A few months ago, I applied for a one-off government payment we were eligible for, which, unbeknown to me, invited an audit of past payments going back several years. After looking at my records, the social security department decided I was liable to repay a pension I received whilst my husband and I were separated for six months, so instead of getting a cheque in the mail for a few hundred dollars, I opened my mail to find a collection letter for several thousand dollars. Stunned, I called the agency for an explanation. The agency officer was patient, but firm. “You didn’t abide by the child support agreement, which stipulates you must endeavour to recover by any means possible money owed to you in child support by the other party. You broke the agreement, so you have to pay back your pension.”
I asked to be allowed to appeal at a higher level.
Eventually, I was phoned up by another officer from the government agency to discuss my appeal. I explained again how my husband and I were separated but he had no income for that time, so he couldn’t pay me, so there seemed to be no point pursuing him. In fact, my husband had been very unwell, and if she cared to check his records, she’d find he too was on benefits from the government, because he was too sick to work. I felt then I didn’t want to further exacerbate his condition by having a solicitor badger him for child support.
The officer was empathic, but unmoved. “You broke the agreement, you simply have to pay us back.”
“Let me get this straight. So because my husband didn’t pay me a couple of hundred dollars, you’re going to make me pay back a couple of thousand?”
Up until then, I’d been trying to retain a semblance of dignity. Despite my stoicism, my voice began to break. I started sobbing, still with the officer on the other end of the phone.
“Hold on, hold on. Just back up a little.” She said. “Can you tell me, off the record, exactly what was going on around that time? I get the idea there’s more to the story here than what you’ve told me.”
I didn’t want to tell her what happened, but it was the only way to make her understand.
“Well…I had cancer in 2003. I got better, but my husband didn’t. He became an alcoholic. I couldn’t stop him drinking, so I threw him out. We got back together, but he still couldn’t stop drinking and I started having panic attacks, so I had to ask him to leave again. We went to counselling, but while we were there he told me he didn’t want to be married any more, but he agreed to go to rehab. While we were waiting for a place to come up in rehab, we lived under the same roof but fought every day. One day I followed him around the house yelling at him about how he’d let us all down and why couldn’t he just man up and take responsibility when at one point he turned around with such desperation on his face – I’d never seen such despair in a human being before. In that moment, I knew if I didn’t let him go, I’d come home one day and find him hanging from a tree.
“The short answer is I didn’t try to collect child support because my alcoholic husband couldn’t pay and was suicidal, and I was determined not to behave like a victim. I just wanted him to get better, and I just wanted to get on with my life. ”
It hurt having to tell her that story. I wanted to tell the story of our happy reconciliation, our present health and wholeness, how we paid up our debts and started fresh in a new town where nobody knew that victim story. In telling her about our unhappy past I felt like I was right back there with the pain and shame of being abandoned, broke and broken. We are not those people any more. But in an instant that was me again.
Thank God, she heard me. After hearing the truth about what happened, she sent my appeal up the chain and the agency cancelled the debt.
Victim stories are strange things. They can be painful, but they can also have utility when getting something you want or need. I get a plethora of victim stories every time I list something on Freecycle. It’s awful for me, because then I have to decide who gets my washing machine – the single mum, the bankrupt boyfriend, the old-age pensioner? I don’t want or like having that kind of power, and I don’t enjoy having people tell me their problems in order to validate my generosity toward them.
Because I know how it feels.
When genuinely bad things happen to us like cancer, the way we are seen and see ourselves can change. We can find ourselves fighting others perceptions and projections, even if it’s just in our own head. When I was staying at a hostel in Sydney near the hospital where I was having radiotherapy, I remember walking down the hallway and passing the brass sponsor plaques beside each door. I hated those plaques. They were like little monuments to the slow, incremental death of my dignity. I didn’t want to be reminded every morning I was a charity recipient. I was a charity recipient, and thank God I was, but any sense I was being pitied just repelled me. I didn’t want to be seen or treated like I was less than simply by virtue of my circumstances.
When we have cancer, victim is a card we’re handed whether we like it or not. It’s up to us whether we play it. Sometimes, just like people who need washing machines or radiotherapy patients who need somewhere to stay in the big city, we have to play our card to access what we want or need. Sometimes we simply tear that card up and throw it away in disgust. Sometimes, as with me and the social security officer, the card is forced from our pocket and into plain view, and we have to use it even if we’d rather not. Or perhaps we can flip it, and try pass it off as something else entirely.
You can only have no much control over how others see you, and the same amount of control over what actually happens to you. When you have cancer, that control can be diminished, but it could be you’re prepared to let some go, if you think it’ll serve you. Some may pity you because it makes them feel superior, but this is rare. And there can be a degree of increased control, even power, in making yourself appear smaller. Regardless of how you play your victim card, the fact is nobody can ever remove your dignity from you by force. But you may find yourself buying it a size smaller, just for now.
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