I had my disability hearing the next week.
I took the elevator to the fourth floor of the federal building downtown and walked down the hallway to the disability waiting room. I was in such a rush that I almost walked right by the cop who was sitting at a desk by the door. He told me to stop, patted me down and asked to see my ID. I was nervous and this small ritual made me feel even more so. Like the DMV and post office, the room smelled funky and dusty. My lawyer was already sitting in a chair with a nervous look on his face; I was twenty minutes late.
I apologized for being late and then we were ushered into the courtroom. I sat at one end of a long table with my lawyer, each of us in front a microphone. There was a young male court recorder in the room as well as the judge, an older white man. The judge joked with me a bit before the proceedings started and told me that he used to shop at the grocery store where I’d sold cheese. Then he swore me in and started asking me questions. I was surprised because I did most of the talking. What had I hired my lawyer for, I wondered – if he barely spoke at all?
The judge asked me about my disease, my surgeries, my limitations, and what kind of work I was doing now. I hadn’t started the PI job yet so I only mentioned the housecleaning I did and that I didn’t have the energy to clean more than about three houses a week and no more than one a day. As we talked about my health, I was surprised at how little the judge knew about, not only Cushing’s Disease, but the endocrine system in general. I explained to him what cortisol is, where the pituitary is, what Addison’s disease is. It struck me that he was not a doctor, he was a judge… and that seemed weird to me – that he would be in charge of making these kinds of decisions for disabled people while apparently having such little knowledge of the human body. I suddenly felt grateful for the years I’d spent talking and writing about my illness. And for perhaps for the first time ever, I felt thankful for the two years I’d spent in grad school studying writing. I thought: I may not be able to work full time, and I may be in a ton of debt from grad school, but at least I can express myself in a clear and coherent fashion in front of a disability judge who doesn’t know where the pituitary is or what it does.
The judge asked me to explain what happened after my surgery to get my adrenals removed, the surgery that “cured” me of Cushing’s, but gave me Addison’s. I shared with him what I regard to be the most painful part of my story: after the doctors tried to save my life by operating on my pituitary, that very surgery made my pituitary start shutting down. “Now I have to take all the hormones. Everything except testosterone,” my voice started to falter and I found myself crying. I looked down and as if by magic, a box of tissue appeared in front of me. I hadn’t noticed it before. I plucked out a few of them and blew my nose.
The judge looked at me with what seemed like empathy. “You’re thirty four? And I suppose you are unable to have children now?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I will probably need help, but I haven’t investigated it.” I blew my nose again. The question seemed odd; I didn’t understand how my ability to have children was relevant to me being disabled as defined by the federal government. There are plenty of infertile people out there capable of holding down full-time jobs.
The judge frowned sympathetically and let out a sigh.
“Okay, well, thank you for your testimony Ms. Grover.” He then turned and talked to the speaker-phone on his desk. It was the female “employment specialist” who had been listening in on a phone line throughout the interview. They talked some gibberish about different numbers, levels of disability and pay rates. The judge looked down at the stack of papers in front of him and started flipping through them. “Well,” he said. “I will probably rule in your favor.” He looked up briefly at my lawyer. “Things are a bit backed up now but you should have my ruling in a few months.”
And then the trial was over.
I had no emotional reaction to this. I’d learned since becoming ill not to get my hopes up. My lawyer, on the other hand, seemed very excited. He ushered me into a side room. “You did a great job!” he said. “Things are looking good for your case. I can’t imagine why the judge would have said that if he wasn’t going to give you the full amount.”
“That’s great!” I said. Although to be truthful, I was disconcerted by the whole process. It wasn’t what I expected. The decision seemed to rest almost solely on my ability to plead my case. And the question about my fertility weighed on me. What did that have to do with anything? The whole process seemed very arbitrary. I left the building and got into my car. It wouldn’t start. It was out of gas; I’d been in such a hurry to get to the hearing that I had pushed my car beyond its limits.
The diarrhea continued. Also, my hands started hurting from all the typing I was doing writing up reports. I started wearing the arm braces I’d owned for several years. I was familiar with this achy, tight feeling in my hands and forearms – the tendency for them to tingle and fall asleep at night; before I was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease, while cutting and wrapping cheese at a grocery store, I experienced tingling and pain in my hands, similar to having carpal tunnel syndrome. I’d visited the doctor about it then and he’d told me just to rest my hands if I could and to stop doing artwork outside of work for a while. Of course, it hadn’t gotten so bad that I needed to quit my repetitive job cutting and wrapping cheese nor had it developed into carpal tunnel. From time to time when I was typing a lot or drawing a lot, it would flare up again. But with this new Marley and Marley job, it had gotten pretty bad pretty quickly. I ordered an ergonomic keyboard online because Josh told me that the firm would pay for it
One morning I strapped on my braces and sat down in my quiet living room to record an interview. The woman worked for a healthcare company in the billing office. She reported that she worked sometimes 14 hours a day typing and that she had been recently diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome and would need surgery on her right hand. Because the claims adjuster wanted to know, I asked her many times and in different ways if she had ever experienced these types of symptoms before. She denied ever having experienced these symptoms in the past. I asked her if she had any “extracurricular activities or hobbies.” She told me she gardened and watched movies.
That afternoon I went back to the office to write up the report. At this point I had become fairly proficient and could write up the reports while sitting in the main office, with other things going on in the background.
Josh was sitting at his desk making phone calls. He picked up his cell phone and placed a call.
“Hello,” he said. “This is Package Delivery Services and we’ve been having a hard time delivering to your address. The package keeps getting sent back to our warehouse. Will you be home tomorrow between the hours of ten am and one pm?” He paused. “You will? Okay thanks. That’s very helpful.”
Josh ended the call and then rang up the surveillance crew working on the case. “Okay the claimant will be home tomorrow at ten am.” He dramatically sat forward in his office chair and hung up the phone. Josh looked vaguely in my direction and grinned. “And that’s how you get it done!”
“Package delivery services?” I said, turning to him. “They bought that?”
“Yeah. You’d be surprised how much information people just willingly put out into the public. I needed to know when he was going to be home and now I know. ”
I wanted to say how surprised I was that people were that stupid but it seemed insulting to Josh since he seemed to think he was being clever. I thought about it – if someone called me from “Package Delivery Services” I’d immediately be suspicious. Granted I’m too poor to ever buy anything online so there’s that, also I’m generally paranoid. But then, Josh had lied about who he was so I wasn’t actually sure if that made anyone in the scenario stupid exactly….
Josh went on to tell me that people will claim a work-related injury and then post pictures of themselves on Facebook going to Disneyland with their kids.
“That’s pretty outrageous,” I said. Although, maybe I meant not outrageous necessarily, only perhaps naïve. It was occurring to me that the average person didn’t understand that sometimes merely by filing a worker’s comp claim, they set into motion a whole apparatus of loss-prevention by the insurance company. Lying about your injury is stupid. Not suspecting that the insurance industry is going to follow your every move, that’s actually a normal reaction.
“I saw that we charge clients for Social Media investigations.” I said. “My question is: if people make their posts private, how much information can we get off their Facebook page?”
“Well, people post stuff on other people’s feeds that aren’t private and also, you know, the investigators who do that work have their ways.”
I couldn’t tell if Josh didn’t know the answer to my question or if he was just being evasive. But then, I’d just seen him lie to someone over the phone; it couldn’t be that he didn’t want to tell me about shady things investigators were doing. I concluded that he didn’t know and that’s why he wasn’t answering my question.
I turned back to my report and stared numbly at the page. I remembered what Josh had told me on a ride-along a few weeks earlier. I’d asked him if people ever get suspicious about cars being parked in their neighborhood for hours on end.
“All the time,” he’d answered. “Sometimes people call the cops and you just tell the officer that you are an investigator and they tell the neighbors that you’re just an out-of-town guest of someone else on the street and that your car will be gone in a few days. And sometimes if I’m going to be out surveilling someone for a long time, I call the police ahead of time and let them know, that way if someone calls they can say ‘oh someone already called it in.’”
“So the cops will cover for you?” I said. I didn’t use the word lie.
“Yes,” he said.
On the way home that day I thought about the lie Josh had told the claimant earlier. I thought about how the cops apparently routinely lie to people about what they believe to be suspicious vehicles in their neighborhood. I didn’t know if I wanted to do this job anymore. But I didn’t want to quit. Maybe not yet anyway. I wasn’t sure, and not being sure made me uncomfortable. I seemed to be swimming in a morally grey area.
As I drove south towards home, I remembered my early childhood as a fundamentalist Christian. In that world, morality is very black and white. As I’ve matured, stopped identifying as a Christian and done some soul searching, I’ve recognized that black and white thinking has influenced me negatively in a lot of ways – number one being that generally the world is just a whole lot more complicated than the mindset that fundamentalism represents. I nodded my head. That was it. That’s why I was having so many doubts about this job. The fundamentalism was at fault. It was time for me to grow up and learn how to operate in the morally ambiguous universe of adulthood.