Eric Harwood is a medically retired locksmith.
This year, the United States will spend more money on disability benefits than food stamps, welfare, housing subsidies and unemployment. (Danielle Kunitz,Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

Last week, ABC News reported that the backlog of Americans waiting to see if they qualify for disability assistance from Social Security has swollen to one million people and that thousands have died while waiting for the agency to deal with their cases. What they didn’t report is that thousands have also lived while waiting for the agency to deal with our cases. And that can be just as bad.

I was born in 1968 in York, Pa. My birthparents were semitruck drivers, so we bounced around the country quite a bit growing up. As a child, I was placed in foster care, and by 21, after working for a time in a warehouse, I, too went into truck driving.

Driving, loading and unloading trucks is not an easy business on the body. But as a young person, feeling invincible, I didn’t think much of it. I got married in 1997 and realized that being gone all the time wasn’t a great thing. So I left truck driving and went into trade school to become a locksmith. I love working with my hands, tinkering with things and figuring out how they work, so the job was a natural fit for me. Of course, lifting and moving heavy safes without proper equipment, I wound up damaging my back even more than I had already damaged it driving trucks.

And I paid for it. In April 2013, I woke up with a nasty pain in my back, and I just couldn’t shake it. I kept thinking it would get better if I just ignored it, and I liked working — I always have — so I put it aside, did my best to ignore it, and pressed on without telling anyone in my lock shop what was going on.

But the pain just got progressively worse and worse and worse. I finally saw a doctor, who told me I had degenerating discs in my back, neuropathy in both legs and sciatica. I had cut back my hours, and at that time a co-worker suggested I should apply for Social Security Disability. I thought about it — after all, I don’t believe much in taking handouts. But I felt like I had paid into it, so I should be able to benefit from it. I applied.

But the agency ruled that, because I was still gainfully employed — at very reduced hours — I didn’t qualify for SSDI. So, I kept working, and things kept getting worse. By August 2015, my boss tearfully called me into his office and said: “Eric, I’m sorry — I have got to let you go. You need help, and you can’t keep up anymore.” He was right. I did need help.

So I applied anew for SSDI, now without any job whatsoever. The agency hadn’t been slow about denying my claim the first time around, so I figured they would be relatively quick to approve it now that I met all the conditions. But I was wrong.

Time stretched on without me working. My wife had just started her own hair styling business — her dream. But as bills came due and weeks went with no word from Social Security, our savings began to run out. The agency fought me at every turn: When I would request updates, they would tell me that my case was moving along, and nothing more. Every few months they sent me another pack of papers to fill out: What were my current conditions, was I working, and so forth. I would dutifully fill the packets out and send them back in, and I would hear nothing. All the while, our money dwindled away.

My wife and I began selling our things. We had to sell our car, and I sold my motorcycle, which I had built from the ground up. It wasn’t anything special, nothing fancy; but it was something I put a lot of time and sweat in to. I sold it to cover living expenses for about four months. We sold our furniture, and my wife took her clothes to a secondhand consignment shop in Las Vegas to sell them, too. I had 23 remote-controlled cars that I had accumulated over many years — one of my hobbies. I had to sell the entire collection to make it by. Kitchen appliances and everything else we could think of to put up for sale went, too.

On Feb. 12, 2016, my wife and I officially became homeless. We decided to leave Nevada for Arizona, where we would move in with my wife’s parents. When we left our home, we rented a 17-foot U-Haul truck, and we didn’t even fill half of it. That was all we had left in our world. We also left behind my wife’s brand new business. But the worst part was leaving behind our grown daughter, the most important thing in both of our lives. We waved goodbye to her, and went to Arizona.

Meanwhile, my medical expenses piled up, costing about $500 a month: about $200 per month to see a pain management doctor, and roughly $300 more for all my medications. The Safeway pharmacy here in Chino Valley, Ariz., is amazing — they gave me every possible discount on my medications, but it was still a lot to spend, especially with nothing coming in. There were times when I could not fill my prescriptions because I simply didn’t have the money.

Finally, in August 2016, Social Security got back to me and let me know I qualified for assistance. It will still be a little while before I qualify for Medicaid, but the relief of receiving the disability assistance I’m entitled to was enormous.

So, now we’re rebuilding. We’re living on our own again, in a loft apartment over a garage. My wife is cutting hair again, and she still dreams about going in to business for herself one day. I dream of opening up a key shop of my own someday, with every possible key blank known to mankind — after all, I still love my trade, and I still want to work. But dreams are mostly what we have. If the agency had approved my case in a timely manner, we would never have left Nevada, our lives, our house and our daughter, and we never would have lost everything we had built over our 21 years of marriage.