Filing for disability put me in a depressive funk that left me exhausted, and the process of filing the paperwork literally took me weeks because I couldn’t work on it for more than ten to fifteen minutes at a time before I was physically unable to continue.
Filing for disability, in itself, was an emotional trauma, and I challenge anybody to say that it is easy or unemotional when you are the person applying.
The application process is when you are making the idea that you can’t work real.
You are literally putting down on paper what you are no longer physically or mentally able to do, and describing in painful detail your past accomplishments and why you can no longer operate on that level.
It is a visceral and painful experience and one which can strip you of your will to act, increase your depression(or risk of depression), and generally leaves you feeling like a shattered remanent of your former self.
There is no avoiding it.
Even if you are not personally writing your application(due to mental or physical inability to do so), that in and of itself is likely a loss, and you still need to tell the person helping you with the paperwork all of those painful details, and sign your name on an official legal document affirming that you are unable to take care of yourself and are dependent on others for your very survival.
There are a lot of discussions I have read about HOW to apply or Where to apply, so instead, I want to talk to you about the thought process behind the applications, how applying can affect your state of mind, and how you can make the best of the process.
My experiences: where I’m coming from
To begin with, I’m not trying to be discouraging or to tell you not to apply.
I have been supported by SSDI(social security disability insurance) for well over 15 years, and I know that my quality of life would be much worse if I were not on this program.
The exact amount varies, but generally, SSDI coverage is based upon your work history(you are eligible if you have earned enough work credits through taxable employment), and SSI coverage is lower and based upon financial need and lack of resources.
Both programs supply insurance coverage(SSDI provides Medicare starting 29 months after your eligibility began, while SSI provides Medicaid coverage as soon as you qualify), and you can apply to both using the same form.
They will make the determination if you are eligible based on the information you provide and give them access to.
Making the decision to file this paperwork is an act of acceptance, and I would argue that it also is an act of bravery.
It is you making the conscious decision to admit that you need help.
It is you acknowledging your own physical, emotional, or mental vulnerability.
Most activities of daily living are things that we expect children to do on a regular basis. If you need help with toileting, for example, you are admitting to having less control than a three-year-old in that aspect of your life.
Most kids could make themselves a sandwich if needed, or boil water or count change, or use a microwave. For many of us dealing with disabling conditions, simple acts like this might be impossible without assistance.
When applying, you often need to not only admit to problems like these but describe, in detail, why you can’t do these things.
It’s not easy or comfortable.
Anything we leave out, its assumed that we CAN do, and can be a mark against us as we try to prove that we are too disabled to work.
On the other hand, writing anything untrue might be interpreted by the government as committing fraud, which has serious legal repercussions.
The system is broken
These programs are designed as safety nets, which is appropriate, but the way that the whole process is handled doesn’t feel that way.
The employees at social services are more gatekeepers than helpers.
You are assumed able-bodied until you can prove otherwise.
The questions they ask dig into exactly what you are and are not capable of, and there are almost no ‘guarenteed ins’ – no one thing you can say on the application that guarantees that you are eligible, but if you say one thing that might imply that you aren’t ‘disabled enough’ that can be enough for them to refuse to support you.
The application process itself is very demoralizing.
You need to write about your worst days and describe, in detail, all the things that you can’t do, and, to some extent, justify why you can’t do that thing.
It’s about actively arguing that you can’t take care of yourself, which is pretty upsetting, to say the least.
It also has you focus in deeply on the negatives and be very descriptive of them.
Focusing in on these failures and weak points leaves you feeling more vulnerable, and isn’t exactly good for your self-esteem either.
You need to write this convincingly and in the darkest possible light to have the best chance of getting the support you need.
By doing so, you are also reinforcing those negative beliefs to yourself, leaving you more open to feelings of failure, depression, and anger, especially at yourself.
This is a very negative frame of mind and one you are likely already struggling with due to the injury or illness that led you to need to apply in the first place!
Once you apply, you generally shouldn’t work, so you are unable to legitimately earn an income, or you will likely be denied benefits.
The SSDI process takes so long at this point that not hearing much of anything for over a year is commonplace, and apparently, things are so backlogged that even once a decision is made there can be up to six months between the decision and receiving your first check.
That first check is likely to be pretty decent, as it is back pay from the moment they believe your disability began, but the promise of a check doesn’t put food on the table, and landlords will only wait so long to get paid.
It’s a very challenging position and one that is likely to lead to you needing to liquidate assets you might have.
You need to make yourself sound so pathetic that you definitely will get the support you need, without lying in any way, and they are unlikely to believe what you tell them unless a doctor agrees.
You need to share with them every single doctor you have seen since your injury or illness and give them full access to your medical history.
You need your doctors to agree you are disabled and share their information in such a way that it’s convincing.
If your doctor’s office doesn’t respond, you get a letter from SSDI asking you to remind your doctor to get their job done.
It’s a lot of work, and it’s all on you. And the threat hangs over you that if you don’t get that information in soon enough, or you can’t get your doctor to do their job either, they might decide you aren’t so disabled after all.
You need to be organized and planful enough to get all that information gathered, reported, and into them, but still convince them that you can’t take care of yourself!
It’s a lot of stress and pressure, when you are at a very weak and vulnerable point in your life. What can you do about it?
You can’t change the process right now, but RIGHT NOW you need help, and RIGHT NOW you need to follow the rules and cross t’s and dot your i’s and give them the information that they need.
Your job: Get that application in!
To help yourself, recognize that getting disability IS your job now.
It’s your top priority and everything you do should in some way help you with the process(for example you make your meals so you can recharge your energy to go back to work on your application).
You should eventually get paid for your effort and the sooner it’s completed, the sooner you’ll get that support(even though it all feels like it will take forever, and it can take years).
While doing this job, you need to emotionally protect yourself. Do everything in your power to keep yourself upbeat before and after you work on your application.
The actual ‘see how pathetic I am’ work can often be done in one or two sittings each round of paperwork, so plan out some time specifically for that purpose – if possible near the end of your time preparing your application, so you’re more familiar with the writing and how to respond.
Step 1: Gather up the information they need: you will want a resume or other document of your work history(when Al did the paperwork earlier this year, they wanted your previous 10 years of work).
They are also going to want your medical history, so you can gather up all of your contact information for each hospital stay you might have had, and each doctor you’ve seen. The most recent ones and the ones who made the most useful diagnoses are the most important ones – give as much identifying information as you can.
You may need to do some searching online for addresses and phone numbers, but if you don’t do it, they probably won’t either, so you do want to make it all as easy as possible for them.
It’s very unlikely that you can get it done in one try, so don’t expect that of yourself.
Look it over, fill in what you easily can(some is just identifying information and things like that), and make a list for yourself of any other information you might need to gather or think about.
Step 3: They are also going to ask for details on what you can and can’t do now, and how much your life has changed.
It’s more challenging to think of a ‘start’ point if you have a chronic condition, but you should share all the things that make it difficult or impossible for you to work now.
Before you get too deep in it, make sure you are clear with yourself about what you are considering the onset of disability, and remember that your ‘now’ is really ‘now on a bad day’
Step 4: make sure that you get this work completed and sent out as quickly as you can.
You need to be able to prove that you cannot work for at least a year, but you don’t need to have been not working for a year.
You can apply, depending on the nature of your condition, six or more months after onset of disability(when you became too disabled to work), as long as you and your doctor(s) agree that you will not be able to return to work until after that year mark.
Once you fill out the online application, you are considered to have applied. That’s your start point when you are eligible to start receiving benefits, if they decide that you are, indeed, disabled.
Note: They care about symptoms much more than diagnoses! You can apply to disability without a firm diagnosis(share what they know you have, and then additional symptoms), and in most cases, the diagnosis alone isn’t going to make you eligible or ineligible. They do ask you to list your diagnoses, but again if you don’t have a firm diagnosis yet(or your diagnosis is incomplete) you can note that on the application, and list the additional symptoms or words to describe them, so they know that you have more going on.
Step 5: Get notified if you are eligible for SSDI or SSI.
This is pretty straightforward generally, as it’s entirely based on your work history or financial situation.
If you worked full time at least 5 of the previous 10 years, you likely are eligible for SSDI.
If not, you may be eligible for SSI.
SSI is a needs-based program, so you may be considered financially ineligible if you have over $2,000 in assets(usually a home or car are not included in that calculation) or have income over $733/month($1,100 if you’re a couple). If they find you ineligible based on assets or income, you can reapply once you are under the appropriate threshold.
If you feel like you should be eligible for SSDI but they tell you that you aren’t, you can double-check them by looking up your eligibility details(check your ‘social security statement’, which tells you how many credits you have).
If those numbers are wrong(a taxable job you had isn’t listed, or it shows your income as substantially less), you should be able to challenge the IRS to correct your information.
This may lead to them demanding additional money from taxes and might be challenging to prove(you’ll need proof of your work history, strong enough to convince the IRS that their information is wrong), but that is an option.
Step 6: Wait for them to send you additional questions.
They usually mail out these additional forms for more details within a couple of weeks(it takes about the same amount of time as your eligibility statement).
This is the more emotionally grueling part.
As soon as you get that package, look it over so you know the work involved.
They generally want it back within a week or two, so plan on working on it right away.
They are looking for more information about most everything you told them in the online application.
You are much better off if you have extra time to read it back over and fill in details and be sure you word it right.
If you are very concerned about writing it, you can make yourself rough drafts on your own paper before writing in your final copy.
If, like me, your handwriting is terrible, either put in extra time(how I manage shorter statements) or type and print it(keep each statement appropriately numbered!) or have somebody write your words down(and sign that they did it).
Remember, if they can’t read it, they can’t consider it.
Step 7: find somebody willing to share their observations.
One of the required forms is a statement of your situation from an outside perspective.
If you are living with a partner, they are likely the best candidate to fill it out.
A roommate or a parent or an adult child can also work.
The goal here is to find somebody willing to take the time to answer carefully and in detail, and somebody who know how intense your day-to-day needs are.
Step 8: Fill in your self-assessment. This focuses on your medical history, and your ability to do your activities of daily living(ADLs).
Emotionally, these forms are harder, because they go into much more details about your ‘activities of daily living’(can you brush your teeth, comb your hair, feed yourself, count change, make meals, use the bathroom independently, and so on).
For your form, you can have help filling it out, but if that happens, that needs to be noted down and you and they need to sign that they helped you but it is your experiences.
There is a lot to write in this section, and I can totally understand needing to write about ADLs in more than one sitting.
Remember to describe how a bad day affects you, and be as descriptive as possible. Also try to estimate how often you have bad vs good days.
Note: your goal is for your report and the second person’s to have similar content, but not the same words. You are not supposed to tell them what to say or how to describe things. Their document should all be in their words.
Al and I filled out his paperwork side by side, and while we had some discussion about word choice and details in the description, we each wrote our own statement.
It is important because you don’t want them questioning the validity of either statement and if they are basically identical, it looks less authentic and may raise some red flags.
The same handwriting is fine as long as they sign off as having filled the paperwork out for you.
Step 9: Fill in your work history.
There will be questions about what the job required and expected.
Questions may include:
- Were you carrying heavy things? (how heavy, how often)
- How much of your work time was spent walking, standing, sitting, etc?
- How long were your shifts,
- what were your hours
You will need to go into detail about why you couldn’t do that job now.
For each one.
It’s not fun and it’s not easy, but you do need to do it.
This will likely remind you of your loss again and put you in a relatively vulnerable mindset.
Self-care while doing the paperwork
Do whatever you can to make your environment feel more comforting while you are handling the paperwork: have good lighting, play the music you like, have your pet or loved one beside you as you write – whatever will comfort you but still let you get the work done, do it.
Managing your feelings: Plan some form of release for your emotions. It might be giving yourself permission to cry or scream or to plan time to exercise.
Do something for yourself that recognizes how emotionally vulnerable you are right now, since putting pen to paper makes it all more real.
You have experienced a loss, a real one, and you deserve to acknowledge that loss and express yourself about it.
Doing the paperwork is likely to be upsetting, so please do respect that and give yourself credit for working on it.
Plan time for yourself to let those emotions out – they won’t do you any good bottled up inside!
Reward yourself: If possible, plan out a comforting activity for after you get your emotions out to reward yourself for getting through your application.
It might be watching your favorite TV show or getting some snuggle time with your partner, or going outside for a bit.
Whatever makes you feel safe, happy, or comforted, do that.
You can do it on a small-scale for each step of working through your paperwork(set a time for yourself ‘I must work on this for at least x minutes/hours’, or a task or two – ‘Today I’m going to finish the job description section’, and reward yourself after that is completed).
Step 10: When you have all the paperwork done, mail it back(they enclose a prepaid envelope for that purpose) and pat yourself on the back for getting it done!
Waiting for Social Security’s decision
Once that work is done, they process the information for a while. It can be weeks or months before you hear anything more from them.
Exception: As mentioned in step 5, your application is usually assumed to be for both SSI and SSDI, so if you do have too many assets for SSI, you may get a letter notifying you of that. If you don’t have the work credits for SSDI, you’ll also get that rejection within a few weeks.
All that means is that you are down to the program that’s the right fit for you. As long as you aren’t rejected for both programs, you still have nothing to do but wait.
Note: If you are actually dual-eligible, they process the application for SSDI(which is more money and more options with your insurance).
If your assets and income leave you eligible for SSI, there is a form you can file for that. The process should be relatively quick, as you already are proven ‘disabled enough’.
The wait can be very stressful and nerve-wracking, but there just isn’t anything much you can do about the process.
What you need to do next is take care of yourself by working to get yourself healthier. Do your best to be patient.
No matter what they decide, you only have this one body, and this one mind, and so you want them to be in the best shape that they can be, so you can be the happiest and best version of yourself that you can be.
Knowing that you did the best you could on your application should let you feel okay about the process.
Now that the emotionally hefty paperwork is done, it’s time to focus on your health, and creating your best possible ‘new normal’!
Conclusion: filing for disability is emotionally tough
The process of applying for disability benefits from the federal government is painful and detailed. You need to be able to gather a lot of information about yourself and share it with the decision-makers.
You need to be honest and detailed while giving yourself the best possible chance of getting your benefits.
Focus your writing on what your bad days are like, so they understand how rough it is.
When they are evaluating what you can and can do, assume they are asking what you can and can’t do on a bad day.
If you do mention anything you can only do on a good day, note down that down as something that you can only do then(good days only!!).
Have as much of your work history and medical history gathered up ahead of time to help you fill out the paperwork, and be prepared for additional requests.
This is an emotionally laden process, and one that will likely leave you feeling vulnerable, and could easily lead to you feeling depressed, victimized, or angry.
You need to acknowledge those feelings, and then focus in on getting this job done.
As you work on it, go easy on yourself, and remember that what you are sharing is the truth, but you are more than your condition.
After you finish sharing this assessment, it is perfectly normal to be extra vulnerable and aware of your loss, and totally appropriate to grieve over the loss of who you were.
Try your best to not get stuck in that state of mind, because you deserve as much happiness as you can get!
Reward yourself for completing your work, because you deserve it!
Once it’s done, it is a waiting game, so do your best to focus on you and your healing after you have done your part towards getting the support you need!