I first set foot in a Social Security Administration building in July of 2005, one of the first few stops on the potholed ridden road to recovery. I was twenty-eight years old then, fresh out of the confines of Presbyterian Hospital after doing a bit of time in the hospital’s psychiatric ward, my third in four years.
Once inside the waiting room I performed a quick appraisal of the décor and was given an immediate and lasting impression of what the interior of a SSA government office area should look like. The American flag, the dazzling representation of the hopes and dreams of millions, had been placed on a prominent area of the back wall. But the resplendent flag occupied only a few of the hundreds of square feet that comprised the area of the waiting room. The SSA building was a dreary place. Sadness was a thick black cloud that hovered over every single person in the room.
Two well-armed security guards were responsible for maintaining order and directing traffic in the very compact waiting room, simple looking red chairs were occupied by customers made impatient by long waiting periods, the painting on the wall and the floor tiles was a nasty beige color, and the employees were irascible and disgruntled.
My father and I had a scheduled appointment with a case worker, so it wasn’t very long before we were summoned from the waiting room to the area of the office in which the case worker was stationed. Once we’d arrived within the case worker’s sphere of influence I was reminded of the time I spent a few hours in the Brooklyn Police Precinct. Like the precinct, the desks were arranged in rows, stacks of papers were perched on top of each desk, and SSA employees were buried beneath the stacks.
The case worker was a middle aged white woman with a close-cropped hair. She wore these black rimmed glasses that dwarfed her sagging face. The way she carried herself suggested that she was very experienced and knowledgeable. Anticipation of subsequent appointments provided her with the impetus to get right to the point of our meeting, for my father and I had barely sat in our chairs when she gave us some unexpected news. My application for Social Security Disability Insurance had been approved upon my first request, a significant amount of it being retroactive, which meant that I would be receiving a lump sum payment followed by subsequent monthly payments for as long as I needed them.
My reaction to the news was that of genuine stupefaction and incredulity. Hitherto, I’d always been confident in the assertion that Social Security was a mechanism that had been created to ease the difficulties that accompanied the waning days of people like my father, the elderly and the retired. But there I was at age twenty-eight, and on the verge of receiving damn near the equivalent of a minimum wage salary from the government because my mental affliction — bipolar depression — had made it impossible for me to remain stable in a workplace environment. I was in my late twenties and I’d managed to convince the state that I was going to be a lost cause for the foreseeable future. Hooray for me.
“Congratulations,” said the case worker, sounding surprised. “It is indeed rare that someone is approved for disability insurance after applying for the first time.”
So, there were thousands of people who were suffering through their own debilitating physical and mental impairments and they were still being denied funds for living. Add guilt to all of the other emotions that were surging through me.
“I didn’t know that” I said. “How many tries does it usually take?”
“Most people have to apply multiple times before they receive disability insurance. Today is a surprise. A welcome one, don’t you think?”
I fixed her with a furtive glance as she arranged her papers. A welcome surprise?! I didn’t really think so. I would have much preferred being able to trade my skills and effort for a paycheck from an established company. It was just impossible for me to do so right then. This bipolar depression was a beastly disease that had robbed me of three of my prime earning years and was likely to rob me of a lot more. How was I going to survive in this cruel world if I couldn’t support myself through employment? I had to accept the government’s offer.
“Yes. A welcome surprise,” I said, curious. “I wonder why I wasn’t rejected the first time though.”
She smiled. “Perhaps something in your record spoke to them. You’re a college graduate and you’ve worked steadily in the past. Maybe those things are what have worked in your favor.”
I sighed. “Maybe you’re right.”
Although it was mandated that I receive disability insurance because I was deemed incapable of maintaining employment, the government didn’t think it was wise to hand over complete control of the government’s money to a bipolar depressive who’d been admitted to a psychiatric facility three times in the last four years. So, Dad was ascribed with the label of trustee, effectively given him guardianship over the dispersal of the funds. After dad and I signed all of the necessary documents, we were given these thick booklets to pore over. Thus began my complicated and fraught relationship with the Social Security Administration.
Even though the administration was consistently doling out a monthly insurance stipend so that I could pursue some kind of life, the stringent rules that attached themselves to the money made me feel as if I was a child under punishment. After three years of having to endure the routine belittling and humiliation, I’d had more than enough. Determined and confident of my recovery, I enrolled in the local graduate school. A year and a half after matriculating I found steady employment as an educator in the Aurora Public Schools District. The administration finally ceased the transfer of the payments after they’d learned that I’d secured employment as an educator, and I was elated because I was done having to subject myself to their whims.
For years there would be no contact between the SSA and me. And each day that I was free of the SSA meant that I was putting more distance between myself and the bad old days. And then one day the calls started. I ignored them at first, hoping that my neglect would dissuade them from attempting to contact me. The calls became more frequent and more grating instead. And then came the fateful green envelope in which a letter was enclosed, informing me that I owed the Social Security Administration more than ten-thousand dollars. I felt the bottom fall out from beneath me in the minutes that ensued. Undesirable memories and phobias from the bad old days rushed in like a tidal wave against an overmatched levee.
I’ve spent the better part of eight years trying to reimburse the administration for the “overpayments” — I maintain that these overpayments were the administration’s fault. It’s been a particularly heavy burden to shoulder, one of a few that continue to weigh me down, causing a slight curvature of the spine. The burden is made heavier by the administration’s occasional bouts of obtuseness and incompetence. It’s a harrowing back and forth relationship with a government entity that is convinced of the spurious assumption that I was dishonest about my need for money.
The gnashing of my teeth that accompanies unpleasant thoughts concerning this debt has worn away most of my tooth enamel. The end is in sight though. I’ll have finished reimbursing the government for these “overpayments” in September of this year. When done I’ll finally be free of this psychologically abusive partner until I’m once again forced to enter into another relationship with the SSA when I’m able to retire.
I’ve learned a great deal about the Social Security Administration during these thirteen years, the most obvious lesson being that the Social Security Administration serves a variety of clientele. From 9:00 am to 4:00 pm every single day, the old, the feeble, the addled, the sick, the bereaved, and their dutiful caregivers flood the confines of the SSA building, filling it to capacity. Some customers make sure to arrive at a location before most people arise from sleep — usually two hours before the opening of the building — in order to get a coveted spot. If you are not early then you risk being forced to stand on your feet for hours while you wait for your number to be called. If you are willing to spend a few hours on hold you can perhaps set up an appointment with the agency over the phone (put your phone on speaker). But if you work every day or are otherwise occupied you’re not going to have the time to wait until someone picks up the other end of the line. I’d rather just take the first few hours of the day off so that I can take care of my business with the SSA in person.
Once inside the waiting room, I’m overcome by the scores of vulnerable citizens who are anxiously awaiting their opportunity to see a case worker. Some people will literally jump from their chairs once their number is called and then scamper toward the available window. There are only so many available windows that encircle the waiting room. Behind those windows are the service agents, most of whom seem unsympathetic to the plight of their customers.
Every time I sit across from a caseworker I am hopeful that he or she can find a way to be more sympathetic to my plight. It usually never happens though, for I remain just a number to them, someone that they refuse to see. But in the back of my mind sits the murky realization of why SSA employees insist on remaining so dispassionate. They have so many people that they are tasked with serving, as the SSA is responsible for the needs of nearly eighty million people. Their impassivity is probably ingrained in their training, a way to cope with having to satisfy the pressing needs of so many people.
I occupy an administrative role in a local hospital now. I don’t interact with patients that often, but I still encounter horrific situations. I imagine that people who work for the SSA can recount some of their own horror stories. The desperate clients who arrive at their service windows don’t care how their case worker is feeling at the time. Many customers are desperate people who are living on the society’s fringes. Life has repeatedly left them beaten down and discarded, and they’ve come to the Social Security Administration to fight for what many people believe they don’t deserve. I can identify with these desperate people. I know what it’s like to have to keep fighting while existing in the shadows.
It’s January 2018 and I am no longer a citizen existing on the fringe. I have multiple degrees, own a car, and work as a laboratory employee at the local hospital. I am moving forward with my life and putting the past in my rearview mirror. That is until another dark green envelope arrived in the mail. When I read the contents of the letter I wanted to scream. My current debt with the Social Security Administration had been increased to twice the amount.
When the day for an unscheduled appointment with a case worker arrived, mom and I made sure to leave the house in the very early morning. As soon as we pulled into the parking lot I saw that there was a line of people that extended down the length of building’s stair. It was a chilly February morning, too chilly to wait for an extended period of time in the cold. When we were finally ensconced in a parking space, I offered a suggestion to mom. “I think that we should wait in the car. I don’t really feel like waiting outside in this cold.”
Momma and I turned in the direction of the building. A steady stream of visitors were sidling up behind those people that were already shivering in line.
“If we are too far back in the line it might take too many hours before your number is called,” warned momma. “You know how things go here. And I know that you don’t want to spend an entire day waiting.”
I sighed. “No, I don’t. “And I do have a lot of stuff that I have to take care of today too.”
She turned to face me. “Let’s get over there before we are too far back in the line.”
“Okay,” I said, resigned. “Let me get my book and then we’ll go.”
At exactly nine o’clock we were allowed into the building. We slowly marched through the first-floor lobby and then up the stairs until we reached the second floor. Two burly and surly security guards greeted us at the entryway. The black one merely grunted when I tried to engage him in conversation.
I performed a quick reconnaissance the waiting area before grabbing my number from the machine. Chairs were rapidly being filled by human bodies. Momma and I rushed to the two conspicuously empty seats in the middle row. It didn’t take long for all of the available seats to became filled, and still more people streamed into that cramped waiting area. With no remaining seats available, the late arrivals were forced to stand alongside the walls.
An hour passed and we still had not been called, this despite the brisk pace that was being set by the caseworkers. Customers were being summoned to the windows every few minutes and suddenly empty seats were immediately re-occupied by new human beings. I was consistently interrupting my reading of Outlander to look up at the screen with the hope that my number would finally be called and losing my place in the story at the same time.
“Mr. Ihenetu?” said the husky voice to my left.
I veered in the direction of the voice. The next chair to my left was empty. A stocky teenaged boy of Hispanic origin was sitting in the next chair. An elderly Hispanic man — perhaps it was the person that he was caring for — was sitting one chair to the left of the boy. The young boy smiled enthusiastically, revealing a mouth full of metal braces that gleamed. I for sure didn’t recognize this stranger but I was somewhat intrigued by his attempt to reach out. It had been almost nine years since a child had addressed me as Mr. Ihenetu. I hoped that my smile would encourage him to speak some more.
“You don’t remember me Mr. Ihenetu?” said Justin.
I shook my head. “No. I’m sorry but I don’t recognize you. “Who are you?”
“I’m Justin,” he exclaimed.
Still a blank.
“You were one of my teachers when I was in the third grade!”
I squinted as I struggled for a few seconds to recollect my memories of the time. If the boy remembered me from the year that he was in third grade, then I must have encountered him when I was interning at the math and science school in 2008.
I prepared my teacher’s voice before I responded. “Oh yes, yes, yes. Now I remember who you are. You used to be one of the smallest kids in the class. You’ve grown up.”
He raised his chin into the air, exuding pride and said, “Yeah I’m seventeen now. How are you doing Mr. Ihenetu? Are you still teaching elementary school?”
“Not really. I’m working at a hospital now.”
He looked disappointed. “Really? How come. You were a really good teacher. I thought that you’d be teaching for a long time.”
I began to panic. What should I tell this boy? I certainly couldn’t let it slip that being unceremoniously fired from my last teaching position was the reason why I left the teaching profession all together. I breathed deep and exhaled a white lie. “I did too. But I found something that I like better. How about you? You’re in high school now, right?”
“And I hope that you’re thinking about going to college?”
“I am Mr. Ihenetu. I want to go to the University of Colorado and study business administration.”
“Business administration!” I said throwing my head back. “That’s really good. And I know that you will make it. You were one of the smartest kids in that class.”
“Thanks Mr. Ihenetu,” he said.
Justin’s companion tapped him lightly on the shoulder, prompting him to turn his back to me. As the two of them spoke, the old man trained his finger in the direction of the television screen. It was their turn to see a caseworker.
Justin would extend a hand before abandoning his chair. “It was good to see you Mr. Ihenetu.”
I took his hand into mine. “It was nice seeing you too. Good luck with everything.” And then they were gone.
It would become impossible for me to go back to reading my novel in the wake of my reunion with young Justin. I rubbed my hand across my cheeks and chin. I really hadn’t paid much heed to the gray hairs that were sprouting from my face until I became reacquainted with a former student. My chance meeting with Justin would serve as a poignant reminder of how old I was becoming.
I didn’t resent the boy for reminding me of my advancing age. I was actually proud. In fact, I was nearly as proud as Justin was when he’d announced that he was seventeen a few minutes ago. Justin seemed to have grown into a very polite, engaging, responsible and aspirational young man. And I must have had something to do with his development since I was one of his educators. I sat back in my chair and took the next few seconds to revel in this sudden realization. For years, reading in the SSA building had been a way for me to exult in a temporary respite from what my inclusion with the people in this building represented: that of being a mentally ill man who had been relegated to subsisting on handouts from the United States government for years. But of course, that wasn’t all that I am. Thanks to young Justin I was reminded of my contribution to the growth and maturity of the next generation of adults through my work as a teacher, and of the work that I do to ease the plight of the desperate and the sick through my work as a hospital employee. I could mean something more to a great many more people if I keep on my current path.
My impression of the Social Security Administration is mixed. But I know that I could not have found my way without help from this organization. Certain politicians would prefer that Social Security become an extinct entity. People will die needlessly if we allow these politicians to get their way.
We can’t allow the politicians to end a program that acts as a lifeline for so many people in need.