while. But as the weeks pass and the end of the lease approaches, your friend becomes less communicative about the moving situation. He avoids your questions about where he wants to live and when he wants to start looking at new places. Something is up. Finally, with three weeks left before the end of your lease, he admits that he’s chosen to arrange a living situation with one of his co-workers instead. You can’t really blame him because after all, he doesn’t know you that well, and your ex has been in his face for the past six months telling him nonstop about what a lovely person you are. Every. Day. You are now homeless.
You go to your friends and you beg. Please help me find a home. I thought I had the situation under control, but I’ve lost control and now I have nowhere to go. You’re in the bay area where there’s a housing crisis and elderly people are sleeping on sidewalks and you have 3 weeks to find a new home. A friend, out of desperation, takes you to a group gathering and walks you around, person by person, one person at a time. Can you provide a place for him to sleep for a little while? Do you have a room to rent? Is there any space he can pay you for to crash? Anyone? A miracle happens. Someone you met, who is an acquaintance, sees you as a good person and shares some information: He’s got a room he’s been using for storage that he can probably clear out within a few weeks with a little help. You finally get yourself into a roommate situation that cuts your bills in half. You’re ecstatic.
Immediately your quality of life improves. You allow yourself to go out to dinner with some friends and you pay for yourself for the first time in almost a year. You’re in full control of your finances. Your bills are paid and then some. You can continue to work at the job you’re at, which you love despite the pay, for the foreseeable future. You’re planning vacations with friends for the near future. You’re happy… for three weeks.
Then you fall and break your leg.
Now you have a three-day migraine, you’re having a panic attack and your leg is broken. You’re alone alone in a parking garage, begging a stranger to please call 911 and have an ambulance come. The paramedics come and they think you’re on drugs because they don’t understand what it’s like to have a migraine, a panic attack and a broken leg at the same time. They assume that your lack of quick responses to their questions are because of a drug-induced haze. They keep asking you what medications you’re on repeatedly, waiting for you to slip up and say you’re on some ilicit drug. They drive you to the hospital, you get checked out, then they send you home, but you can’t get get home because your leg is broken.
You’re in unthinkable pain and dizzy from morphine. Now you really are in a drug-induced haze. You try to call the few friends you think might still care enough about you to come drive you home, but it’s 1:30 in the morning so they’re all asleep with their phones on Do Not Disturb. Nobody to help. So you start going into group chats you’ve participated in and begging for anybody who is awake to please come and help you get home. Someone who gave up on you a while back because of your anxiety creating problems with your relationship happens to be awake and takes pitty on you. They begrudgingly help you into their car, then into your apartment where your roommate is asleep. You can taste their displeasure with you the entire time. You know they’re thinking “this asshole, he couldn’t get along with me long enough for one visit, now I’m taking him home in the middle of the night.” There’s no way to know if it’s true or if you’re just being paranoid because of social anxiety.
You’re home. You’re in bed. You’re there to stay. You’re 100% at the whim and mercy of your friends, whose relationships with you are already strained because of your existing condition. You are helpless.
For reasons you can’t explain, your roommate, without question and without hesitation, immediately springs to action. He does everything he can possibly think of to make you comfortable. He drives you to appointments. He argues with the doctors and nurses. He makes phone calls. He picks up medication. He brings you food multiple times per day and makes sure you eat. You’re grateful, but you’re also you. You know what’s coming. You know you should be as patient and kind and understanding as he is, but once in a while, between the migraines and the leg pain that washes up and over your whole body and the constant rejection by your token health plan and your disability plan of every single attempt you make to get the help they owe you, there’s a moment where you can’t handle it and you say something you shouldn’t. You immediately regret it, but the damage is done. The rope tightens.
He’s gone out to get your medication. You know this is the last time the doctor will be allowed to fill this prescription, and that to get any more medication, he’ll have to drive you 45 minutes to a pain specialist for a five-minute lecture about how you’re a pain medication junky and instead of taking the medication you should just hum koombaya and meditate.
This will generate another bill you can’t afford to pay, because you’ve been denied short term disability payments due to no fault of your own. Your doctor lost the form you gave them to send in to the disability coordinator, and they didn’t get the second one in on time, and because you’re simply a number, just another button to click, someone has clicked the button to take away all of your income until you go back to work. If you do get any income it will be after a weeks or months long struggle through an appeal process, and by then you’ll have bills in collections, ruining the 760 credit score you’ve spent the last three years building.
The pain medication affects your ability to focus and to reason. There are long periods of emptiness where you’re left to think about how useless and helpless you are. The days and nights break down into mechanical sequences of swallowing pills, trying to force food down your throat that wants to immediately come back up and fits of sleep interrupted by accidentally putting your knee at the wrong angle and being woken up by a stab of pain. There’s no comfortable sleeping position because of the type of fractures you have: Every single direction weight can come from causes a different kind of pain. You can’t remember if it’s Monday or Friday. You miss phone calls because rolling over to answer your phone is a circus event, and even if you could answer your phone all you’d have to say is “do you know what day it is today?”
You’re lying in bed on your back because it’s all you can do. You’re not allowed to bend your leg more than 50 degrees, enforced by a locking leg brace. You have no income. More medical bills come in every day. Your roommate is your arms and legs. Every time you think you’re done asking him for help with something, five minutes later something comes up that you can’t do yourself and you have to ask for help again.
Why does this have to happen now? Why couldn’t it happen six months from now, and couldn’t it have let me have just six months of happiness? Half a year? Sometimes I think all that keeps me going is knowing that there’s one thing in my life that is certain: Each time I enter a period of happiness in my life, there’s a period of wretched misery just around the corner.
There’s a moment of quiet when there’s no one but you in the apartment, so I cry a little. I take five minutes to cry, because it seems like it’s the only thing I can do without someone’s help…