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this is less about food stamps and more about you're junk, isn't it Leah

I got a call from the state of Massachusetts in the middle of reading a book to Harvey. I got up from the story to see who was calling, and when I saw the number on the caller ID I grabbed up the phone knowing it was important. It was my food stamps case worker calling about the income verifications I had sent in. She wasn't pleased. Why had I told her the church paycheck was weekly when it was biweekly? (I don't know, I didn't tell her anything about it as I can recall, I just mailed it to her as she requested). Why were Dan's two pay-stubs from the school system $100 different from one another? (Because he's a sub and he doesn't always work the same hours - regardless school isn't alway OPEN the same hours from one two-week period to the next) Well, what do you do if the school doesn't call him, how do you pay the bills? (I don't understand the question — are you criticizing our life choices, or accusing me of fraud?)

While I was trying to focus on the important conversation at hand, Harvey noticed I wasn't feeding his constant demand for attention and started beating on his brother. I couldn't yell at him while I was on the phone, so I pulled him off Zion while he screamed into the receiver. Then he started hitting me. I thought about spanking him to make him stop, even just threatening it would have done the trick, but the case worker probably had DSS on speed dial, what with her low estimation of her food stamps clients. She was already venting heavily in my direction and maybe accusing me of understating my income, a crime against the federal government. I let Harvey keep hitting me because I didn't want the conversation to go any WORSE.

Eventually she corrected my information on her computer. So much work. Sooooo many screens to fill in. Then she reminded me I have 10 days to report any changes to my monthly income over $2000. I did not say, "$2000 is a shit-load of money, what do you think we're secretly doing for work on the side?" I said, "Thank you very much" and hung up the phone.

Then I gave Harvey a stern talking to.

Than I went upstairs and cried.

It's not a big deal to get yelled at, I told myself. I get yelled at all the time. Drivers in their cars yell out the window, neighbors air their irritations about my dog, my children yell and yell and yell about juice. Not all of it makes me cry, but this particular interaction had me all but undone.

And then I thought, because I was in an impossible situation. The woman was demanding one thing and my children were violently demanding another thing and I couldn't get to my paperwork. I just couldn't do what she wanted me to do. And then I felt the same way later, when the dog was jumping at me over and over demanding to walk, even though it was freezing cold and I'd already walked him before Dan left and to walk again I'd have to take two children in the stroller neither of whom want to walk and one of whom refuses to put on a coat. I felt trapped in an impossible situation. I just can't DO what you're asking me to do.

I don't feel irritated righteous indignation in these moments. I feel absolute airway-closing panic.

I wonder if this is a 'thing' in my life.

I thought back to my first job when I graduated college. I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I moved out West to the land of promise. I wanted to get a place and get a job and do what adults do in the real world. I wanted to get started. I saw a job helping open new a retail store and I thought, well, that fit — they were getting started and so was I.

The first week of my job I found myself in a small staging area with a hundred boxes of merchandise. Me and three other young female employees. We had to check the merchandise tags on each item and cross them off from the packing slips. Simple enough, but each merchandise tag had a sequence of ten digits that was the only thing that matched it to the list. So one tank might be 0134501 and the fact that it was a tank gave it the first two digits, the style gave it the next three digits, and last two digits were the color.

To me on that first day, it felt like I was being asked to do long division in hieroglyphics. While the other three girls set to work matching tags and crossing things off on their lists, I sat staring at my box dumbfounded. They quickly got the gist of the system, saying things like, "01 is black, clearly" and "03 is shorts" and I sat staring at my list thinking, "Where are you even looking?" My eyes filled with tears and I started to panic. "I can't do this," I thought. "I just can't do this. What everybody else can do, I just can't do."

And I didn't just mean some bullshit retail task. I mean all of it. I meant maybe what other people can do in the entire scope of human existence, maybe I just can't do. Maybe I can't do WORKING. Maybe I can't do living on my own. Maybe I can't do being an adult. Maybe I can't do LIFE.

I had believed so hard the story, the american dream, I believed that life would just work out around me. I believed that if I applied myself to adult life like I had always applied myself to my studies that I would get straight marks in living. That everything would automatically unfold towards success.

But in that moment staring down at that meaningless list of numbers, my tiniest doubt now sent the whole house of cards crashing down. I did not have what it takes, whatever that is. If others can see meaning where I see nothing than others must belong to a world where I do not.

I excused myself to go drink a soda. I hadn't been eating much in general and that probably didn't help my concentration.

A half hour later I had figured out the numbers system. Turns out I had been looking at the wrong box of clothes, and the numbers on the tags really didn't match my packing slip. But the panic never left.

I felt it five years later at my first real corporate job, in a fancy office with a fancy single-cup coffee machine and fancy freezing air conditioning and fancy free bagels every wednesday. I could write a good-looking marketing plan and craft a killer subject line and take data from a web portal and make it look good in Excel. But I couldn't do that thing everybody else did that made them 'belong.' I couldn't like shmoozing by the Keurig machine. I couldn't like forwarding around some lame you-tube video clip. I couldn't like complaining about working but then staying there 10 hours. I couldn't bring myself to imagine climbing the ladder, even one little tiny rung to where there'd be more work and more shmoozing and more disgusting single-serve coffee. I just couldn't DO it.

I used my baby as an excuse to quit.

And I thought (though I hid it till now in the back recesses of my mind) maybe there is something fundamentally wrong with me. Maybe I just cannot do the things people do. Normal people. Working people. Maybe I am just broken in some fundamental way.

And at the same time while I feel a panicked rush to hide my brokenness, the other half of me is angry, no furious, no INCENSED at the bullshit bill of goods I got sold. Just work hard and everything will be fine. What if it turns out I hate the fine life you're selling? Do I not belong in this world? Not just the world of retail jobs or corporate jobs. Do I not belong in society? Do I not belong on the planet?

And what I feel, with the panic and the anger, with the "Just do this, it's easy" sloshing up against "I can't do this!" I feel trapped in an impossible situation. I just can't do what you're asking me to do

This is how I felt today on the phone. Maybe you are right to accuse me of fraud because maybe in life I AM ACTUALLY A FRAUD.


Wow, Leah. You are an amazing writer- do you know that? Your writing is so heart-baringly honest and engaging and profound, and your voice comes across so clearly. I love it.

Aw, thanks Elizabeth. Sometimes I post these sort of things by reassuring myself, "Well, at least no one will read it all the way to the end."

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