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Why and How I Went on Disability for My Bipolar Disorder

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

I have a disability.

There, I said it. I probably haven’t spoken it aloud still, even after a year of being on Social Security for disability. It seems to me if you say something out loud, it becomes very real and powerful. I am not sure why that is, especially in a society that values having things in writing so much, but there it is. I still probably won’t say it for another year.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

How did this happen? I got sick. I got really sick. Like anyone who goes on disability, I am unable to work and also take care of myself. The thing is, because it is for mental illness, people are super judgmental about it. Now, calm down. I didn’t say everyone is super judgmental, just people in general from my experience. There is a large portion of people who don’t believe I should be on disability at all. They believe I should still be able to work, or even worse, they think I’m faking it. I shit you not. They think I’m faking going to the hospital four times. So, I wanted to talk more about this. I want to talk about how I became disabled.

The first time I went into a hospital was a complete surprise to everyone. I do not know why. I was married. I was living with my father and his (now) wife. I was also a teacher. There were literally hundreds of points of contact where someone should have seen this coming. I had been asking for help from my co-workers and administration for months. They would give me some “tips” or reassure me everything would be OK and then shove me out the door with a worried glance or a sideways stare.

There were, of course, a few exceptions. My department head knew all the sordid details, I think. I told her and one of my administrators I was diagnosed recently with bipolar disorder months before I collapsed. And yet, everyone was so surprised. I say this in the most sarcastic way possible because teachers are literally trained to see the signs of suicide and its prevention, so yeah, I am a little hurt about it. I had been struggling for months; it was a new year. I accidentally said “shit” in front of my new ninth-grade class. I was going to get in trouble for saying “shit” in front of them. To make things even more obnoxious, I had a completely awful psychiatrist who fucked up all my meds, who I was required to see the exact same day.

So, she “Baker Acted” me. For those who have no idea what the Baker Act is, it is an act in Florida that allows qualified personnel to involuntarily hold me in a mental institution for 72 hours if I meet specific criteria. Suicidal ideation and plans totally count as that criteria. Therefore, I was sent to the mental institution. Side note, I totally have another article on how much the mental institutional system sucks but is semi-effective? I don’t know how to describe it. It matters a ton which hospital you go to. And the institution they sent me to was awful.

There were elopement risks, angry people, people who were currently in psychotic break and a couple people who had to get a shot in the ass to sedate them. It was terrifying. I gritted my teeth, served my 72 hours and got the flying fuck out of there. I will not go into too much detail here, but the pattern was pretty much exactly like this: I would stabilize in the hospital, come back home and be stable for a few weeks, be placed under job stress, not be able to take care of anything but work and become destabilized. Once destabilized, there was nowhere left to go but down the rabbit hole of depression and anxiety that had been consuming my life for three years. I went to the hospital in this fashion four times in two years.

I had been going to the same psychologist the entire time, with the exception of a five-month period where I hit “non-compliance.” I didn’t call her fast enough one time I went into the hospital and I lived an hour and fifteen minutes away from her. She kind of fired me. My fault. I moved back closer and immediately went back to her.

Over the course of my time with her, she mentioned going on disability four times.  Three of the four, I told her no fucking way. I was not disabled. I was a fully functioning adult and I was not going to “give up.” This is where I take a moment to really lean in and ask you something. What is more important: your life or your job? Many people laugh and are all like, “Your life, obviously.” But there are many people who are so poor and so desperate that losing their job would be like losing their life. Even worse, there are people in life who believe their only purpose is rooted in their professional capabilities. I am not kidding. I was one of them.

For years, I fought her. What was I even good for if I couldn’t work? What would I do with my life? What was my purpose? How could I look at my family and friends and not feel like a failure? Until finally, I reached point-blank. I don’t remember exactly when I realized it — it wasn’t a specific instance that did it. I remember what I said though:

“I cannot work and take care of myself and those I love.”

I said it to one of my favorite bosses from one of my favorite jobs. I was a short-order cook (I love to cook) at a local restaurant and my fiance at the time was having her own struggles. I was struggling to keep up with the work demands again, even though I loved it. I was exhausted and depressed and anxious and wanted to die, again. I said it out loud. I said I couldn’t do it.

The next appointment, I sat down with my psychologist and really talked it out. She knew I was still fighting it. I wanted so badly to be “normal.”  I just wanted to survive and be happy. I had lost teaching to this illness. I had lost a marriage to this illness. I had lost my sense of self to this illness. The only thing I had left was self-preservation. I decided that was where I was going to make my stand. So I did. I talked to everyone I was living with at the time and my family. I sold my car to pay bills. I got an attorney. There are some things you should know about this process, though. I want to share some basics.

1. Do not do this alone. 

You need the recommendation of at least one, if not multiple, doctors and practitioners. When I spoke with my psychologist, she also recommended a lawyer. Which brings me to my next point …

2. Get help.

From my experience, the company will ask you and your doctors for some pre-information before they offer to take your case.  They are looking to make sure you are not what is known as a “malingerer.” That’s right folks. You cannot just fill out some paperwork and you have it. I strongly suggest legal counsel. Best part? They normally get paid out of the back pay you receive from waiting forever! Legit right?

3. Be prepared to wait.

It can take between six months to several years to be approved for disability. My wait was short because I had a lawyer and some very dedicated health care professionals. If your wait goes beyond six months though, when you are approved, they will owe you back pay for your time spent waiting for benefits.

4. Do not work.

I know this sounds like shit. Let’s be real here people, you are going on disability because you can’t work. If you are working, it looks weird. It’s not impossible, but it definitely looks weird. May I suggest moving back in with family or friends while you wait?  Let them know your position, people tend to be way more supportive when they know you need help.

5. Ask for more help.

Are you stuck? Can’t work and no money? GoFundMe is pretty rad these days. I see people using it all the time. It sucks we live in a capitalist society that makes disabled people hurt financially until they break, but what are you goin to do, right? Add up your bills and ask your community.

6. Keep going to your appointments. 

Do not stop. Non-compliance does not look good. Work out a payment plan, whatever you must do, but go.

It took six months for me to get on disability. Since it only took them six months, I received no back pay. I am still without a car a year later. However, I am doing much better. I adhere to a schedule, pursue interests and most importantly, I write.

Unsplash image by freestocks

Originally published: January 20, 2020
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