Health “Benefits” and Violence

A long looonnng long time ago in a galaxy far far faaaar away, I was elected to serve on a committee at a workplace that discussed employee compensation and benefits. I deferred for a year because I didn’t think my health could withstand it. Then I said to myself, Ok, everyone should put in their time, so I went onto the committee. I put in two years of my time, and I thought I would learn something. I also thought I could contribute something, because I have written about health benefits and had enough trouble with them that I understand some of the pulleys and levers.

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 11.06.31 AMI knew it would be grueling. What I learned, however, was more than details. I learned that the conversations about health insurance in this country are not meant to be logical. They are often really about blatant control and submerged violence.

The first year was survivable. We negotiated some benefits changes that were difficult, but they were not draconian or arbitrary. We were reasonable, and we practiced the dance that people living in the United States are forced to do: “Yes, because of (Cruelty that Will Not Be Named), we will agree to cut into our own bottom lines for the sake of the well-being of those profiting from healthcare.”

In the second year, we tried to figure out reasonable responses to these escalating costs and to contain them; we asked for a little padding for the handcuffs. Those reasonable solutions were met with a stone wall which revealed a little bit too much of the underlying agenda: this was not even about accumulating money for the very rich and for the stockholders of the for-profit healthcare system. No, this was about power over bodies.

We bent over backwards and forwards (with all the implications intended) to propose ways these cuts might be made a little less painfully, and that was met with a rigid refusal. I do believe that some of the people who were sitting in the room did not necessarily think their orders were reasonable, but their own salaries and benefits and therefore the well-being of their very bodies depending on carrying out those orders.

I understand that healthcare costs are escalating. I am not an idiot, although the subtext of our outrage over cuts was always that shame: You are children. You do not understand the real world. They laughed at us, that bureaucratic head-shaking laugh.

There was a pretend-reasonableness to these discussions, but beneath the charts and the agendas was a violence, and that violence says: the people who are in charge—some of whom you might never actually see face to face, and some of whom loathe you because you oppose their agendas—can do what they want with your bodies.

The idea of employer-sponsored healthcare is the worst thing. The idea that employers who buy our labor and by and large set the terms for much of our waking lives also get control over how we might get access to treatment and pain relief and options for our bodies to function is tyranny.

Every week after the meetings I came away in a fog of depression and exhaustion that took the whole day to lift, and the substance of that depression was the non-reality of this imperative: You want too much. You are crazy as a group to want safety or even to want to do better than you did five years ago because 1) you are educators, and education is not a priority in this country and 2) health insurance has the nation in such an unquestionable stranglehold that it threatens every single person’s economic security except the rich and those with two stable middle-class incomes.

Our individual workplaces are not the source of healthcare madness in this country, of course. The CFOs and CEOs are enacting the cruelty of a privatized for-profit system in which insurance is necessary in order to protect a person’s body from the violence of denial of healthcare, and that violence threatens from every turn.

At one point during this extended adventure, the committee met with the board of trustees, and I contributed and played the game and was reasonable and made points. I took from that meeting a few notes and a fancy metal pen. Afterward I was in bed on and off for five days, emotionally exhausted, sore from chronic conditions that make the issue of healthcare a very serious issue, an issue I cannot turn away from for a second. You say “healthcare” and it is not abstract for me. I need it to function on a daily basis.

I am on a specific healthcare hair-trigger: in not having access to healthcare and having healthcare debt at various points in my life, I go into a rage at the inhumanity of having one’s physical and mental health used as a pawn of control. It makes my heart ache. I am also on a hair trigger regarding the general issue of men making decisions about my body, shaking their heads in condescension, laughing at me, implying that I am a foolish child, and telling me that what I see and know is not real. And then making me say how “lucky” I am to be in this situation when so many others have it worse, forcing me to acknowledge that this is the world we live in, a world where cruelty and denial of care sets the terms for how we live in our bodies.

We all live with this as if there were no other options. There are other options. When you shake your head at me and say, “Oh little girl, you don’t understand the market…” I say, “It’s amazing how many levels of condescension and control are going on here to get into my head and make me feel worthless so I don’t have the energy to fight you.”

And then I quote the Pope, who said on May 7, 2016: “Health is not a consumer good but a universal right, so access to health services cannot be a privilege.” This is the true thing, no matter what layers of shame are wrapped around our bodies. We are mortal and breakable, and that should not be a sin or a shame. That is the glorious fragile human condition.

Check out more of the Pope’s stuff here:



How Should You Treat a Co-Worker with a Chronic Health Issue?

You might see someone limping with a cane down the halls, and then a few days later they’re fine. Or you know a co-worker has lupus and you are not sure what that means for their role in your project. Or you are just empathetic but unsure. I am not an authority on invisible disabilities, but I do have a few–two autoimmune conditions including Rheumatoid Disease, which affects my movement and produces pain–so I thought I’d take a stab at some imaginary questions. I’m not an HR professional. This might be incorrect! It’s just my thoughts. Feel free to leave other questions in the comments.

Is a person with these conditions (which I’m going to describe as invisible disabilities) less able to work?

My cane and my heating pad at my desk. Showing up like a rock star.

Unless they are a lumberjack—and maybe even if they are a lumberjack—each situation is unique. Jobs are a fit or not a fit for a wide range of reasons, and determining that fit is the right of the employee, the supervisor, and HR—not you. Instead, check your own thinking: are you assuming that when you see signs of physical impairment, there is cognitive or motivational difficulty? There might be those, there might be others–but it’s probably not something you are qualified to evaluate. I can ask that difficult question because I have a sometimes-visible disability and yet I too berate myself for being less capable. I’m not less capable. In fact, in some ways I’m more capable, for reasons I’ll get into below.


The truth is that a person with a chronic condition who is employed is actually a wonder of neuroplasticity and adaptation. People can adapt over time to conditions that would be unbearable if they emerged suddenly. They are forced to grow their lives around amazing challenges and yet make life work, to be functional.

If I have someone with a chronic condition or an invisible illness on my team, is that going to affect my due dates? What if they have to go into the hospital?

Not everyone who has one of these conditions needs time off of work, but every single person alive faces the unknown of illness and hospitalization. Cross that bridge when you come to it, but you do not need to expect any additional degree of unreliability from someone with a chronic condition. That’s a misconception about the nature of chronic illnesses. If there’s a serious issue, the person will make you aware of it.

In what ways is a person with an invisible disability or chronic illness a wonderful employee?

Hahaha—that’s a great question. (I might have planted that one). A person with these conditions can be a great liaison to other employees and to potential customers with these challenges. He or she can help you adapt your business, your website, your services, to the needs of this huge population. A person with these conditions is often a complete wonder of efficiency, because he or she has had to make difficult choices with regard to precious energy and time that can’t be squandered. People with these conditions get as much or more done because they know their own energy levels and work abilities intimately. They are mental and emotional athletes. They often have a high degree of empathy, and in some cases their ability to design work-arounds in their own lives has resulted in enhanced creativity for out-of-the-box solutions.

Should I give the person extra leeway with deadlines, etc.?

That’s not necessary unless they ask for it—like any other employee that needs a flexed deadline. And we all do, for all the shit life throws at us.

Some days a person has visible aids, like a cane, a cushion, limb or hand supports. Does that mean the person is feeling his or her disability most acutely and that it is gone on other days?

Actually, no—not at all. One of the difficulties of an invisible condition is that the discomfort is usually chronic. A particular aid might be called for on a particular day, but the hardware just means that a specific part is having difficulty, and does not even act as a barometer for when the worst days are.

When I see a person with one of these aids, does it help to express sympathy or to ask how the person is doing?

This is a very individual thing, but in my case, the answer is no. I want to try to normalize my condition, to have it be a part of me but not the most obvious part. I want my coworkers to understand that some days I have my hardware and some days I don’t—but that every day is hard. Because every day is hard in different ways, expressing sympathy only when the hardware appears makes me feel a little like the person doesn’t get my condition (it’s fine if they don’t—I barely get it). The worst part, however, is to associate my cane with a sad expression and the need for sympathy. I love my cane. I love it. It helps me walk, it announces my disease as visible, and it does a lot of other things for me. The worst days are the days you can’t see. So when you see me with a cane, just say hi.

Should I suggest various things that have worked for my niece’s boyfriend or that I have seen on Facebook, such as supplements, yoga, etc.?

No. These people are barraged with well-intentioned advice. Think about what it must be like to have a life-long condition that other people assume is easy to fix when in fact doctors have pronounced it incurable. What you are saying to the person is that they have overlooked something obvious and so therefore that they might be a little dumb. You don’t mean it to sound that way, and you’re just trying to be helpful, but it’s a little insulting, and it doesn’t help to build connection.

Should I use this person’s condition against them in power struggles and office conflicts?

Hahah! You’re FIRED! No, seriously: This is probably too obvious to say, but it needs to be said: if you in any way imply that the person is less able to do their job, is weak, is less qualified, or is a burden, you are not only wrong but you are also doing something that is immoral, unethical, and illegal. You are bullying based on physical ability, which is reprehensible.



Letter to an Almost- or Recent-College-Grad

Dear favorite student ever,

You don’t know what to do with the rest of your life. I know the place you are at because I have been there too.

I’ve been talking recently with other students who are either facing graduation or recently graduated, and like you, they are anxious. They don’t know what the right next thing is. They have student loans to pay off and they need a job and this pressure situation you all are under can make the leap out of college quite frightening.

I have been thinking about and emailing with some of these students, and talking to others in my office, and I wanted to tell you what I have been thinking.

First, the job. The first job you get out of college might be ridiculous, wrong, or simply make you hopeless. It’s very likely that you won’t have the contacts or social connections to get the first job out of college that is the right job for you. That. Does. Not. Mean. You. Are. A. Failure.

Don’t do that to yourself. Don’t pronounce yourself a failure. I know it’s easy to do, because really, what else is Facebook for besides comparing our lives to others’ lives and feeling like crap as a result? (Actually, I love Facebook for other reasons. But you know what I mean.)

What is success for you? Don’t let commercials and Facebook determine what it means. Sit down for only five minutes, set the timer on your phone, and write: Success. What would it look like? Really? Don’t bullshit.

Post-college is a massive self-directed research project in determining what matters to you as a human being. Engage in that and you are a success based on your own terms of success. Treat it like research, which means to read. Instead of having your syllabi handed to you, you are going to have to go to the library and read voraciously on subjects that interest you. This, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t mean staying in your comfort zone and reading the same things you’ve always read (though that’s fine too, for a break). Instead, your larger project is to follow your curiosity, which will lead you to what is right for you to be doing in the world. This also saves your soul and your sanity if you are working a ridiculous job. You can definitely keep your intellect alive, and you owe that to yourself.

Maybe you will step out of college and right into the perfect job, and if that happens, I am happy for you. But I can’t speak to that experience because it isn’t mine.

Here’s my list of jobs before I became a professor: waitress, an artist’s model, a trash collector, gardener, nanny, dishwasher, video store clerk, researcher for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, canvassing staff for an environmental organization, coffeeshop barista, labor-community coalition organizer, organizer for a healthcare nonprofit, receptionist, mental health counselor, overnight security staff in a mental health center, nonprofit project manager, editor, associate publisher, reporter, medical proofreader, writing instructor for engineering students, adviser to a student newspaper.

I often want to print out my resume and my list of “failures” for students. I might start doing that. I have only in the past decade become a “professional.” Before that, I was just someone who someone hired to do a job. And that, too, was good, because I had the time to develop my sense of self in other ways besides through employment.

I built my sense of self on what I could make and write and how I could give to small community efforts. And I began to feel good about myself as an adult in the world. And that’s the secret.

If you get a job that doesn’t feel like you’ve “made it,” you have to build your self-esteem (especially in the United States, with the ethos of work=self) in other ways. So, how do you do that? If you make art or write, you have to keep doing that—not as a obligation but as a way to stay sane. If you are interested in a field and want to get into it someday, read and research about that field. Get on mailing lists, email people and ask for advice.

Another essential is to give your time. If you can’t find the great job, or any job, find an organization that does what you care about in the world and figure out how to get involved. This is research, and it might take time, but you have both time and the ability to research. Google an issue and the name of your city, send an email, offer your hands and your brain.

As a side note, you will be shocked at how often those connections lead to skills and employment and fulfillment. Your job is to figure out what to do with the rest of your life.

Graduation means that there’s suddenly so much potential, and at the same time there’s no structure–it can be quite scary because you feel like you have your whole life ahead of you and every decision means so much. But the truth is… it doesn’t.

The truth is that nothing you will do is a “mistake.” Your path will be wandering–it will have to be. I understand the pressure you can put on yourself because I have been there too and am actually–truth be told–just emerging from the other side of that pressure at age 42. You will make choices and not all of them will look logical or right, but you will get something important from each one if you are thoughtful and insightful–and you, my friend, are both those things.

You’ve been under incredible time pressure to do major projects in two or three weeks for your entire school career. Now the time frame shifts, and the deadlines are set by you, as are the assignments. Don’t forget to give yourself assignments that matter most to you, because that’s how you become who you were meant to be.

In your corner,