This is a utility pole in a nondescript alley a mile from downtown Walla Walla. Overkill… the classification, cataloguing and labeling involved for such a common object with a common purpose. Modern society likes to cleanly categorize and label things. Unfortunately, this carries over to tagging humans with labels as well.
I have both liberal and conservative friends, including extremists on both sides. I cringe when I hear someone in my orbit label a person a “taker” or “lazy” or “welfare loser” or the broad “people who refuse to work,” based on that person’s dependence on the collective public coffers to pay for their basic needs. Some spin it as an unfair toll on their financial freedoms to tax the earners in order to subsidize the takers. Some are simply suspicious that a civic or moral injustice is occurring, that the disheveled man with a sign at the off-ramp might earn $100 a day and not pay taxes on it. And many insist that drug testing be mandatory before a welfare check is issued.
I am not going to try and convince you that outright fraud does not occur. But I want you to consider that there are a hundred situations you have never experienced or even imagined that can result in a person that doesn’t function well enough in society to sustain employment. A little more compassion and a lot less judgment are in order; I promise you will feel the reward if you move away from cynicism and embrace sympathy.
In 2012 I missed over a month of work because I couldn’t get out of bed. I got up to eat and use the bathroom and let the dog outside, but otherwise my body wouldn’t respond to the orders my head was giving. To a degree, this is an issue every winter. I use up all my sick leave and vacation leave for “depression leave” each year. I qualified for FMLA for that longer absence and relied on savings while I took leave without pay. Shared leave was an option, but I felt undeserving. Simple reluctance to clock-in wasn’t the problem; I am satisfied with my job. I just couldn’t find the will to exist beyond the most primitive functions.
In 1990 I was diagnosed with chronic low-grade depression, also known as dysthymia. By the time I hit bottom in 2012, I had over 20 years of talk therapy and medication trials under my belt. I had turned my attitude around between age 25 and 40 with a lot of cognitive exercises, often forcing myself outside my comfort zone and applying a lot of “fake it ‘til you make it” tactics. But I was far from cured, despite my tenacity. My low mood is not situational or reactionary. Since my late thirties, I think my life is nearly perfect in every aspect—except for my mental health— but I still have periods of near paralysis when I cannot function because nothing interests me, nothing gives me pleasure, no opportunity excites me, and only the most critical obligations can get me out of bed and into the shower. Sometimes despite having the resources and personal freedom to do almost anything, there is nothing I can think of that I’d rather do than escape to slumber. It is a neurochemical defect, no less real than diabetes. I can no more cure it with a positive attitude than a diabetic can regulate their insulin by thinking hard about healthy pancreas. Medical science has come a long way from lobotomies, but many people still suffer from treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, and other moderate to severe psychiatric disorders.
Anyone who knows me recognizes that I am highly functioning, successful, creative, confident and well liked. I have a good career in public service and a master’s degree. But I owe my current stability to my parents’ financial support. If I had not received a college education at no cost out of my pocket and a subsidy from my parents through my 20s so I could plan my career rather than choose jobs based only on salary, I could very well be someone on public assistance today. My medical benefits and leave package is vital to my continued employment. A job without benefits would never last because I would have too many days that I call in sick due to my mental health condition. Likewise, if I had had a complicating situation such as a physical impairment or a dysfunctional upbringing, I don’t think I would have come this far, with or without the education and career opportunities. For long stretches of time, battling dysthymia takes every bit of mental energy I could muster to achieve a “normal” baseline.
I realize that understanding depression is a legitimate challenge for anyone who has never experienced it, just as it is hard for me to successfully imagine the chronic pain of a burn victim. I hope you’ll watch Andrew Solomon’s moving TED lecture to learn more about what it feels like.
I have made an incredible transformation over the past year and am rather happy now, but I don’t want to go off tangent here with exposition about my recovery.
My hope, in writing this, is that anyone who knows me will reserve their judgment of people who seem to be perfectly capable of working, yet receive public assistance instead. In my opinion, there are three components to a person’s character: biology, environment, and spirit. These shape each person’s capacity for perseverance, independence, work ethic, empathy, ambition, and introspection, among other character traits. Unless a person has the gift of introspection, he or she will never stop to wonder if a personal transformation is warranted. Adult children of parents who were always on welfare may have lived such a sheltered existence that they honestly think that’s how the world works and it is fair. Others have a sense of obligation built into their spirit and will work 20 years without ever taking a sick day.
What about the addicts who choose to destroy their lives with substance abuse; why should hard workers who have made good choices support those who have made bad choices? Because addiction is not a choice. When I was concerned about my own drinking (a common escape for people with depression), I immersed myself in learning the science of addiction. My dad had been a highly functioning alcoholic all my life and I always resented him for this damaging “choice” that he made. I was 41 before I was finally convinced—by a video called Pleasure Unwoven(some of it is available on YouTube)—that addiction is a disease of the brain and not a choice. I still don’t understand the difference between cigarette or gambling addiction, which many people have kicked without a special support group, and heroin or alcohol addiction, but I do know that an addict’s brain adds the substance or activity to the short list of lizard-brain “must haves” for survival: food, shelter/safety, and reproduction/mothering. It’s all subconscious, just as your body tells you to rehydrate even while you may not have the symptoms of dry throat or dehydration headache. Just as a woman feels the strong urge to have a baby even as she tells herself it is a terrible time to get pregnant.
Many addictions started as substance abuse in the teen or early adult years before a person’s logic and reasoning centers have fully developed in the brain. By the time an adult can identify what is a good idea and a bad idea, the addiction has already taken hold. Addicts should be pitied and supported, not judged and punished.
Finally, I want to speak to the people who complain about their diminished net income due to the taxes potentially used to mitigate suffering, both domestic and abroad. I wish you would just be grateful you were born in the U.S.A. Think about what we consider poor here: a family of four renting a leaky singlewide trailer, one 20-year-old Mazda among them, no bottled water or meals at Applebee’s or organic produce, these folks drink water out of the tap and eat ramen and beans and McDonalds. They probably ride the bus and buy clothes at Kmart and get Medicaid. I’ve also just described a relatively well-off person in a developing (“third-world”) country. Their poor endure without indoor plumbing or close access to clean water, they go hungry and homeless, and are lucky if public transit is available to take them to stand in line at a clinic. It’s not because the average person in Haiti or Uganda is less intelligent or hard-working than Americans. In fact I would guess they work harder than us. It’s simply the misfortune of the situation they were born into, and they are unable to escape. Some Americans fight vehemently to prevent them from coming to America to enjoy our opportunities if that even were an option.
If paying taxes to support others in need doesn’t allow you to get into that house with the three-car garage instead of the two-car garage, or prevents you from sending your kid to the university after high school (and you must start him in community college instead), or limits the number of lattes you can buy per week… adjust your standard of living. You can live comfortably on considerably less income if you just re-evaluate your definition of comfort. “Live simply so others may simply live” – attributed to both Mother Teresa and Gandhi. If you still want to complain about taxes, the national defense budget is twice the welfare budget and seven times the education budget.
Use the energy you expend fuming and complaining about the deadbeats to inspire policy change about healthcare, including addiction services. Volunteer to engage with the populations unable to sustain meaningful employment; you may be able to increase their capacities. Expose yourself to different cultures in order to expand your ability to understand, empathize and help. Put things in perspective. I’m not asking you to empty your bank account for the homeless or even give a dollar to the guy at the off-ramp. I’m very simply asking you to get out of the habit of feeling indignant because you perceive some injustice is occurring when tax dollars support non-working men, women and children.
As we, as a society, increase the tendency to group people into labeled boxes—not much different than grading lumber or tagging utility poles—and judge which boxes deserve our love and which are left to our loathing, we become less humane. Please think before you judge, think before you are outraged.