Dear Dr. R——:
Recently, I read an article about the explosion in the number of Americans receiving disability from the federal government. In fact, that same government now pays out more for disabilities than it does for food stamps and welfare combined.
Certainly, many of those receiving aid truly require this assistance. But after perusing some of the sample cases involving disabilities—my favorites were the women who weep at night because of their arduous day jobs—I realized I may qualify for federal disability. (Doc, I, too, can weep at night if necessary, particularly if I am looking at my bank account.) According to the article, my college education is a strike against me, but I nonetheless think you may find the following circumstances conducive to promoting my cause.
First, when I was 16 years old, I was accepted into a special summer program for high-school students interested in medical careers. I spent that summer working in the operating and recovery rooms of Forsyth Memorial Hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. During that time I witnessed various surgeries—a nephrectomy, an open-heart operation, and dozens of other operations on various parts of the anatomy. I toted buckets of blood and urine from surgery to the disposal point and can still smell the pungent odor created by the steel bucket interacting with those liquids. I carried an amputated leg, wrapped up in gauze and looking like a full Christmas stocking, from surgery to pathology. One day I observed part of an operation on a woman suffering from sinus cancer. (I won’t go into the gruesome details here: Suffice it to say that one of the nurses became nauseated and had to leave the operating room.) Numerous patients in recovery vomited on me, and I once helped change the dressing on a burn victim so badly charred I could not discern whether the man was black or white.
When recounting these cases recently to one of my sons, he remarked, “You probably qualify for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Doc, I was only 16: What do you think? Do I have a shot? I vividly remember all these circumstances. Have I unknowingly borne a crushing burden all these years?
I also spent nearly four years of my early life in two military schools. There was a lot of yelling and cursing, and in one of the schools hazing and physical punishment were commonplace. Two teachers, both good men, whipped me with belts. A friend in the eighth grade at Staunton Military Academy once threw a screwdriver and nailed me with the point in the head, and another friend gave me a concussion by jumping on a metal-spring bed while I was on the floor beneath it. Would these torments explain anything? I am sure these incidents damaged me in some way.
When I was 24, a woman I loved left me for another. I was depressed for a long time, a life-changing event that led me to jettison graduate school to become a writer. Doc, that decision cost me years of income. Does that qualify me?
After abandoning my graduate studies in the summer of 1975, I spent 18 months in Boston writing, working in a bookstore, and living like a pauper among drug addicts, prostitutes, thieves, and other spotty characters, including a psychopath (convicted of robbing jewelry stores) just out of Walpole State Prison. The tenants in my building included a witch, a sweet girl who slept with a dentist to have her teeth repaired, a man who burglarized my apartment, a platoon of homosexuals and lesbians, a transvestite, a man undergoing a sex-change operation, and a man who, rumor had it, really did find dogs to be man’s best friend. (As my heroin-addicted neighbor once remarked to me, “Do you realize we’re the only heterosexual floor in the building?”) Doc, this poor dumb boy from North Carolina spent those 18 months gape-mouthed and pop-eyed, getting more of an education in humanity than he had ever received in college. Wouldn’t exposure to a culture whose mores were more bizarre to me than those of the Pygmies qualify me for some sort of mental disability?
Shortly after marrying my wife Kris, we became the house parents for Chi Omega at the University of Virginia. During our five years there I had several harsh encounters with members of the fraternity houses in the neighborhood. I was spat on, cursed, threatened with violence, and was once knocked unconscious by a drunken frat boy. (The bum sucker-punched me.) Dealing with these guys was no picnic, Doc, and sometimes I think about those days. Could those memories be labeled as some sort of psychotic flashback?
Then there were the years my wife and I operated a bed and breakfast. Forget that we were in debt and broke for 20 years: Do you know what it’s like never to walk around your own house in your pajamas? To cook eggs every morning from April to November? To force four children to be quiet all the time? The horror! (I wonder: Would my children qualify for disability as well?)
When my wife died ten years ago, I found myself responsible for my children in all sorts of ways. My youngest was only eight years old. This was another traumatizing event in my life. I won’t serve up the particulars here, but imagine if your wife died and left you with all those children! Tough, right? Stressful? Disabling, perhaps?
Two years after my wife died, some friends encouraged me to try an online dating service. With this quixotic adventure came even more stress. Sure, there were evenings of high comedy and moments of attraction, but most of the women were divorcées bitter about their marriages. Once I composed an article about this experience titled “Crazy Ladies,” but now I am wondering: What if I’m the crazy one? And if I am crazy, would my lunacy not qualify me to join the ranks of the broken and the disabled?
Then there are my medical conditions. I know you keep telling me—you always seem somewhat amazed—that I am in excellent health. (To tell the truth, I’m amazed as well.) But what about that time I was hospitalized for five days with 15-percent lung capacity and no one could figure out what was wrong with me? Sure, sure, the specialists kept calling it allergic pneumonia, but they didn’t really know what had afflicted me. That was pretty traumatic: I almost died, and just thinking about that hospital bed makes me feel disabled.
And now—well, Doc, my back hurts from time to time. Today when I was teaching, for example, I had shooting pains on the lower left side. I concealed the pain from my students, but every once in a while I flinched. It was like someone was jabbing a needle into my spine. You may remember that I previously cured my back problems by sleeping on the floor for a year. What if I slept on a really soft mattress for the same period of time? Would the subsequent back pain qualify me for disability?
And sometimes my knees creak when I climb stairs. Where I work, I have to climb two flights of stairs to my classroom, and because I leave that classroom several times a day, my hikes add up to a lot of stairs. (If it would help, I could keep track of the number of stairs climbed each day.) Before I lost all that weight four years ago, my knees actually crunched on stairwells. What do you think—should I gain all that weight back and go for workplace disability using the knee ploy?
If the knees don’t cut the mustard, how about fatigue? The last time I felt completely rested was June 1969. Sleep is no friend of mine, and often during the day I find myself longing for a nap. Sometimes in the late evening I fall asleep while watching Netflix on my computer. (New Amsterdam gin may occasionally factor into this communion with Morpheus.) Talk about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome! Are my failed attempts at slumber reasonable cause to declare me impaired? (By impaired, I refer to the fatigue, not the gin.)
As you know, I earn a small portion of my income putting out essays and reviews, and have even published two books, both high-stress endeavors. Now, as everyone knows, writers drink a lot, suffer depression and neuroses, and go crazy at the drop of a hat. (Yes, yes, that’s a cliché—live with it.) For nearly 40 years, the Muse has possessed, pleasured, and plagued me. Surely, by now, I qualify for disability as a reward for my artistic suffering and sorrowful angst.
You also know me as a Catholic. I joined the Church at age 40, and my faith brings me great strength, but having crossed the Tiber a score of years ago, I find myself possessed by a Catholic sense of guilt. On numerous occasions, sin has darkened my door. (Sometimes, frankly, it just struts through that door and makes itself right at home.) At present, I take those sins to a confessional, a priest, and the Big Kahuna in the sky. But now I wonder: Would I be better off seeing a shrink? Could I then be declared disabled?
Finally, I spend a lot of time alone. Doc, I mean it, a prisoner in solitary has nothing on me. Often, the craziest thoughts occur when I am sitting on my porch or working alone in my apartment. Sometimes, for instance, despite all the hardships recounted here, I feel grateful to be alive and productive. Insane, right? Sometimes I recollect my past and think, Well, you’ve lived a full, rich life. How nuts is that? And despite all the mourning and weeping here in this vale of tears, dawn always finds me sitting on my front porch and falling in love with the world all over again. Certifiable? I think so.
Doc, I’m not asking you to move mountains. I’m not even asking you to move molehills. I just want what’s rightfully mine. My life has brought great hardship and suffering. After working for 45 years, I just want to enjoy a slice of the good old American pie.
It’s a small favor I’m asking, Doc. Declare me disabled.
All the best to you from your infirm patient,
P.S. If possible, please get me one of those little handicapped thingamajigs to hang on the mirror of my car. Finding parking spaces at the gym is a real pain.