The SSA joins the fun


So, up until the 18th century there was a peculiarly evil way of putting criminals to death called “pressing.”  (In the U.S. it was used on one man during the Salem Witch Trials.) The victim was laid flat on the ground while greater and greater weights (usually stones) were placed on him or her, until the victim either came up with the required information, or died. The required information was usually a plea of guilty or not guilty in a legal proceeding; the value of not pleading was that one’s estate did not thereby escheat to the government and was preserved for one’s heirs. None of this is relevant, really, except for the stones part.

Y’all will recall that I was diagnosed with cancer in early May and began treatment in early June. In late June, just as the first round of chemo side-effects were kicking in, I received a letter from Social Security telling me that they had overpaid me, and demanding the tidy sum of $15,507.58 or they would cut off my benefits. This stemmed from the fact that, after Chris dumped me in November of 2012, I kept working to meet our bills, and continued working part-time once I moved to Hawai’i until my replacement came on board. (I had already applied for my benefit because we were planning, then, for my retirement in January of 2013.) I called Social Security to tell them I was still working, and they said they would notice that in the next quarterly report from my job, and adjust things then. The next quarter came and went and I called them again, and was told the same thing. So in the emotional and physical upheaval of leaving my job, moving here, dealing with a broken heart, etc., I put it aside. Until this June.

I wrote back, asking them to put a hold on everything until at least August, and enclosing a couple of my oncology summaries from Kaiser. Silence, until August 1 when they stopped my benefit entirely. So here’s the thing: Social Security is my only form of income. There is no other. I stopped telecommuting in June when I started treatment, and since that job was hourly, no money came in from that. I also stopped teaching, because chemo-brain left me too stupid to do that. So, without my benefit, I default on the mortgage and take up residence in a local lava tube, and learn to like the taste of grubs.

Nope. No way. No how. Uh-uh. Out of the question. Fuck, no. I downloaded and filled out the Request for Waiver forms, amassed an armada of documentation, and sailed off this morning to do battle with Social Security. For this I had to drive to Hilo (2 hours) and take a number and wait. They do not offer appointments. They don’t even have a local telephone number.

My number came up, I hauled out my armada and started outlining the whole sad story to the clerk, and naturally enough started leaking because one of chemo’s less charming side-effects is getting weepy regardless. The clerk gave me a box of tissues and pounded on her computer.

I need to interrupt here to say that the bureaucrats I have dealt with on this island have been, without exception, friendly and helpful, going out of their way to extend aid and comfort, and help steer me through the mazes. I don’t know if this is the aloha spirit, or the result of my approaching problems in a spirit of cooperation, but there you have it. Not just me, either — the folk in line ahead of me were also treated with helpful courtesy.

So, she interrupts me and says, You know what? It’s our fault. Apparently the woman on the phone in Santa Rosa was right: it’s up to Social Security to pick up on such things in the quarterly filings, and they didn’t. Twice. So she said she was accepting the filing of my Request for a Waiver, and in the meantime was restoring my benefit, and I should drive carefully because there’s a lot of hurricane damage out there.

I left the office in a daze, sat in my trusty car for a while, then took the lady’s advice and drove carefully home, while heavy stones were lifted off my chest. I stopped at Black Sands Beach to say thanks to Mme. Pele (I’m still an atheist, but I’m a polite one) and to commune with a honu basking on sands hot enough to blister my feet.


I’m not sure there’s a moral to this story, except maybe to treat anything Social Security tells you with a great deal of suspicion, and double-check it if there is any way that you can. And if you must deal with them, try to do it in Hilo, where they treat you like a human being. Mahalo nui loa.