This week, ABC News reported that the backlog of Americans waiting to see if they qualify for disability assistance from Social Security has swollen to one million people and that thousands have died while waiting for the agency to deal with their cases. What they didn’t report is that thousands have also lived while waiting for the agency to deal with our cases. And that can be just as bad.
I was born in 1968 in York, Pennsylvania. My birth parents were semi-truck drivers, so we bounced around the country quite a bit growing up. As a child, I was placed in foster care, and by 21, after working for a time in a warehouse, I, too went into truck driving.
Driving, loading and unloading trucks is not an easy business on the body. But as a young person, feeling invincible, I didn’t think much of it. I got married in 1997 and realized that being gone all the time wasn’t a great thing. So I left truck driving and went to trade school to become a locksmith. I love working with my hands, tinkering with things and figuring out how they work, so the job was a natural fit. But by lifting and moving heavy safes without proper equipment, I damaged my back even more than I already had driving trucks.
And I paid for it. In April 2013, I woke up with a nasty pain in my back that I couldn’t shake. I kept thinking it would get better if I just ignored it, and I liked working — I always have — so I put it aside and pressed on without telling anyone in my lock shop what was going on.
But the pain just got worse. I finally saw a doctor, who told me I had degenerating discs in my back, neuropathy in both legs, and sciatica. I had cut back my hours, and at that time a co-worker suggested I should apply for Social Security Disability. I thought about it — after all, I don’t believe much in taking handouts. But I felt as if I had paid into it, so I should be able to benefit from it. I applied.
But the agency ruled that, because I was still gainfully employed, though at very reduced hours, I didn’t qualify for SSDI. So, I kept working, and things kept getting worse. By August 2015, my boss tearfully called me into his office and said: “Eric, I’m sorry — I have got to let you go. You need help, and you can’t keep up anymore.” He was right. I did need help.
Now without any job, I applied anew for SSDI. The agency hadn’t been slow about denying my claim the first time around, so I figured it would be relatively quick to approve it now that I met all the conditions. I was wrong.
Time stretched on without my working. My wife had just started her own hair-styling business — her dream. But as bills came due and weeks went with no word from Social Security, our savings began to run out. The agency fought me at every turn: When I requested updates, they would tell me that my case was moving along, and nothing more. Every few months they sent another pack of papers to fill out: what were my current conditions, was I working, and so forth. I would dutifully fill out the packets and send them back in, and I would hear nothing. All the while, our money dwindled away.
My wife and I began selling our things. We had to sell our car, and I sold my motorcycle, which I had built from the ground up. It wasn’t anything special, nothing fancy; but it was something I put a lot of time and sweat in to. I sold it to cover living expenses for about four months. We sold our furniture, and my wife took her clothes to a secondhand consignment shop in Las Vegas to sell them, too. I had 23 remote-controlled cars that I had accumulated over many years, one of my hobbies. I had to sell the entire collection. Kitchen appliances and everything else we could think of to put up for sale went, too.
On Feb. 12, 2016, my wife and I officially became homeless. We decided to leave Nevada for Arizona, where we would move in with my wife’s parents. When we left our home, we rented a 17-foot U-Haul truck, and we didn’t fill even half of it. That was all we had left in our world. We also left behind my wife’s brand new business. But the worst part was leaving behind our grown daughter, the most important thing in our lives. We waved goodbye to her, and went to Arizona.
Meanwhile, my medical expenses piled up, costing about $500 a month: about $200 to see a pain management doctor and roughly $300 more for my medications. The Safeway pharmacy here in Chino Valley is amazing — they gave me every possible discount on my medications, but it was still a lot to spend, especially with nothing coming in. There were times when I could not fill my prescriptions because I simply didn’t have the money.
Finally, in August 2016, Social Security let me know I qualified for assistance. It will still be a little while before I qualify for Medicaid, but the relief of receiving the disability assistance I’m entitled to was enormous.
So now we’re rebuilding. We’re living on our own again, in a loft apartment over a garage. My wife is cutting hair again, and she still dreams about going in to business for herself one day. I dream of opening up a key shop of my own someday, with every possible key blank known to mankind — after all, I still love my trade, and I still want to work. But dreams are mostly what we have. If the agency had approved my case in a timely manner, we would never have left Nevada, our lives, our house and our daughter, and we never would have lost everything we had built over our 21 years of marriage.
Harwood is a medically retired locksmith.