Tuesday, July 25, 2006

My Trial in Bleak House or An Amerikan Carol

Let me sum up my experience with the SSDI doctor, er, I mean “medical consultant” with a tagline, the way they do in the movie biz: Kafka meets Dickens. If this doesn’t sound like a movie you’d go to see, just imagine being in it.

I exaggerate.
It really wasn’t all that bad, if you don’t count the two times I almost started crying: once when the medical assistant told me to stand up straight so he could measure me, which of course I couldn’t do (I used to be 5’5, I am now only 5’2 because of the stooping forward-ness) and again when the medical consultant told me to walk without the use of the cane, which I also couldn’t do without bracing my hands against my thighs.

I arrived at 9:13 for a 9:30 appointment, even though I had been warned by SSDI not to arrive early. The time of my entrance, whether transgression or simply a bureaucratic requirement, was noted on the bottom of the paperwork I brought with me and which followed me from room to room throughout my exam. I was first taken in to see the psychiatrist. He looked like an aging hippie; he had long grey hair and was wearing a guayabera and sandals with socks.

I explained that I had Degenerative Disc Disease and he asked me if I had ever “used one of these,” proudly whipping out a pillow from behind his back. (See this ) I had to bite my tongue to not tell this guy just what he could do with his smelly old hippie pillow while his hand was back there. He then gave me a list of five things to remember for a few minutes later, which I am surprised and slightly afraid to admit, I could only remember four (was it boy? a car?).

I think he must have nevertheless concluded that I was in my right mind, as he allowed me to exit his tiny windowless room and “make myself comfortable” in the quite large and at this point completely empty waiting room down the hall. There were five rows of 8 blue plastic chairs each and one wall was unaccountably covered in large mirrors with a metal hand rail screwed on, like some kind of jokey ballet barre. The walls were painted a dismal sickly yellow, as were all the walls throughout the office and festooned with sheets of white paper on which had been boldly printed a number of instructions and admonishments in several languages: “Absolutely No Cellphone Use,” “Stop at the front desk on your way out” and in huge letters, “DO NOT MOVE CHAIRS.”

Just as I was reading the “do not move chairs” sign the medical assistant came in and began to move the chairs, straightening the rows with painstaking precision. In the front corner a TV sprouted from the wall just out of reach of any of the disabled folk who would find themselves waiting there. I suppose having some kind of disability is not enough, we have to be made every kind of miserable there is by being held captive for an interminable period in a room with TV but no cable (OK, shades of Sartre here, I couldn't resist). It was tuned to a local channel playing one of those courtroom shows, and not even one of the well-known ones, like Judge Judy, but some lesser-known-also-ran-wisecracking-no-nonsense judge with what seemed like, at least for the 10 or so minutes that I sat in the room, a docket exclusively made up of strippers and former strippers suing each other over various broken contracts and infractions. The program was interrupted by commercials for ambulance chasing law firms and, ironically, disability attorneys.

Just as I was beginning to get interested in a case involving a sexy dance class teacher (and ex-stripper) and a former student (and current stripper), my name was called quite loudly from just over my shoulder into the empty waiting room. I rose and was shown into a room just a few feet from where I was sitting by a bony, bird-like man with a stretched out pointy nose and thin extra-long fingers who I could have sworn said his name was Mr. Tingle. Of course, I was unable to ask him to repeat it for fear that I had heard correctly and his name was, in fact Tingle, and for fear of the irrepressible laughter that would have surely been produced had he repeated it.

Mr. Tingle, as we’ll continue to call him, for no one is looking or listening now, proceeded to ask me questions about my condition and take sloppy notes on a white pad (yes, they looked like chicken scratch! I was avoiding it, too obvious) which he then dictated into a small tape recorder that had been lying prominently in front of me, face down. I just assumed when I walked in and sat down that it was on and recording our conversation, and mentioned the same to Tingle when he first picked it up, to which he responded, “that wouldn’t be very ethical, to record someone without telling them!” I tried to joke in reply, “Hey, who am I to argue with the government?” Tingle cracked a tiny smile, revealing widely-spaced teeth encrusted with what I can only compare to barnacles.

He proceeded to dictate with, and I kid you not, the speed of an auctioneer, his lips barely moving and his barnacle teeth not impeding the rapid-fire flow in the least. I couldn’t really catch most of what he was saying except for the occasional comma or period, each of which he pronounced with the appropriate amount of pause. What I did understand, to my great surprise, was that he seemed to be inexplicably translating everything I’d told him into the most catastrophic terms imaginable. Was that what I said, I wondered? Was I really that bad?

When he was finished with me I stepped out into the waiting room, now half filled with a collection of men, some walking with canes, others moving about quite ably and socializing. No one was stretching out at the barre or changing the channel on the TV. I stopped by the desk on my way out, as I had been instructed by Doctor, oops, Mr. Tingle the “medical consultant,” and reminded to do so by the numerous signs on all the walls.

As I stepped outside and used my cane to flag down a taxi, I started to get paranoid. What if it was all a trick, with Tingle beefing up my symptoms in order to elicit a confession from me that I was making it all up? Was I making it all up? Had the hippie psychiatrist with the pillow really only given me four things to remember? Would Tingle expose me, the way “someone must have traduced” Joseph K?

Of course not! The cab rattled along and my aching spine reminded me that I, indeed, was not making any of this stuff up and that if Tingle wanted to act as my “mysterious benefactor” and make it easier for me to be disabled, then so be it. Hey, who am I to argue with the government?


Blogger HeroXJimmy said...

My word... I can just get the most amazingly clear glimpse of your world at times, as I did here. I guess you must be glad that that is over with, for now.

I have been turned down for SSDI and I now have a caseworker and have to hire a lawyer and appear in front of a judge. I did, however, get Medicaid. I guess it all just has to be taken one step at a time, yes? It seems overwhelming. I can hardly see to read, (from the CMV), and I confuse easily these days. However I have two amazing friends from Brooklyn, John and Kerry, who are basically handling all the massive amounts of paper work. I just have to keep sober, take my meds, show up for all my Dr. appointments, (6 this week), and not feel sorry for my self.

I cannot believe how bad your back has gotten in what seems to be a relatively short period of time. From the outside looking in you are handling this all amazingly well... and you do not keep your mouth shut about anything and I think that this may be your most important weapon in all of this. I need to do more of what you do.

Hero and Jimmy

6:57 AM  
Blogger klbrowser said...

Hi! I ran across this entry via My Disability Blogger. I marvel at the clarity with which you express your experience.

I had a Consultative Exam last December. While the doc stated with absolute certainty in her report that I was too ill to work, Social Security chose to ignore the woman THEY hired and denied me. Luckily, with the help of a lawyer, I was able to obtain an on the record decision from a judge and was granted SSDI in May.

Please continue to tell it like it is. As a disabled person, I often feel invisible and am grateful whenever someone has the fortitude to speak up regarding the horrors one must endure to obtain the benefits one has rightfully earned.

I have read the rest of your blog and am incredibly impressed with your writing. May I add yours to the links list on my own blog?

1:24 AM  

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