The disability exam

Today was my long-awaited exam by the Social Security examiner. It revealed some things I had never really put together but which now make perfect sense.

Interestingly, it was a mental status evaluation, not a physical one. It was very in-depth and took about an hour and a half (although 20 minutes of that was how long it took me to fill out three pages of answers to their questions because my handwriting has gotten so difficult.)

I was honestly afraid that my problems wouldn’t be apparent enough because I can often appear pretty normal until a person spends enough time with me to get a fuller picture. But the examiner really looked at all aspects of my history.

She determined that I have persistent depressive disorder (which is classified as more constant than major depressive disorder) and generalized anxiety disorder. I already knew I was depressed since I have been since kindergarten and I knew I had generalized anxiety disorder, too.

She also did some tests like saying a series of numbers and asking me to repeat them back in reverse, or telling me three objects and asking how many I could remember 5 minutes later. Based on the results of this, she said I had significant problems with short-term memory.

This doesn’t surprise me at all, since at most of my recent jobs, I’ve annoyed my coworkers by asking them for constant reminders of how we’re supposed to do something.

She said she definitely thought I should be approved for disability and even said that I was “the kind of person the program was made for.” The fact that she thinks I qualify doesn’t guarantee that I will be approved on this round, but it does improve my chances significantly and it means that I will definitely appeal if I’m denied at first.

She did tell me some really interesting things, though. One is that she could tell that I had a baseline of being highly intelligent and that I probably used to be great at the kind of memory questions she was asking (very true.)

She also said that it’s likely that I managed to muddle along with work for all those years despite my severe depression and anxiety because I had coping mechanisms to keep me somewhat functional. When I got sick with MS and the memory loss set in, it just was too much for my compensating mechanisms to be effective anymore.

I think that was the most surprising part, because it recast the narrative I’ve always told myself. I’ve bought the viewpoints of people who said I could achieve more if I just pulled on my bootstraps a little harder. I always blamed myself for not trying hard enough. I called myself a slacker. I thought that the fact that I completed college with honors was proof that my major was just easy and that anyone could do it, but also proof that I was capable of maintaining that level of achievement indefinitely. I always thought it was just an issue of attitude and I’d be more successful if only I could become more positive.

The way the doctor reframed it is that it was really admirable that I was able to manage as well as I did before I got sick, considering my level of impairment even then. She said that my mechanisms to compensate for the mental aspects of my illness had to have been really well-developed so I didn’t completely fall apart.

And suddenly I saw myself a little differently, maybe even a little brave. Instead of beating myself up for what I haven’t been able to do or accusing myself of just making excuses, I can finally admit that I’ve been struggling for a very long time. My whole life, actually. From that perspective, the amount of things I’ve been able to accomplish are really pretty remarkable. It’s like I’ve been trying to climb a mountain with a heavy backpack and I was actually doing somewhat okay, but the cognitive impairment from the MS was the final load that made it too heavy.

I am so lucky that my husband is understanding and patient. He has come a long way in our marriage in grasping what commitment is really about, as have I. But I know that a lot of people with either MS or any kind of recurring mental illness are not as lucky as I am.

After the exam, there is no question anymore. I can’t beat myself up for not trying hard enough (which isn’t to say that I’ll immediately be able to stop, haha.) I can’t say that I’m just lazy. Like my husband said after I told him about it, even if they deny me disability and I have to appeal, this examination proves that I am disabled, with or without the benefit payments.

That’s a hard thing to wrap my head around. I have to figure out what my next steps are now. I have to decide how I will define myself without work. Luckily I’m not very money-oriented, so I’m not too sad that I’ll probably never make a lot of money.

At the same time, I’m going to fight hard not to become one of those “poor me” people who’s solely focused on being disabled. That would be a bleak life and life is hard enough already.

What’s next for me if I’m not always going to have to focus on what my career will be or how I’ll make money? Maybe I will finally be able to rest, to let go of some of my stress. Maybe I’ll just set plan some regular activities for self-discipline and spend the rest of the time enjoying my life and trying to serve others.

I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better outcome from the social security exam, but it definitely surprised me. It completely legitimized my struggles. Maybe now I can legitimize them, too.

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