How Someone On Disability Does Money

Photo credit: Liz West, CC BY 2.0.

In March of 2015, I filed a claim for short-term disability. I had just been diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder, a mental illness that dragged me between depression and mania at its will. This would be enough to drive anyone crazy (pun intended), but I was also carrying diagnoses of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and PTSD, both of which could launch me into a panic attack at a moment’s notice.

Eventually, I became so overcome that my job performance suffered. I was working in medical data entry, a repetitive, often monotonous job, and began to make errors — so many that my supervisor required me to re-do my training (I didn’t know it at the time, but I was also living with adult ADHD, which made work of this nature excruciating). I began to take mental health days as frequently as I could and invented excuses to leave work early after crying binges at my desk.

After weeks blended into overwhelming months, I consulted with my therapist and my then-fiancé (now pending-ex-husband), and we decided that disability would be the best way for me to find the right mix of coping skills and medication to balance me out. Soon after, I called HR from the parking lot of a supermarket and told them I was pursuing disability.

At first, it felt freeing. The crushing feelings lifted as I realized that my sole priority from then on was to focus on getting well. Then, the financial ramifications descended.

If you are accepted for disability in the state of New York, you will receive checks that are worth 50 percent of your average weekly pay, with a cap of $170 per week. When I went on disability, I was making roughly $800 per week before taxes, so my checks were capped at $170, a far cry from the $300-something I would have received without the cap.

This meant managing rent ($925 a month), groceries ($100 a week or more), my credit card bill ($150 per month, making only minimum payments), my student loans ($280 a month), my car payment ($180 a month), car insurance ($75 a month), therapy ($200 a month), psychiatry ($100 a month), and medication costs ($50 a month).

These costs total $1,585 a month — and I have a budget of $680, less than half of what it would take to cover my basic expenses.

Some things can be negotiated, of course.

Grocery expenses can be reduced by giving up luxuries like brie and jam (I have a slight addiction), and substituting things like smoothies (thank god for my Magic Bullet) with protein powder, fruit, dairy, and even vegetables, if you’re going to go wild. I also contacted my student loan organizations and filed a change of income, which reduced my payments to nothing for a short period of time. That freed up about $200 worth of expenses, leaving me $705 in the red.

The feminist in me is ashamed to say that the extra money came from my at-the-time-fiancé, who works as the Art and Operations Director of a small press. He brought in about $3,000 every two weeks, which helped keep us afloat in terms of necessary expenditures. We kept careful track of bank account and credit card balances, switching cards around when necessary to make sure we never exceeded a limit.

My freelance writing career also took off in this time, and I started to write for money instead of exposure, which helped fluff my checking account with an extra $100–200 here and there. It was tight, but we squeezed by.

Now, just about two years later, I’m in a similar position.

After moving to Boston to start a new job as a bartender in the busy and lucrative Financial District, I suffered a mental breakdown. I was on the MBTA, anxiety ripping through me so strong that I couldn’t imagine getting through the shift that was going to start in about twenty minutes. I had a full bottle of Depakote in my bag, I found a half-full bottle of water on the floor by my feet, and it hit me — I could stop at the CVS in Downtown Crossing, grab a bottle of Dramamine, and swallow every pill.

I didn’t, but lord did I want to.

Instead, I went to the hospital, where I was placed in an emergency psychiatric ward for three days. In my time there, I went to group therapy, adjusted my medication, did a lot of coloring, and came to the conclusion that I couldn’t handle such a high-pressure job in my current condition. What I wanted to do, what I was advised to do, was enter into a partial day program at a local mental health center, where, for a week or two, I would do six hours of group therapy a day to bolster the treatment I had received as an inpatient.

However, I signed up for insurance when I lived in New Hampshire, so outpatient services were only covered there. I couldn’t enter the program I wanted, and I couldn’t see the psychiatrist and therapist I had booked appointments with weeks ago, so I had to do some finagling.

The first step was quitting my job.

Yes, it cut my income drastically. It’s almost impossible for me to pay for, well, anything now. But I’ve committed myself to writing full-time, spending every day pitching, writing, editing, or submitting. I don’t take days off, and I work as much of the day as my energy levels allow. It’s sporadic income, and making the adjustment from daily cash and biweekly paychecks to much smaller monthly checks is hard, but I always ask myself what my sanity is worth — and it’s always worth more than the money.

The second step was to cancel my appointments with my mental health team in Boston and seek out other avenues.

Right now, I seek my psychiatrist in New Hampshire, taking the bus to do so, and I use TalkSpace, a therapy app that costs as much per month as weekly therapy visits, but I can access my therapist every day. He gives me homework. We chat on the app and via Skype. It’s not traditional, but it’s cost-effective, and it works for me.

The third step was applying for Social Security disability.

Since I didn’t have insurance through my job, and wasn’t working full-time, I couldn’t go through the same route as I did in March 2014. This time, I have to ask the federal government for assistance. From what I learned in the psych ward, the process is a good deal longer. It could be months before I receive assistance (though then, they would send me a check based on the time I spent waiting to see if my application was accepted).

Based on the Social Security “Quick Calculator,” I’m likely to receive $1,426 monthly in benefits. Since I’ve applied for income-based repayment plans on my student loans and notified my credit card company that I’m unemployed, that should more that cover my basic expenses — if I’m accepted, that is.

In the meantime, I’m fortunate enough to live with three roommates who have watched me struggle and suffer with mental illness, and are not putting pressure on me to pay rent and other household bills that I can’t afford. I’m new to the house, and share a bedroom with my partner, so everyone pays the same as before, and I sort of float, albeit guiltily.

In return, I buy groceries and household necessities when I can. I do chores around the house, like dishes or cooking. I share the food I make with everyone and they share with me and the other roommates.

There have been a lot of downgrades. I don’t go out, or order food in. I buy in bulk and make meals that are cheap and will provide a good deal of leftovers: casseroles, lentils with rice, various pastas. I drink water instead of soda, and ginger beer instead of liquor. I don’t shop for any sort of luxury items, be it clothes, books, or beauty products (my general go-to’s). If there’s a choice between paying a bill or treating myself, I pay the bill — end of story.

I’m sure that things will get easier once my application gets approved (and I have to believe it will — my survival depends on it). But for now, the way this girl does money is by being honest with her support system, accepting help when it’s offered, and doing my best to give back in every way that I can.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have about seven more assignments to complete. A (disabled) writer’s work is never done.

Liz Lazzara is an androgyne writer, editor, and activist specializing in mental health, addiction, and trauma. They have written online copy for rehab centers, and essays, narrative nonfiction, and journalism for multiple online and print publications. They are currently working on a manuscript about complex post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction, and they are affiliated with Active Minds, the Mental Health America Advocacy Network, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the National Association of Memoir Writers, the Nonfiction Authors Association, No Stigmas, and the One Love Foundation. Follow them on Twitter and find their entire body of work at

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