I walked into the building having zero idea of what to expect. A conference room? A few conference rooms and a waiting area?
Turns out, in Los Angeles, if you want to be approved for Social Security Disability Insurance you need to go through a grueling, horrible, humiliating process that includes having no idea what in the hell is going on except everyone believes you are a liar and a mooch.
I didn’t want to apply for SSDi as it’s commonly known. That’s for old people. Like REALLY OLD PEOPLE. I’m 38 and I have every intention of getting well and going back to work. That’s all that I kept repeating in my head as I filled out the initial form and then others and then the appeal form when I was denied. That’s also what was going through my head as I walked into the building to meet my attorney for the first time and stand before a judge to plead my case about just how disabled I am and why I should be approved and NOT denied.
If it were up to me I’d say ‘because every doctor is making me… you think I WANT to do this?’ but I had a feeling that might not be the approach to take. And considering I had already been denied, something that still baffles me, getting snotty with a judge is probably not in my best interest. The last time I got in trouble with a judge was the most HUMILIATING experience of my reporting career and one I will NEVER EVER FORGET (I thought I turned my work cell to vibrate but instead I turned it on HIGH and my news desk called me during a case and the judge threw me out of the courtroom) I’ve learned you just don’t mess with judges. It’s like getting pulled over. Be NICE TO THE POLICEMAN and say ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ and let them have their power trip if they must. Even if they stamp DENIED on your forehead.
Yes. Denied. Because, as I was told, apparently everyone is denied on the first try for SSDi. It’s just how it works.
As part of my private insurance disability benefits I’m required to file for SSDi and appeal and appeal and appeal with lawyers THEY give me to appeal and appeal and appeal. Actually I don’t know how many times I’m required to appeal but they did give me the attorney and I have a feeling they’d keep appealing until the cows came home. Because they don’t want to pay my check. They made that painfully clear when it took them 9 months to process my claim and investigate if, in fact, I was actually disabled. Never mind that we’d sought the help of every doctor in a 100 mile radius and they all came to the same conclusion. But I digress…back to walking into the building …
I parked, took the elevator up, and walked the hallway into a room where there was an armed officer at a table asking for my name and my ID before I was even to the desk.
Ok. Already NOT what I was expecting. But OK. As I fumbled for my ID and gave him my name I took a quick glance around the run-down room. Chairs were spread out in a U-shape and various other people with canes and wheelchairs were seated. Some with what appeared to be attorneys. Others with family members and friends. There was a single folding table that seemed to hold an old school pitcher of coffee or water, some styrofoam cups, and I swear to God a framed poster of George Takei and another Star Trek uniformed person with some slogan about Social Security going boldly where no one had gone before.
I did a double take. But…George Takei…that had to be a good omen.
On another wall there was a window, as if in a doctor’s waiting room, where another security type officer sat and above him were two framed photos. One of President Obama and one of Vice President Biden. Had the nice man at the table not immediately told me I was required to shut off my phone or leave (and given my history with judges I had no problem sliding the screen to OFF) I would have been tweeting and instagramming and facebooking the HELL out of everything in this room. The photo of President Obama was hung slightly higher than Biden, by the way.
I was told my attorney was already here and in another hearing and would meet me shortly and to please have a seat. After he checked my bag, of course.
It was like being in the DMV/TSA version of a doctor’s waiting room, but more depressing. The chairs were too close together so you could hear attorneys talking to their clients about their chances. Most were not good.
We’ll have to prove you aren’t drinking right now Mr. Smith, do you have anything from the treatment center?
I realize it’s a chronic condition but it’s not classified as one under the law yet, well by the AMA, so we might have a battle.
I know it’s been a long time without a check but without those hospital files there’s not much we can do. Are you sure they said they lost them?
I was told the hearing was casual and not to get too dressed up. I was going to be in front of a judge though, so I wasn’t going to show up looking like a slob. Apparently others took that advice very seriously though. One man was in a sweatsuit. A woman in a tank top and jeans. I felt like I was over dressed in my black dress and cardigan. But this was COURT, right?
My attorney, out of breath, sat down next to me after just a few minutes of me staring at my surroundings wondering how I had gotten here. Feeling very, very alone.
I was thankful for the company, even if she was a total stranger.
Let’s see if I can find a conference room so we can talk before she calls us in. I want to go over some bumps we might encounter.
Bumps? Oh great.
There was a sea of doors on one wall I hadn’t noticed when I walked in and surrendered my cell phone to the OFF Gods and we entered one quickly and my just-introduced attorney launched into her ‘solution’ for a date issue on my application and denial and appeal. The whole case hinged on it, apparently.
My whole case hinged on a DATE issue. How could that be? Shouldn’t my case hinge on something important like say, if I am or am not DISABLED? Why would a date matter? I was already confused.
She explained my last date worked wasn’t going to cut it because I had the nerve to try and go back to work several times once I had initially gotten sick and they started plucking organs from me. So in reality, that second surgery date should be my last date worked and everything after should be considered a ‘failed work attempt.’
Ummmm…sure. I mean, that is what happened. I have no idea why it matters that we word it that way other than it matters within the rules and law of the SSDi system. Which is part of the problem here…the SSDi system.
I took my first job and paid my first taxes as a senior in high school when I made enough money that summer before college working at a children’s clothing store. I’ve filed taxes and paid into the system every year since, even when not working from 2003-2007 at a ‘steady’ job while being a ‘homemaker’ as the tax returns say, I still contributed with some freelance gigs.
All I know is they always take out money for Social Security. Always. So from 1993-on I’ve contributed. But I’m a mooch if you ask the Right wing. Me wanting those ‘entitlements’ and all. And the dates of when I got sick apparently matter greatly. And the fact that I tried to go back to work several times apparently matter greatly and could screw me.
Then a knock came at the door and a woman said ‘she wants you now…she said you need to catch a plane or something? Anyway she moved you up so let’s go.’
Plane? What? Who? Wait…we haven’t even talked about everything, I JUST MET MY LAWYER, I have NO IDEA WHAT IS HAPPENING YET…and off they started down the long hallway with me slowly waddling behind trying to keep my cool.
My lawyer who, 300 feet in front of me realizes I’m lagging behind, suddenly slows down and says, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, take your time…it’s ok…this is about you, really. I’m not sure why she’s calling us in early, I had mentioned to the guard I had a flight later but it’s not until 2 so she really doesn’t need to see us early, but…’
…and the door opened and there was a long table with microphones and two people already seated and up on the high risen table I swear to you Judge Judy but with more make up and bigger hair.
Oh holy shit.
I tried to assess the situation as quickly as I could to determine what was going on and what I needed to do. The judge was looking at her computer and she had a very sparklely broach on her black robe. There was a gray haired gentleman, he must be the medical expert at one end of the table in front of a microphone and he made eye contact with me and smiled. He seemed nice…but had he read my WHOLE file or just those early dates? I smiled back.
At the other end was a white haired woman who looked like she could be a very sweet Aunt to me. She must be the vocational expert. She smiled at me very warmly. I wanted to hug her for some reason. Like, it was as if she was reading my mind when I walked in and could see the fear behind my eyes and was telling me through her smile not to freak out. Mind you I was told both of these people would probably be on the phone in a conference call, in our conference room.
This was no conference room and they were here to testify about me, in front of a Judge who did not smile at all.
Who has the flight?
My lawyer explained she did but it was later and she had only mentioned it in passing and her honor really didn’t need to accommodate her, we could wait.
Oh I thought it was your client.
No, not me your honor.
No way in I’m letting her think it’s ME and I’m trying to get special treatment ALREADY. HELL NO. But that was all I said. I wanted to say more…
I was told to take a seat in the middle and my attorney sat next to me. Knowing court protocol I didn’t want to sit until the judge told me so I sort of stood by my chair, half DYING to sit because my body hurt like hell with no pain pills (I had to drive myself that day) and was waiting for the judge to tell us to sit. I could tell my attorney was waiting to be told to sit too…
Finally we were told to take our seats and then I was asked to state my full name.
I spoke into the microphone.
Erin Kotecki Vest
I noticed the stenographer next to the judge but I couldn’t really see her face. She was hidden by the height of the riser and table and my eyes darting around still trying to get the layout of everything.
I kept glancing at both experts. The medical expert was glancing at his handwritten notes. I could see some of what was written on the top. CTD, HYPERTENSION, AUTOIMMUNE. I wanted to try and read more …
Stand and raise your right hand…we all stood.
Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth…
No ‘so help me God….’ awesome. It’s the little things that make me happy.
I glanced at the vocational expert. She was smiling at me still. I wanted to go sit by her. She was so way less scary.
There was some legal stuff entered into the official record and the judge asked if she had anything before we began. My attorney began with the motion to amend my ‘last work date’ to June 24th, 2010 and then launched into her legal defense of my failed work attempts.
The judge asked the medical expert if my conditions in question were present on June 24th, 2010 causing my current disability.
He said yes.
My heart leapt. This might be ok. Maybe?
The judge appeared to agree to the date change, it was all rather odd, she didn’t object she didn’t really affirm but she did allow the motion and then we moved forward. But there was no ‘motion agreed to gavel slam’ kinda thing so I was left slightly wondering but not, as all appearances were she agreed to the motion. Which my attorney agreed ‘basically’ happened later when we recapped after leaving the hearing.
The judge asked me a few questions. Mostly about how I spent my days. I told her I was at the doctor’s a lot, getting IV infusions. I get the kids to school on days I don’t carpool, I watch tv and am on my computer. She asked if I exercised. I told her that Dr. Caro had just this week cleared me to try warm water physical therapy and I would be starting that as soon as I found someone to do warm water physical therapy. She asked if I grocery shopped. I told her about how Aaron does the major shopping for the week every Sunday. She asked if I cooked the meals. I told her sometimes, but a lot of easy things I can do like crockpot or premade things, but I do cook depending on if it’s a good day or bad. She asked if I cleaned the house. I told her we had cleaning people once every two weeks. But I did light pick up, but the kids help.
Then she moved on to the medical expert. And I thought…but wait…you didn’t ask me about how I feel. About my story. About what is wrong with me…wait… I have SO MUCH TO SAY.
She asked the medical expert in his opinion what my major diagnosis was- if any-
Connective Tissue Disorder
Oh. Ouch. Hang on. Where’s Lupus? And the fat is from the prednisone that’s not fair. Where’s raynaud’s and sjogren’s syndrome and RA and the stroke and IBS and colitis and WTF is going on I don’t even HAVE A THYROID ANYMORE and the hypertension is from the pills they are making me take for RA… wait wait wait…
…at this point my head is spinning. I want my lawyer to stop him. He’s not saying what I have. He’s not getting it right.
He says something about me not being able to lift more than 10lbs or climb a ladder. Or stand for long or sit for long. I don’t really hear because my face is all hot and it’s like my head is plugged at this point. Like I’m drowning.
In your opinion is she completely disabled
Yes your honor
Ok wait, it was good he said that. Well, I mean…for the case.
She then turned her attention to the woman I now want to go cry and hug. Who is still smiling at me, thank God. Because right now I am looking at her and looking at my lawyer and wondering if my lawyer is going to SAY ANYTHING, but I’m thinking once the medical expert said I was completely disabled there was no need.
The vocational expert begins to talk as the judge asks her a few questions … she begins with:
Mrs. Vest was a reporter slash anchor
…and suddenly I start to panic again. I haven’t been a report or an anchor since BEFORE JACK WAS BORN…
She says something about in today’s world how you could now say this was ‘light’ work. She’s still smiling this really warm smile though so I’m trying to keep the faith in the woman I want to hug.
She most recently was a social media …and then she starts speaking slower … stra-teeeeee-gist.
This would equate to a ‘public relations’ type job and would be classified as ‘light’ work as well.
I am now silently SCREAMING at my lawyer to speak up. Please please please tell them I was speaking at conferences. Flying all over the country. Briefing the White House and members of CONGRESS on the state of women online. Please GOD PLEASE tell them I was executive producing web videos with the Pioneer Woman and Macy’s and directing Kyra Sedgewick in NYC with Tropicana and flying to Oklahoma regularly and negotiating contracts with production companies and negotiating appearances with politicians WHICH IS EVEN HARDER and please please SPEAK UP and TELL HER WHAT I USED TO DO PLEASE.
…and in your opinion could the claimant perform any of these duties
No your honor
Could she perform any work in her current state as given by the medical expert
Not in the national economy, no your honor
Wait. That was good she said that too. Well, not that I can’t do those things but…for the case.
‘Do you have anything to add?’ the judge asked, looking at my attorney.
No your honor.
And just like that it was over.
Even if I had a million things to add. A million details about my life and what it used to be and what I want it to be. A million details about how much it hurts and how I will and am getting better, but I’m just not there yet. A million details about how hard it is on my family and how I want to take this burden away from them so badly I will do anything, ANYTHING.
Everyone, except the judge, smiled at me. They all wished me luck and the judge remarked that it wouldn’t be her fault if my attorney missed her flight. And we left.
I smiled at everyone as best I could trying to process what just happened. Oddly still wanting to hug the vocational expert. Knowing it was all good for me but knowing it was also very odd and missing so much and not the entire story by such a long shot. Such a very, very long shot.
My attorney took me downstairs away from the hearing room so we could talk. She confirmed it all went very well, which is why she didn’t say anything. With both experts saying I was disabled and could not work and the judge accepting her motion to amend the date she expected a win.
It didn’t feel like a win. But it did. My head was still swimming in everything from the Star Trek poster to the millions of bits of my life that were seemingly meaningless and left on the cutting room floor. Things that I thought were so important. Things I knew I wanted to tell the judge that I wasn’t asked.
I got in my car and left the parking lot and found a place to pull over and call my husband.
I tried to explain what happened and that it was all good. It appears we won the appeal but I have to wait for a letter in the mail and then we’ll know and then we’ll get a packet from Medicare.
Jesus. Medicare. I’m 38. Apparently I’m also obese. THAT is going to stick with me too. It’s ringing in my ears as I type.
I hung up the phone and on the side of Wilshire Boulevard, in front of some lighting store, I sobbed.
I don’t want to be here. My life is not and can not be boiled down into a few questions and a few answers.
And all those people in that sorry waiting room…how much did they get to say? And how many people never even made it to that sorry waiting room. Didn’t know they could appeal. Didn’t have the means to appeal. Weren’t sure how to appeal.
So now I’m waiting for a letter that will declare me disabled. So says the federal government of the United States of America.
But no. This is only temporary. I’m not done yet. In fact, I want a letter declaring me temporarily disabled. So says the federal government of the United States of America.
Every step I take in this journey I have learned more and more about the things that MUST change from health care to how we handle Social Security to how we treat the disabled. No. I’m not done yet.
So let the letter come. Let the packet come. My family needs this. And I will probably sob again. But understand all this does is make me fight harder.
If I can educate Congress and the White House about Lupus you had better believe I will now change the face of Social Security. Well, apparently me and George Takei.