I had a big win recently. My request for an expedited hearing before the Social Security Administrative Law Judge was approved. We waived the right to a 20-day notice and were notified on January 21 that my hearing would take place on the 24th since there had been a cancellation. For three days there was a frantic race to get ready. A race to pull together all of the arguments and facts and answers. After years of waiting, suddenly it was a rush to pull it all together before Friday. I met with my lawyer. I spoke to my family. I got letters from friends, family members, previous doctors. And then we went.
I sat in a tiny room with an awkward setup staring up at the man who would decide my fate. He was kind and comforting and patient and reassuring. Nothing like what I had imagined. I think that I’ve just been fighting so hard for so long that it was actually a little unnerving to not feel as though I was facing an opponent in that room. My lawyer gave an opening argument. The judge asked questions. My lawyer asked questions. Then the judge started to move to the “VE,” the vocational expert. These are people whose job it is to find any theoretical job in the national economy for a theoretical job seeker with the limitations of the person applying for disability. My lawyer had explained this before the hearing and said not to get upset or defensive when he or she listed the jobs. “They always find jobs,” he told me. It’s the lawyer’s job to cross examine the VE and challenge the idea that I could do any of the jobs with my limitations.
My mother was with us, waiting outside. She was going to testify if the judge allowed it – not all do. So when the judge started to call on the VE, my lawyer said that she was there and could offer testimony regarding the nature and severity of my condition and the limitations I face. The judge looked back and said “I don’t think that will be necessary.” My heart sank. He continued… “I believe I’ve heard all I need to hear. We’ll just get the VE on the record and then rule in favor.” The world just stopped. Much like I had asked it to a million times. But this time I hadn’t asked. The judge just made it so with three words.
“Rule in favor.”
I kept hearing it. He began questioning the VE. He threw out the set of limitations that I have and asked if there were any jobs for a hypothetical job seeker with such conditions on the light exertion level (social security splits jobs up into exertion levels.) There were none, she told him.
“Rule in favor”
It kept playing in my mind. He removed some of the limitations. There were still none. This went on for a couple of minutes until he finally asked if there was any job at any level that the hypothetical candidate could do. “No, your honor. None.” I knew in my head that those words solidified what the judge had already concluded.
“Rule in favor.”
I had won. But what on earth was going on? I was shocked. That made sense. I was happy. That made sense. I was all kinds of things that made sense. But I was sad, or upset, or….something I couldn’t quite put my finger on that I knew didn’t feel good. And then it hit me. I had just sat in a room answering questions and listening to my lawyer prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is not a job anywhere at any level that I can do. It’s funny how living with something, and fighting to get others to recognize it is so completely different from having someone else say it or prove it.
The only analogy I could come up with was this…if you talk badly about someone in your family it’s not a big deal. You love them; you’ll get to each other every now and then. But if someone OUTSIDE of your family says anything bad about that person – WOAH! Step back – now THAT is not cool. Even if all they do is repeat what you have said, it sounds so different when they say it. Feels different when they say it. It’s WORSE when they say it. Well it felt really different to hear that VE and that judge say that I am, in fact, disabled. That I cannot work.
It took me a few days to get things clear in my own head and in my heart. I was happy. And grateful. And the initial sting wore off. I focused on the fact that it won’t always be like this and that now, finally, at least I will be somewhat able to support myself. It’s kind of strange, to be honest. Strange to get up every day and not be waging this war. I’ve been fighting for disability for so long that it still feels a bit like I’m not doing something really important every day.
There is still a lot to figure out. The final decision hasn’t been put on the record. They haven’t sent me the paperwork with my award amount and all the details. It will be a while until my benefits begin. But the judge was very clear. And my lawyer said that the VE not finding ANY jobs – that doesn’t happen. I still have to sort through my decisions about health insurance and what I’ll need on top of medicaid. But the fight is over. And I won.
I put off applying for SSDI for a long time because I refused to believe what was proven in court two weeks ago. I thought it meant I was weak. I thought it meant I had given up. I wanted to believe it was not true. But you can’t hide from the truth. At least not forever, and certainly not without consequence. I hid for a long time. And it cost me all of my money, many nights and even weeks in hospitals, and nearly my life. And it cost my family an enormous amount too. But this decision marks the start of a new reality for me and a new truth. I don’t yet know what it looks like or what it will feel like, but I am, above all things, grateful.
This has not been an easy road, or a comfortable victory. But it is a victory. One that I pray each of you plodding along in the same heavy shoes has the strength to keep moving toward, one step at a time. There are many road blocks and the system is designed to make you give up. But don’t. Keep going. Keep fighting. It is a long road. A hard road. And you are fighting for something you wish with all your heart you did not need. But you do. I do. And though it is somewhat bitter – there is still sweet victory at the end of this journey! So here’s to strength and perseverance, and to someday not needing that for which we have all fought so hard!