Monday, October 27, 2014

Zen & the Art of Chronic Illness

One way to learn how to "Live in the Now," is to get a chronic illness. I realized this after I called a friend of mine and invited him to come over. I had spent the night before in the ER for a kidney stone, and when he showed up I asked him, "So, what do you want to do?" He laughed. "Do? Woman, you're still wearing your ER bracelets and you're asking me what we should do? How about you REST?" The though never occured to me. I was okay NOW. Why did I need to rest? And that's when it hit me. It didn't matter what happened last night. That was last night. This was now. My chronic illness made me a better Buddhist than decades of awareness training. Who knew! LOL

And if I'm completely honest, my chronic illness has made me powerful in ways I never thought possible. All those ideals that i thought were so lofty when I was healthy, ("don't sweat the small stuff, and it's all small stuff," "don't worry about what hasn't happened, let go of what has," "first things first," "but for the grace of God, there go I...") are now regular habits and 2nd nature to me. I couldn't believe it, but here was my friend laughing at me, because I just had.

I thought that my life and my growth had been interrupted, and that I had become stagnant, trapped at an age below my peers. I thought that because my dreams of achievement had been put on hold, I had been put on hold. I thought that because my resume wasn't listing any new skills, I wasn't learning anything new or adding to my mastery of any subjects. I thought that life was passing me by, and that meant I was no longer a part of life. I thought that I had "nothing to show for" the time that had passed. I thought that because I wasn't climbing the social ladder, that I wasn't going anywhere.

Boy, was I wrong.

In fact, my disability allowed me to do what most people wish they could do, but can't! Normal folks have to turn to monastic living to achieve the separation from "the pressures of the world." I'd been given a golden ticket on a wild ride through horrors and wonders, tackling some of the scariest topics in life: what does it feel like to be dying? what's the worst pain I can endure and survive? do I know how to come back after a devastating blow? can I put my life back together if it all falls apart? can I tell when something is seriously wrong? do I know how to ask for help before it's catastrophic & beyond my control? can I swallow my pride/fear/righteous anger/shame, and do what needs to be done? can I man up in the worst of circumstances? can I take care of myself as I grow older and start to lose my faculties? do I have what it takes? can I keep myself safe?

I have answered those questions and multiple times. My ability to bounce back happens the moment I am physically able. I know I can trust how I feel and report it accurately and fairly. I don't respond to how I imagine things to be in my body, I react to how they are. I've had several examples of this, but one big ones stands out: I have no startle response when strangers touch me, or of I'm touched unexpectedly.

You know the kid's game: come up behind someone and tap them on the shoulder opposite of the side you're standing on, and watch them jump to see who did that? I've had strangers come up behind me and put their arm around my waist when I wasn't expecting it, and not only did I respond like I knew it was going to happen, but I let them move me to the side as though we were dance partners. What it actually was, was a bartender moving me out of the path he needed to take, but I couldn't know that from the back of my head. (There was also no alcohol involved!) It didn't feel like a stranger had grabbed my waist from behind. It felt like my husband had put his arm around me, it was that comfortable. I've had the same experience when struck by inanimate objects. I just don't startle easily anymore. It's amazing what it takes to make me jump. I've achieved a level of bravery I didn't know was possible.

Life didn't pass me by... I was learning lessons most people have to wait their entire lives to learn. I was being given such a deep understanding of the principles most spiritual practices hold dear they became part of my nature. My disease has been a spiritual guide through some of the most advanced topics in life. What I once feared and anguished over no longer troubles me. I intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle me. And even though I was removed from the normal path of life, I see how even my experiences can benefit others.

In my last year of college, I started freaking out. I didn't know what to do with myself or what my life's purpose was. I even went so far as to go to a counselor to try and figure these things out. For the longest time, I thought my purpose was to be a mother and help nurture a new life into this world, passing on the lessons I had learned. That dream will probably never come true for me. But in its place, a much larger life's purpose has grown: to serve the community of those suffering in illness and disease, and those who are dying or who long to die. Most people are terrified of saying something wrong when someone they know falls ill or starts talking about depression or suicidal thoughts. A lot more people freak out or run away completely. Not me. I'm just fine tackling those issues.

And as my friend's laugh reminded me, I thoroughly live "in The Now." Without even trying, I have found that present-moment focus that monks study for years to achieve. I am not attached to what just happened. I let go of the moment once it has passed and allow it fall from my sight, just like the autumn leaves fall to the ground and are carried away by the wind. What's past is what's past, what's now is now, and this present moment (and my current abilities in it) is all that matters.

Wow! Who knew?

Friday, October 24, 2014

U.S. Spends 40% less on Disability Benefits/GDP than All Other Nations

Less than 1% of people who are disabled are able to come off of disability and return to work. That number should not statistically be possible. Less than 1% who are disabled become un-disabled? That was told to me by a Social Security Administration official. And looking at the picture further, it's even less rosy.

According to a recent analysis by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, the United States has the least generous disability-benefit system of all OECD member countries except Korea. The OECD describes the U.S. disability-benefit system, along with those of Korea, Japan, and Canada, as having “the most stringent eligibility criteria for a full disability benefit, including the most rigid reference to all jobs available in the labor market and the shortest sickness benefit payment duration.” In addition, the United States spends less as a share of its economy on incapacity-related benefits than other nations. In 2009 public expenditures on incapacity-related benefits comprised just 1.5% of U.S. gross domestic product, or GDP, compared to an average of 2.4% for all OECD nations.
The Facts on Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income for Workers with Disabilities— Center for American Progress (emphasis mine)

And no one is getting rich on disability. Before the Great Recession, the overall employment rate— which the Social Security Administration defines as: annual earnings over just $1,000"— was only 12% in 2007. That means 88% of people on disability earned less than $2.70 a day. When I was employed, my morning tea cost more than that! And yet there are still alarmist articles like this one from Forbes which claims:

Benefits that would replace a significant portion of their previously earned wages, while also qualifying them for Medicare, our generous health-insurance program for the elderly. Today, the United States spends around $200 billion a year, literally paying Americans not to work.

I don't know what you consider significant, but my income is only a little over one fifth of my previous income. Also, I am limited to making $1,000, or I loose my benefits. This, while also not underpaying me for my skills (per Social Security rules). That means I can only work 6.9 hours per week. A old girlfriend of mine who was in sales can only work 3 hours per week! You find either of us a job like that, and we'll take it!

So the difference between most and the poverty line is only $4,000, and I can guarantee you most disabled folks medical expenses are more than $4,000 in a year. My medications alone average more than half that, and I've turned down my doctors offer of a few medications because they were too expensive. and let's not forget how much dental care costs should anything go wrong with your teeth, because Medicare doesn't cover dental at all, never mind that loads of medications and conditions ruin teeth and can make wearing dentures impossible.

And Social Security rules are made to keep recipients at poverty levels, after first subjecting them to the most rigorous screening process in the world! Not only do they want to keep our group as small as possible, but they want to ensure our dependence on a system that keeps us in poverty! Less than 1% of small group to start ever make it. It's worse if you were disabled after 30 without having had paid enough FICA tax. That is, if you receive SSI along with SSDI benefits, you are limited to only $2,000 in assets whether earned or in gifts, a number increased only once, in 1989, and never adjusted for inflation.

What I see is a system that punishes its most needy, trapping them in a world where their suffering is only compounded by the constraints it places on them, saying essentially, "If you are truly sick (which we highly doubt in the first place), you don't deserve a route to success. The "Pursuit of Happiness" is only for people created equally, and since you are less than, you shall receive less than." As of March 2013, the average monthly benefit for a disabled worker was about $1,129, with male workers receiving $1,255 per month and female workers receiving $993 per month on average.

Yes, Social Security has programs for becoming "financially independent," but to take advantage of these programs, you are required to plan to quit using your benefits as a result of receiving this "hand up" on a timed progress line (usually 3-5 years), regardless of whether or not your condition has improved. Basically what they're saying is, we know that your disability should not be an impediment to you being a fully functioning member of society. We know that if we help you learn some new skills, get assistance setting up your business, or invest in some small ticket items for your future (never to exceed the amount of your monthly benefits), then regardless of the condition that disabled you, you will magically be able to make enough money to support yourself and no longer need disability benefits or Medicare. (Nevermind that it would have been impossible to get health insurance after being disabled until four years ago.)

If you made any sort of success for yourself prior to becoming disabled, you're penalized and kept from a career that was successful up until the time that your health went south. Social Security requires that you never ever charge less than fair market value for your work, even if you're providing a discount because you may not be able to meet deadline like someone who is health. That's not what matters. What matters to the Social Security Administration,kk is you're doing the same work, and therefore must charge the same as a healthy person would.

In this way, many people who would like to make themselves financially stable are scared into avoiding assistance services, because we are required to plan to leave the safety net of disability benefits, regardless of whether or not our condition has improved. Income, rather than illness, really determines if you are disabled in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the stigma that disable people are somehow cheating everyone else out of "hard earned" money (as if disability is "easy" money) by inflammatory articles like this one from Forbes, "How Americans Game the $200 Billion a Year Disability Industrial Complex" This title makes you think that people on disability make $200 Billion a year, but that's just not true. It's the Disability Industrial Complex that's worth $200 Billion. That number is not an entitlement. It's an asset value! And what's with the word "Game"? What an explosive word to use, nevermind that it ignores all the facts!!

There is some hope on the horizon. The ABLE Act would allow those on SSI to create health savings accounts and not be limited to $2,000 in assets. This is especially important to children on disability as they grow older. If you're disabled as a child, you've never paid into Social Security because you've never worked. Therefore you're on SSI and limited to never owning more than $2,000 in assets. Mind you, the estimated cost of raising a disabled child is around $1,000,000. Basically the government has said to disabled children: Don't ever try. You were born at the bottom and you will stay at the bottom. A disability should not create a class system in this society, but that's exactly what we've done.

Let's change this!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Father, Welcome to My World

My father has leukemia. It is not the fast-moving kind, so there is a blessing in that. People can live for decades with this type of leukemia, and the doctors don't suggest anything should be done at this time. Still, he's frightened, and is now required to see a doctor every six months to check it. He's also already experienced doctor misdiagnosis, as they ordered a colonoscopy seeing a "mass" that was actually one of his own organs. Regardless, they terrified the poor man. He was sure they were going to tell him it was doom. And after going on that medical emotional roller coaster, he understand me and my struggles even more.

I've been sort of poo-poo'ed throughout my illness by both my parents, though my father has been consistently more supportive (my mother calls me names). Now, I have someone else going through what I've been through first-hand. It's different when you almost die and you have over a week in the hospital as the doctors piece you back together. That type of experience does change a person, and does make you immediately assume all other news you receive is going to be just as fatal or near fatal.

He understands me now.

He understands my need to say, "I love you," at the end of every call, because it may be the last time, and he says it first now. He understands how hard I've been working, and he supports my decision to not try and return to full-time work. He's going to support me as long as he can. I'm doing my best to make my own future, and he thinks I have a good idea, and that I should follow my dream. (This from the man who I had to fight to get my education, education that he gave my sister for free... he's always felt guilty about that.)

And he's depressed now. He's struggling. And I get it. It's difficult to have hope for a bright future when the bullet has already left the gun, and it's just a matter of time before it strikes you down. I get that. And I get how painful it is as the disease ravages you, unchecked. He has a harsh future ahead of him, even with all his recovery from the stroke, and that's difficult to know. There is a freedom in knowing what has caused your suffering, if you've been hurting for years and no one can tell you why. It's different when you just think you're growing old, and find out, oh, no... it's far worse than that.

I am doing the best I can to help him, though we have a good laugh at some of my poorer attempts. His eyes have been opened to a grim reality, so I understand that it's not so easy. My heart goes out to him. I know from experience how difficult this road is.

And though I hate that my father is now a part of this club, it's nice to not be so alone...