So three years ago I get this notice from the Census Bureau telling me I’ve been chosen to participate in some survey, and some guy will be contacting me in the near future to make it happen. Fine, I think. Surveys are kinda fun. Bring it on.
Then the guy calls me and tells me it’s three hours long and he has to come to my house to do it—all of which sounds irritating and intrusive, so I politely decline his invitation. But he insists, implying that the government doesn’t give me the option of saying no, Comrade, but he’ll come to my office after work some night if that will be more convenient.
Sure, I guess.
The coming-to-the-office part makes it seem a little more safe anyway, so I acquiesce and eventually find myself sitting in one of our conference rooms with a creepy-looking government employee answering an ENDLESS series of increasingly personal questions about everything from my family history to the racial makeup of my friends to what’s on my rap sheet to my drinking and drug habits.
But I answer the questions, feeling all smug that I have black friends and a squeaky-clean record and no unseemly habits and parents who never hit each other. And the guy finally leaves, but not without rewarding me with a Census Bureau-logo ruler. Three hours for a friggin’ RULER! (I still have it somewhere, in case you want to drop by and see how they measure linear space at the Census Bureau.)
Fast-forward to last week. Another notice arrives in the mail. There’s another survey we’d like you to participate in, Comrade. And apparently it will happen every three years FOR LIFE. Lucky me.
Only now, I’m told a little more about it: It’s designed to identify correlations between substance abuse and evolving lifestyle indicators like health, family, criminal records, traumatic events, etc. And this year I get $40 for starting the survey and $40 for finishing it.
So last night I started the whole process over—only we did it in my house, and they sent a different creepy-looking government employee.
And either I just didn’t remember the scope of the questions from three years ago or they got waaaaay more probing. Again, I was all smug in dismissing every question about drugs and alcohol with a curt “never”—the answer I also gave to every question about being neglected as a child and being the victim of violent crime and endangering other people’s lives by driving recklessly.
But after a while, the questions started making me sad. And then sick. Before you were 18, how often did your father hit your mother? Have you ever assaulted someone with the intent of causing serious injury? Were you ever sexually molested by a stranger? By someone you trusted? Have you ever gone more than a month without having somewhere to live? Have you ever done or said something hurtful to intimidate someone into letting you have your way? Have you ever taken sexual advantage of someone who was under the influence of alcohol or drugs? Have you ever taken prescription drugs that weren’t yours? Have you ever been witness to a terrorist attack or violent crime that included casualties? Have you ever unexpectedly stumbled upon a dead body? Were you ever intentionally injured by a stranger in a public place?
The questions kept coming and coming and coming, and it occurred to me that somewhere in this country there are people who could answer yes to them. And odds are, if they could answer yes to one or two horrible things, they probably could answer yes to a lot more. I interrupted the numbing barrage to ask the census guy if he’d ever had people answer yes to any of the more horrible questions. He emotionlessly confirmed they had and plunged right in to the next question for me.
And some of them I had to answer yes to. Have you ever lost a friend or loved one in a terrorist attack? Have you ever been verbally harassed for being gay? Have you ever suffered from a panic attack?
Ugh. I should have said no about the panic attacks. They were all a part of the exciting world we call social anxiety disorder, a little mental prison I inadvertently locked myself in for most of my adult life. I’d get panicky and physically ill in situations like crowded bars and parties (especially parties), so I went out of my way to avoid them. Until last year, when I finally freed myself (surprisingly easily) through a handful of sessions with a therapist. And now I try to attend every social event and party I'm invited to so I can accomplish some way-overdue catching up on my social networking. And maybe find me a freakin' boyfriend. But I digress.
My point is that saying yes to that one question about panic attacks opened the door to a labyrinth of more specific questions about them: frequency, duration, severity, symptoms, delayed reactions, effects on my behavior, embarrassment, etc. etc. etc. And by the time we’d gotten back to the rest of the questions, we’d spent an inordinate amount of time blowing the panic attack thing waaaaaaay out of proportion. Which made me extremely thankful that I didn’t have to answer yes to any of the other questions. It would have literally added hours to an already-too-long interview. And it would totally have made me miss Queer Eye.
So the survey ends. I get my 80 bucks. The creepy-looking government employee leaves. And I immediately call my parents to thank them for things a child should never have to specifically thank his parents for: Raising me in a loving, stable home. Shielding me from the horrors that obviously befall tons of other kids. Giving me the kind of worldview that makes me able to appreciate everything I have. Moving out of an all-white neighborhood when I was young so I could go to an integrated junior high school. Never hitting each other.