I complained to my family about the diarrhea and the stress. Some of them told me that all new jobs are stressful and that I should stick it out, others expressed sympathy; none of them, including my boyfriend, told me to quit. I think they knew how important the job was to me. I had been sick and underemployed for so long; they were just happy to see me doing something. It wasn’t cleaning houses, which they knew was hard on my body, and it utilized my writing skills. They wanted to see me succeed, to challenge myself, to move out of my parent’s house where I had been living for the last two years.
When I thought about it, I actually didn’t want them to tell me to quit – I wanted them to tell me that they wouldn’t think I was weak if I did quit. Because, that was the narrative I had been telling myself: that if I quit I was a failure. I had placed a lot of symbolic significance on the PI ob; it was heavy with meaning. If I quit, I imagined that it could mean that I was incapable of supporting myself, that I was a loser. I was thirty-four and still living with my parents and it had taken a toll on my self-esteem. At the same time, I hadn’t told them about my deepest concerns. Maybe because the truth was, I was afraid if I told them what I was doing (or what I suspected I was doing) they would be horrified, judge me, and tell me to quit. And I didn’t want them to tell me what to do; I wanted their blessing regardless of what I chose.
In the meantime I settled into a routine of phone calls and interviews. I spent about half my time at the office and got to know Monica, Randy’s new assistant. She told me that she used to work at a coffee shop and that she enjoyed not having to work in customer service anymore. She seemed like a nice enough person. She was a round, friendly blonde. Like me.
And I reminded myself that I did enjoy some parts of the work; it was good for my writing skills and I could generally work it around my schedule. But this also meant that I could receive a phone call from a claimant at any moment. I have historically not liked phone interruptions and I found myself operating at a low level of anxiety all the time, never knowing when I would have to pull off the road to take a phone call from a confused and often hostile claimant.
Many of the claimants were nursing home workers. They weren’t CNA’s (certified nursing assistants) instead they were “resident aides.” Which means they did a lot of the physical labor involved in getting very-old and often obese residents out of bed, to the toilet and to their meals in the dining hall. It also meant they often earned minimum wage or a just a little above it. And the resident aides almost always had back injuries. Often, as with most of the claimants who had bodily injuries, the moment of injury was so very insignificant that it seemed to take on poetic, almost symbolic overtones.
I would ask:
how did you injure yourself?
They would answer:
I was bending down to pick up a saucer that fell on the floor and I heard a snap. I was getting a box of frozen hash-browns off the walk-in shelf. Buddy let the walk-in door close on my shoulder. I bent down to pick up a fork and I heard a snap. I was trapped under a four-hundred pound resident, pinned against a bathroom wall for forty-five minutes. It took four other resident aides and a nurse to free me. I kept asking the management to get us earplugs. I heard a buzzing. I don’t shoot guns. I don’t lift weights. My only hobbies are watching TV. I felt a twinge. I felt a sharp pain. I was filling the med-trays, over and over. It started gradually, I didn’t notice at first. I didn’t file a claim right away because I thought it would go away. I felt something snap. I don’t have any hobbies. On the weekends I relax. I hang out with my grandchildren. I got a divorce ten years ago. The doctor won’t keep treating me until I get this claim filled. I haven’t filed for bankruptcy. The management hasn’t been giving me any hours. I think they are going to fire me. I have never experienced these symptoms before. I am a hard worker. I never call in sick. I show up to work on time. I was bending over to answer the phone and something just snapped.
I was sent the documents for a stress case involving a public employee in a small Eastern Oregon town. I had already interviewed another public employee for a stress case. Her lawyer was on a third line and the woman was not only hard to hear, but periodically broke down in tears as I went through the standard questions. The story was long and involved. Her lawyer kept stopping the interview to make sure I was understanding the basics of what she was telling me, often treating me as if I were a total moron. The claims adjuster had already sent me emails informing me that this woman had filed claims and had sued her employer in the past. The claims adjuster wrote that “she was not surprised” that the claimant had hired the same law firm as last time, to represent her. I wasn’t able to pin down the relevance of these statements, other than to insinuate that the claimant was somehow overly litigious. Or greedy, or lazy, or weak.
I mentioned this case to Monica, as we momentarily gathered around the microwave in the office supply closet. “How’s it going?” she asked.
“These stress cases are stressing me out,” I joked. I told her about the woman sobbing on the phone. She was an older woman, close to retirement at the public office where she had spent most of her working life. To me, she had seemed utterly terrified of losing her retirement plan. “I realize that all these older public employees, get so routinized, so comfortable in their jobs, that they can’t handle change. They get a new manager and they can’t handle it.” I felt myself going into a rant. I felt myself girding my psyche with feelings of superiority. Monica only giggled nervously and exited the supply closet. I was surprised she had zero reaction, thoughts, or insight to what I just said. Monica is a moron, I thought.