I grew up a white, middle-class, cisgendered, femme bisexual. These are the labels and privilege that I am willing to claim. When I reached 33 and went on SSDI, I went on food stamps. The transformation from Daddy’s Girl who just had to get another temp job to actual psychotic starving schizophrenic who had to take anti-anxiety medication to take out the trash was a process but has landed here. With me, today. Taking a handful of pills so that I can be brave enough to go use my EBT.
It takes waiting for the Ativan to take effect so that it can be possible for me to go to the Vons. My wife and I usually divide our shopping between discount markets, going to the Vons for only the few little fancy things. Tonight I am so anxious that I am only focused on getting the food, getting out. I drive to the Vons. There is anxiety built into this transaction. When I check out, as I am about to in this narrative, my cart packed with vegetables, a little meat, perhaps olive oil or yogurt, it is always civil until I introduce the food stamp card.
Instantly, I am a criminal. The eyes pass back and forth, noticing that I am buying ground lamb, noticing that I am buying a bottle of wine, which I will pay for in cash later on. I see the people behind me looking, as I sweep my EBT card, I see them noticing that I’m buying spinach and bok choi. That I seem glazed and made up, that I am wearing a large diamond wedding ring and have counted my purchases with an older model iPhone. It’s on my parent’s family plan, although I do not have a sticker on it saying so. The outrage grows. I gather my purchases and the checker, sneering, puts them in my bag. As I walk away I see the checker raise his hands and comment about fraud. The voices are hungry, they are hungry. The voices are loud as I leave the store. I do not know if they are hallucinations. If my wife were with me she would tell me they were hallucinations.
Later that night: Full with the lamb pitas I have eaten with my wife, who tells me it was all a delusion and no one cares that I am on food stamps and buying good food. “No one cares what you look like and that you’re on food stamps.” I only wish it were true. Personally, I know there is a narrative people have about the virtuous poor and food stamp fraud. The discussion following this Jezebel article, for example, makes it very clear: There is an image people have if the deserving food stamp receiver, and I am not it. With my taste in food, appearing too made up or done up and wearing my wedding ring and my iPhone, this marks me in the grocery store and makes the patrons groan for the bitch of a scamming white girl that has to ruin everything for everybody.
But I am not committing fraud. And I want to say it every time to the people who scan my cart with their eyes, comment as I walk off with the food that will keep me alive for another week. But my disability is so stigmatized that I stay silent.
I can’t speak of my disability. And why do these strangers deserve such intimate confidences? I can’t say that I am not at all able to work and I need the government to pass me some change because I am wounded. I am the wound. I really need the $100 a month in food stamps. I can’t just tell the checker, “Look, I know I look like I’m doing fraud here but I’m actually schizoaffective, that’s why I’m on EBT.” You can’t say that. I mean, I could, but the security guards are pretty large.
But I am thankful. I am so thankful to the government for providing this assistance, as it has been wonderful and helped me to survive and eat for several years now. I am scrupulously honest in my renewal applications and yet the benefits keep coming. I am thankful.
I have also learned coping mechanisms. I am aware that some of the things I hear people say about me may or may not be psychotic hallucinations. I am aware that my native anxiety drives the stress every time I enter a grocery store, but over the years it has become easier to pull out the card, use it, hide it between my hands again. Having rituals helps, going to the same stores over and over helps. Knowing that in the end what ignorant strangers may think does not impact me. That I will be at home happily cooking while they gnash their teeth in frustration, I will no longer be listening.