The Government Doesn’t Believe That I Have a Disability

When I started the process, I believed that my mental illness would easily qualify me for Social Security disability benefits. Instead, I learned that all disabilities are not created equal.
Publish date:
December 1, 2015
bipolar disorder, depression, invisible disabilities

It had been six months since I’d set foot in my office. By law, I couldn’t stay out any longer and expect my job to be waiting for me when I returned. I also had no money since my job didn’t offer short-term disability benefits and I’d neglected to procure the insurance on my own.

My symptoms of bipolar depression were still marked -- depressed mood, lethargy, negative thoughts, lack of concentration -- and I couldn’t think of going back to work under those circumstances. Before I took my leave, I’d already been snapping at people and crying in the bathroom, and I didn’t see those circumstances changing.

My therapist agreed with my assessment not to go back to work, so I resigned from my vice president of marketing position. It turned out to be a good choice because walking home from therapy that afternoon, I contemplated throwing myself in front of a bus.

When I’d finally made my decision to start focusing on my health instead of keeping my job, I thought to apply for long-term disability from the Social Security Administration. My therapist agreed that this was an appropriate course of action, that I had been disabled by my bipolar depression, which had been resistant to changes in medication, and that my mood and concentration issues made it impossible for me to work.

It made sense: if you were a forklift operator and had back injuries such that you couldn’t stand or move to operate the machinery, you’d be considered disabled and eligible for disability. It stood to reason that if my condition rendered me unable to perform the duties of my job, then I’d also be eligible for disability. That’s what I believed, anyway.

You’d think that the disability process would be the same for someone with a mental disability as it is for someone with a physical disability. Ha! Okay, sure, you have to go through the same process, but the process is infinitely difficult if your disability causes a deficiency in, say, motivation. I knew that I had to fill out an internet form in order to apply for my disability benefits. But how could I be expected to gather the necessary paperwork for said process if I couldn’t gather my wits about me to get out of bed in the morning?

And completing a hundred long-answer questions is an insurmountable task when simply taking a shower is too much of a stretch for me.

On a day when I was feeling more like a human and less like a slug, I finally got the gumption to tackle the disability paperwork. It was not easy. I had to remember dates of treatment and write essays about why I couldn’t work. I almost wrote, “I cannot work because I can’t focus enough on this page to write this essay.” I would’ve done it if I didn’t think being a smartass would hurt my chances for approval. I kept thinking that if I’d broken my leg or hurt my back that answering a bunch of questions might be easier, because at least my brain would still be working properly.

But wracking my depression-addled brain for information about why I couldn’t do my brain-heavy job with a depression-addled brain proved more than I could stand. I cried the first time I tried to complete the benefits application, then completed it a few days later.

Of course, I got rejected the first time I applied. In addition to the application I was required to visit an occupational specialist and a third-party psychiatric evaluator to verify my claims. Unfortunately I couldn’t go to the appointments. When I say couldn’t, I mean that I literally couldn’t make myself leave the house. I was afraid of what would happen at these strange offices.

I remember the application asking if any accommodations were needed to complete the process. I can imagine someone in a wheelchair asking for more time to get places, or someone on crutches asking for a car service.

But what could I ask for? A suitcase to carry my depression outside my body so that I could think and feel like a normal person? (Also, I can't imagine how difficult these things must be for people who are confronting disabilities that intersect both the physical AND the mental.)

The second time I applied for disability benefits I had a lawyer. One of those lawyers that you see advertised on daytime television during Judge Judy. My second go ‘round wasn’t an application, but rather an appeal of the previous decision. According to my lawyer I was probably rejected because I have a master’s degree and a high level of career achievement, so it’s difficult to see how I couldn’t work. Apparently you can educate yourself out of mental illness, or so says the Social Security Administration.

I eventually had to attend the evaluation meetings. I sat in a poorly-decorated government office and explained my “case” to an unsympathetic civil servant. I had to explain the damage that my bipolar depression had wrought on my life, my ability to function and my ability to work. I couldn’t figure out whether they were just clueless, or whether they thought that I was lying about being too depressed to get out of bed, let alone shower and get to work. Should I cry? Would more tears adequately express the despair I felt when I wanted to end my life?

They didn’t understand that when you’re suicidal, the last thing you can do is maintain a regular work schedule, let alone the duties of a marketing vice president that I was expected to complete.

No tears would come as I sat in the sterile office, trying to catch a peek at the outdated computer where my interviewer recorded my responses. The crying came when I made it home, exhausted from commuting, from talking, from trying to follow a train of thought. I cried because I thought I’d said the wrong thing. I cried because I didn’t know what I would do without the money from disability, and I’d have to wait eight more months. I cried because I felt like my illness had been devalued, rendered inconsequential by American bureaucracy.

As of today, over two years since I began the disability benefits process, I still have not had a decision on my case. I had a hearing in front of a judge and my lawyer believes that a positive result is forthcoming, meaning that I will be awarded a payment that dates back to my first application. I will obviously be happy with that outcome, even though I still bear the emotional scars of having suffered through the process.