Saturday, April 14, 2012

Suddenly with no income

(fair warning - this started out as a post relating our experiences of the week, and turned into an overwhelmed, outraged rant rather quickly. Feel free to skip it if you aren't in the mood.)

This week started out the way it normally does - I got the kids off to school while Sean prepared for work. You know, the usual Monday morning chaos. Things were just starting to settle down when my husband called twenty minutes after his shift was due to start.

"I've been suspended. For sleeping on the job."

My first reaction was that this must be a joke. After all, he's a paramedic, and they are supposed to sleep on the job - that's why most ambulance companies and fire houses have bunk rooms. Ever since Sean started working for this company nearly four years ago, he's taken a pillow and bedding with him to work. Heck, sleeping on the job is practically in the job description, so that you are as fresh as possible when an emergency arrives.

But it turned out it wasn't a joke. He'd really been suspended for sleeping on the job. The suspension is for an indefinite period of time, until he can prove that he doesn't have a sleep condition that impairs his ability to work in his field. Since I have a sleep-related disorder myself (sleep apnea), I know from experience that getting in to a sleep study and then waiting for the results can take about 3-6 weeks - IF you are lucky.

And even if he can prove he doesn't have a sleep-related disorder, he's only going to be allowed back on a six month suspension. I'm guessing that if he falls asleep once on the job - just once - they'll fire him.

(We both feel that this isn't sleep related at all. Lately the company has made several policy changes that not only take away from the employee, but seem detrimental to the company itself, and Sean has been the rather vocal leader of those employees who didn't like the changes. We both figure this is the company preparing a legal defense for firing him because he's been causing dissent.)

This has left us in a huge pickle. How are we going to pay our bills? The rent, electricity, gas service? How are we going to buy food? How are we going to even afford for him to apply at other jobs? (the emergency medical industry is different - in order to apply for a job, you first have to successfully pass testing to prove you are knowledgeable - and the "privilege" of taking the tests costs $50. Per company. And passing the test is no guarantee you get the job - it just promises that you will be put on a list of "potential hires" that expires a year after the testing date. If no positions open up during that time, you have to pay another $50 to test in again.) With my recent injury, medical visits are increased - how will we afford the gas to get around to things like that?

We've spent the last week running around like crazy, applying for aid in any way we could. We put in an application for food stamps, as well as requests for financial aid from groups that help people in our situation to pay the bills while out of work. And before you comment "Apply for unemployment!" - he's not able to. The suspension notice clearly implies that HE'S the one at fault for the suspension, so he's not eligible for unemployment.

And a lot of well-meaning people have given me all sorts of advice one what to do during this situation. But since most of my friends and family are in Wisconsin, a lot of the things they are advising are state-specific, and since we live in Illinois, it's useless. The best I can do is write down the suggestions and see if our state has similar programs, which has meant a lot of research and work on my part. A lot of calls to people like our landlord or the utility companies, trying to make sure we won't lose our home or things like our electricity (and since I have to sleep with a machine to help me breathe, having no electricity is NOT an option). I know those who are giving me advice are just trying to help, and I DO appreciate it. But I feel so overwhelmed with suggestions and ideas and forms to fill out and calls to make and the need to lower myself to the point of begging for help - over and over and over again - that I've been unable to sleep without medicinal aid since this happened. 

I'm overwhelmed. But at least I have some idea of what to do, since I was in a similar situation back in late 2004 when my business was sabotaged. For my husband, who has always been so independent and in control, this has been a far more crushing blow, and he's at a loss as to how to handle it. He's done his part - put in as many applications as he could without having to pay out-of-pocket (there are a few jobs for medics that don't require an application fee, but not many). He's done the running around and the standing in line at public aid and food pantries. He's experienced the humiliation of having to call one of his best friends to borrow money so the electric bill could be paid on time - the second time he's had to borrow money from this friend in the past six months (last time was when the car broke down and needed to be recalibrated).

It hurts to apply for aid. There have been derogatory comments, both directed at me and just posted generally on my facebook page about how horrible it is that people who apply for food stamps can afford nice cars and cell phones and the like. It hurts. It hurts real bad. 

This is hard. It's hard on both of us. And the whole social stigma of having to apply for aid is painful. You get treated like a second-class citizen by many of those people who work in the public aid buildings or for charities. For every genuine person who is happy to help you get through it all, there are ten others who treat you like scum for even asking. When we applied for food stamps on Thursday, the security guard sneered at us when we politely turned our phones off - his expression clearly saying that we had no right to apply for aid if we could afford cell phones (the ironic part? While we did pay for our phones, we don't pay for the cell phone service - it's a gift from my mother-in-law). When I went to the bathroom during our wait to be seen, I heard two of the employees making scathing comments about how half the cars in the parking lot were nicer than the ones they could afford, and they don't even qualify for public aid, so how could "these people" afford such nice cars?

It's because half of "those people" bought those cars and cell phones while still working and able to pay for them. It doesn't mean they are abusing the system. It just means they were, at one point, a success - and now thanks to the economy, they need help. 

I saw one woman who was obviously a professional in the waiting room. Out of respect, she had dressed nicely for her appointment, but a few employees commented in her hearing "How can SHE afford a Gucci bag and designer clothes when I can barely pay my mortgage?" I saw the poor woman blush and hang her head, trying to hide tears as she slid her hand to cover the Gucci label on her purse.

She shouldn't have to feel ashamed for having once been able to afford nice things. She shouldn't have been made to feel ashamed about asking for help. I wanted to pat her on the shoulder, but I was afraid a show of sympathy would push her over the edge from silently crying to audibly sobbing. And what was she supposed to do - sell all that stuff? What would she wear on job interviews? And if she sold all but one outfit, then what would she wear for the first couple weeks once she got a job again?

People say this country was founded based on Christian principles. It's funny - you would think the place you would see those principles most played out are in places like public aid or Catholic Charities or other such places. You would think people would exemplify the kindness of Christ. But instead you get what he preached AGAINST - prejudice, selfishness, and a sense of "I am better than thou art". You get treated like something the dog dragged in. You are told, without words, that you are a burden on society. And this leaves me feeling like crap.

I try my best not to be a burden. I maintain the house, I train up the children, I cook as healthy as I can with the limited kitchen and tools I have. I attempt to grow food in our yard so as to save money and eat healthier. In the last year, I have published multiple articles and made a few strides towards going back to college. And yet the way I have been treated this past week? I've been made to feel like the stereotypical "welfare queen". 

I've had panic attacks EVERY NIGHT this week. It's gotten to the point where I am going to have to heavily medicate myself tonight just to have a chance at a few hours of shut-eye. I'm overwhelmed, I'm drowning, I'm buried under the pressure of a system I thought I would never have to experience again.

I can't even go out and get a job thanks to my back injury last month. I feel useless.

I hate it. And it's only going to get worse next week.