Oh, how young you were.
This little corner of the world we're in is an adventure in what it's like living in the shoes of a profound loser, which is to say that eventually we're going to have to talk about finances and my lack thereof. Part of that eventually is today. So, here we go.
Growing up, my mother refused to acknowledge the existence of food stamps. I believe this can be attributed to the fact that she also refused to work for a decade because my father paid her child support and she enjoys being the victim of circumstance (I acknowledge I inherited this trait from her and I'm working on it so go fuck yourself).
Thanks to a combination of factors (declining mental health included) she felt it was best to struggle on just that child support, moving from apartment to apartment to apartment-half-paid-for-by-the-kind-folks-who-put-us-in-witness-protection-and-forced-us-to-relocate to a doublewide trailer in the middle of the Mojave desert where the wind blows so fiercely at night you have to learn how to sleep through the sound of your roof flying apart or die of sleep deprivation entirely. Her decision to forego the assistance she could have so very much qualified for makes sense in a twisted "need to be the hero of your own tragic undoing" sort of way: instead of taking government assistance and having a better life for your daughter who you hate because she looks like the man who told you there was no future for you two, you instead only live off the money of that man, out of spite. He wouldn't marry you because you suck, so instead you live in squalor like that's somehow his fault because he won't give you more than that. Sure! Makes sense, ma! If you're wondering, she did manage to find a job...two months before my eighteenth birthday when the child support checks would stop coming. How convenient!
Rather than taking a handout that would allow her very malnourished daughters to eat, my mother pretended such assistance didn't exist. Whenever it was brought up, she'd sneer at the suggestion like it was in some way a moral failing. It distilled in me a sort of forgetfulness that there are programs out there designed to help those in need, followed by a stubborn insistence that I can't possibly need those services because I've got plants growing inside my apartment, so I can't possibly be in need.
*pauses story to eat a leaf of the decorative ivy hanging over my bed as my dinner*
What I'm getting at is 1. I recently filed for food stamps, 2. doing so feels like success, 3. that's a weird thing to feel about food stamps, 4. and I want to talk about why.
I recently received an envelope in the mail for a New York State benefit card. Attached to the card was a piece of paper stating that it could be used for:
- SNAP Benefits
- Temporary Assistance
The thing is, I never applied for any of those. I filled out an application to enroll in health insurance (which comes with a different type of card) and got this instead. So I tried calling customer service to find out what the deal is -- can I use this for groceries? Do I have Medicaid? What's temporary assistance and can I use it to scratch that middle part of my back just above where my bra sits that I can't reach because I haven't exercised in a decade?
The customer service number was, unsurprisingly, unavailable. That's another thing about assistance: it requires a ton of legwork on your part -- signing up for seven different accounts just to figure out which account you're supposed to use for a certain service, lots of paperwork (including written letters from your landlord and/or employer), lots of waiting, questions you don't know the answers to, and customer service lines that are never open when you have the time to sit down and call them. You don't sign up for welfare on a whim. You can't. You have to really, desperately want it and have such a dire need that you're forced to overcome your anxiety and uncertainty and power through in the off-chance that maybe, somehow, you'll be able to buy groceries again and not see milk and bread as a "splurge." You have to chase after food stamps. They're not just handed to you.
It drives me mad that there's an assumption that food stamps or other form of welfare are easy to acquire, that there's any room for laziness in the process. I started signing up for assistance months ago while at work and have since forgotten what it was because halfway through the application I discovered I needed information that I didn't have on hand at the barista counter where I'd stand for six hours a day until my arms went numb. As I sat at my computer today, my one day off and sick to all heck with a bastard chest cold from hell, I finally completed the first part of the application for food stamps and it became exceedingly apparent why my mother never followed through with doing this herself:
It's fucking terrifying to admit that you need help.
It's terrifying to go to your employer and tell them "I'm applying for food stamps and they want a letter confirming I work here and what my hourly rate is."
It's terrifying going to your landlord and saying "I'm applying for food stamps and they want a letter confirming I live here but haha don't worry I'll probably make rent next month haha it's fine pretend I never said anything but also I need that letter in three days okay thanks bye!"
It's terrifying seeing your monthly income totaled up and calculated by a website and it's somehow only two dollars more than your rent.
It's terrifying getting sent a benefit ID card in the mail because the state figured out you need help before you could admit that to yourself, even if you haven't got a single clue how to use the damn thing.
It's terrifying to be a full grown adult who only endeavors to be good and do good and share good and to feel like nothing wants to click for you because you don't deserve for it to click because you are a total loser who will never amount to anything.
Needing help is terrifying because we're raised in this shithole society to believe that we should all have the tools to make it on our own, while never acknowledging the fact that those who do make it have gotten heaps of help to get there.
I think a large part of why I feel successful starting my route toward receiving food stamps is because there is strength in acknowledging you need help. There is dedication in following through on a process designed to discourage you. There is hope in believing these services are only temporary and, in receiving them, a doubling down on your commitment to do everything you can to get out of these circumstances. The world is scary. My future is uncertain. I couldn't tell you how I'll make rent next month, or the month after that, let alone where I'll be in five years. But I do know that today I took a step through the wild brush of not hearing back from potential jobs, connections falling through, the growing distress of not paying student loans, and toward something that resembles taking ownership over my struggles. It's terrifying. And incredibly empowering. And once I figure this mess out, I hope I'll be able to help others navigate these tricky waters, too.