Into The Void

Around this time last year, I was nearly suicidal. It wasn’t me, though, really. I hadn’t been me in months. It was mostly due to the drugs. I had been on vicodin every 4-6 hours for, oh I don’t know… about 4 weeks I think? It’s kind of a blur, really—the sequence of events [and events themselves]—but I’ll never forget the feeling….

I was on this steady stream of vicodin (& orange Fanta, to ease my stomach) due to an unexpectedly major arthroscopic surgery on my right wrist, (it ended up being a two hour surgery, which was not at all what I, or the doctor, had anticipated) and yes, I am right-handed.

I had sustained a worker’s comp injury almost a year earlier.

As a fellow worker’s comp veteran friend of mine said recently, “hell has nothing on the work comp void.”

We are like sisters in arms, her and I.

No one else seems to  understand. I don’t think they can. At least, not if they haven’t been through the system as we have.

This is not something I really want to write about. I don’t want to relive it. AT ALL. Just the mention of it makes me quite anxious. But these stories need to be told. They need to be heard. I have come into contact all too often with this preconceived notion that being out on worker’s comp is like some kind of vacation. It is anything, but.

It is isolation. It is constant physical pain. It is constant mental pain. It disrupts your life, and therefore your world. It changes your reality, and therefore your perception. It is isolation. It is a void in which you lose your sense of self, your personhood, any feeling of purpose, any sense of being alive.

It is as though you cease to exist.

And depending on your work situation, you may lose people in your life you once thought of as “friends,” too.

Isolation.

Deprivation.

Dehumanization.

It was just about two months prior to the beginning of this whole mess (i.e. about two years ago from today) that I went off birth control. It was the first time I had purposefully gone off the pill in 13 years. “They” say you should stop taking it about six months prior to conceiving. I was finally done with school, working a full time job that I liked, making decent money, and my boyfriend and I were renting an adorable house in San Diego. We were finally about to start the life [it felt] we had been waiting for. After all, I had been a full time student who also worked full time since the beginning of our relationship. The golden times were about to begin, and we were looking forward to it. Just working and hanging out. Living life. Settling down. Maybe starting a family. And just going from there… (I was thinking about grad/ law school, but just wanted to kick back and enjoy life with my man for a while…see where it would take us)

Then my injury occurred.

Suddenly I was “out on worker’s comp.”

And my life changed.

Not only could I now not do my job which instantly eradicated the bulk of my human/social interaction for 40 hours a week, 5 days a week, but  I also couldn’t do yoga, lift weights, even holding up a book could be taxing, and driving was painful. So my options quickly became: sitting at home, alone. Oh, and let’s not forget that going out on worker’s comp also meant missing a paycheck at the outset of my claim, with this gap in income to be followed by a paycheck from the insurance company for much less than what I was used to making. So, also, no money!

*Under worker’s comp you receive either 60%, or 66%—I forget exactly, but it’s one of those two figures— of your normal pay and it is not taxed, but my new bi-weekly payments were undeniably less than this. I did the math. Why did I not raise hell and fight this, you ask? Because I had a bigger fight to fight: obtaining the medical treatment I needed.

***Let me here also note that had it not been for my then boyfriend (now husband) I don’t know what I would have done as far as housing. WIth the gap in income followed by much smaller paychecks I would not have financially survived on my own. I don’t know what I would, or could, have done. Live in my car, with my cat? Possibly. Stay in my sister’s boyfriend’s little guest house up in the LA area? Maybe, but for a year and a half and through surgery?! Doubtful. I mean, really, had it not been for him financially saving me, I really and truly don’t know where or how I would have ended up.

So, as of July 8, 2011, I was bound to the couch. Over that first month I had to see a doctor for weekly assessments/”work status” updates (the “update” being “well, she can’t use her right hand/wrist!”). However, out of these approximately 4 weekly visits I had one doctor who actually told me I should go back to work regardless. I said, “but I can’t use my right hand and wrist, and I’m right-handed. It really hurts and I don’t want to worsen it. I’ve been trying to do my job for two months now with this pain, and it’s resulted in doing less and less of my job, which is how I ended up on worker’s comp in the first place—I can’t do anything required of me!”

This doctor looked me straight in the eye and said—and I’ll NEVER FORGET this—”Miss, I have just as much of a duty to your employer and the insurance company as I do to you. You need to go back to work.”

My boss was NOT pleased. Needless to say, I could not, and did not, go back to work. And after being out for approximately 3 weeks, the insurance company finally approved physical therapy, which I quickly came to find out was actually a rapid response time within the work comp world. I was one of the lucky ones! One of my coworkers had waited about 6 months to get physical therapy approved. Meanwhile I was texting and “Facebooking” coworker friends that I thought would come over and hang out/visit with me, or maybe even come pick me up for hang time. Nope. Three weeks alone, in an apartment, in quiet, boring, solitude. (We had moved into a *much* cheaper apartment down the street right before I went out on worker’s comp, which turned out to be a godsend due to the decrease in our dual income. And no, I didn’t do ANY of the heavy lifting at all.)

So this was just the beginning. Over the next 5 months I would continue to battle with the insurance company and “Utilization Review Board,” over approval of diagnostic testing and treatment (my physical therapist and I were convinced that there was a torn piece of cartilage in my wrist) but to no avail. They don’t want to approve these things because it costs money. After the first month of solitude, just waiting for physical therapy to be approved, followed by two more months of solitude, arguing with a wall about my healthcare and ultimately winding up feeling helpless, defeated, and quite frankly, worthless, I called a lawyer.

I was out for a total of 7 1/2 months before finally getting the surgery I needed.

I’d had a sinking feeling from the start that I would need surgery. I had never had one before and the idea had always scared me, but with the pain I had been dealing with, I was gung-ho-all-for-it from the start. As it turned out, I had torn a ligament and a piece of cartilage, in addition to the initially diagnosed (and by now all resolved) tendonitis.

7 1/2 months.

221 days.

Of barely leaving the house.

Of barely having any visitors over.

Can you imagine how you would feel?

No work. No play. Just listless, restless, lifeless life in a dejected body that no health care provider or insurance company seemed to give one half of a shit about (save for my physical therapist, and later on, my AME). Waking up every day with nowhere to go, nothing to do. No purpose. Watching everybody else’s lives continue, progress, move on, go forward, while you are held, against your will, in limbo, in pain. You have no choice, no say. Your life comes to a complete stop, only to be dictated by the insurance company and/or your lawyer, and you have no choice, no say, isolated, in pain, for 221 days. Things are happening around you, outside in the world, everybody else is moving, but you are held down. No choice. No say. In pain.

Isolation. Depression. Dehumanization.

That’s worker’s comp.

And I was still only about 1/3 of the way through…

After all, I was 28 at the beginning of my work comp claim, and I would be 30 by the time it ended.

I haven’t even told you about how no pain meds or anti-inflammatory pills took away the constant pain—only alcohol did. Or how my boyfriend and I had to cancel a long-awaited trip to NYC due to my incapacity to travel, its interference with my treatment, and the lack of funds available now that I was on my measly work comp stipend. Or how I didn’t get through my first semester of law school, yes—the real catalyst for my law school withdrawal—due to my continuing post-operative pain, continuing physical therapy, and my inability to carry my casebooks and take notes.

I haven’t even told you about the constant fear and paranoia of being videotaped or photographed by one of the insurance company’s private investigators—perhaps while I was doing laundry in my apartment complex courtyard, or driving—and then I would be denied any and all treatment because they would think I was “faking it.” (This happened to my sister years ago; Yes, there are private investigators, and once you are on work comp, your privacy upon leaving the house is potentially non-existent) Or how I had just thrown away my last bottle of Xanax the January before my claim began. It had been prescribed to me the year before for PTSD.

And I haven’t even told you about the toll this took on my relationship. Pain changes a person. Being in pain 24/7 for weeks and months, unending, frustrating, debilitating pain, will change a person, and undoubtedly how others will see that person as well. We had some of our toughest challenges and probably the worst argument we’ve ever had, as a direct result of my injury and this situation. But I was lucky to have had the partner that I have throughout this ordeal. Others are not so lucky. I cannot even fathom how they endure.

And so, after having been in “the void” since July 8, 2011, I finally had my surgery on February 15, 2012….

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4 comments

  1. This is intense Justine. And really well written. I am so glad to read this as I meet many people who live with constant pain, particularly elderly folks with pain- with unaddressed pain. Either they or their doctors are afraid they will become addicted to the medications or don’t believe in them or believe more strongly in toughing it out.

    Your story is so telling. Thank God you had your sig oth there, thank God you the two of you were able to stay together, to get through it. Pain is such a significant issue and yes, it does change people, it depresses them. Makes sense.

    The story itself is a horror. What happens where the Insurance Companies are running Health Care. That Doc certainly had his priorities in order. Frightening.

    I was training in an MD’s office a few weeks ago and accompanied another NP into a visit from a guy who just wanted antibiotics for his sinuses.The other NP had me listen to his heart which was extremely irregular, in fact, in a fib a life threatening rhythm. I was out of line in addressing the issue to the man as he wasn’t my patient but— They guy had no insurance, had been to the hospital to have his rhythm reset, had been on medication which he’s stopped due to the fact that he didn’t like the way it made him feel. The guy was at the corner of Denial and Ignorance. That I addressed it to the patient made the NP have to address it. There was something of an ordeal in figuring out what meds he’d been on, etc. At the end of the day though, the guy was made aware that by not addressing it he was putting him self in danger. That in and of itself was the most significant event for him. The NP however, was pissed at me saying she had wished she’d just told him to see his cardiologist. When I asked her why she said she didn’t want to over-ride an MD’s orders (the med schedule he was prescribed, versus the non compliance with the regimen versus his final agreement to taking one long acting agent a day). “This is my license on the line!” I apologized thinking, your license? This guy could throw a clot, have a stroke, a pulmonary embolism, or die. Its your job to address unforeseen issues. But she would have felt better about her work only addressing his sinus condition.

    My brief experience as a practitioner across the boards tell me Health Care in this country is….questionable.

  2. Wow…another telling, and yet all too common story. Hence, why I am posting this story in “MyFeministBriefs.” Because the personal IS the political. Healthcare in this country affects EVERYBODY. No one is exempt from its purview. At some point we are all subject to its terms and conditions, and I think most of us know this system needs reworking.
    Also, my close friend and roommate died from a pulmonary embolism a few years ago. (That’s why I was taking Xanax briefly in 2010) I dealt with my stepfather’s death a few years earlier relatively well, but my friend’s death really threw me over the edge. There were a lot of factors surrounding her death, actually, that drove me to what the doctor cited as “PTSD,” but yes- regarding your story- I think someone somewhere along the line of her trips to urgent care prior to her passing dropped the ball. She was too young, and it was too soon, and it greatly angered and frustrated many of us, thinking of how her death could have been prevented by some simple step that was ostensibly missed….
    She will continue to live on in our memories, signature quotes, songs, stories, and our hearts.
    Thanks for reading and commenting:)

  3. You know this is totally preaching to the choir here. When my injury happened, it was about 2.5 years til the end.

    I went to the hospital, didn’t even really get a bed (not the fault of the hospital, they were very busy). I was sent home with an iv in so I can come back each day for iv antibiotics. When they realized it wasn’t working, I was hospitalized for a weekend. ( mind you my injury happened to my right hand too).

    I was on a morphine drip (which I was only allowed to push the button every 2-4 hrs or so), and you’re right, it just put me in a state that I didn’t care too much that my hand was hurting. They gave me a nerve block(which was the best thing ever), until it wore off.

    I was out of work for 6 weeks, going back and forth to doctors that couldn’t give me a reason why I couldn’t use my hand. Workers comp denied physical therapy dispute what the doctor told them. He was smart enough to say “well then, I’m gonna request surgery because that’s what you are in a need”. 6 months later (working at the front desk at the hospital with minimal use of my right hand), I had surgery. I was out for another six weeks.

    All this time, I’m going to school, trying to get my bachelors. Work comp finally authorized physical therapy, but it didn’t help. I decided to take it upon myself to hire a lawyer, who didn’t tell me they may do a recon on my ass, at any time. Their investigators were so close to me, they knew what I was pulling out of my purse. It made me disgusted knowing this was happening and I had no clue. I couldn’t believe it.

    When I finally went to court, I got $5000, but then they proceeded to tell me that I owes them $800 cuz they overplayed me once. ATF is that all about?!???

    To this day, I will not use work comp unless I have to. I hurt my knee at work once, went I my doctor, accidentally said it happened at work, then never went back to follow up. The only other one I dealt with them was because I weeded stitches.

    I hope to God, I never have to deal with them
    Again. I’m so sorry you went through this justine. I hope it only gets better!

  4. Thank you for sharing your story! Sincerely and truly, thank you.
    It seems to me that people do not understand the inhumanity of this system unless they’ve gone through it themselves, and people need to know.

    There is power in “storytelling” and I believe stories such as these lay a foundation for change. The first step is being heard. The more we talk about it, get it out in the open, make our voices and stories heard, the better.

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