When Bad Things Happen to Good People

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Earlier this week, we found out that the Internet’s fairy godmother Molly Holzschlag has a medical condition that requires her to not work for 6 to 9 months and take chemo. It is, of course, hideously expensive and compounded by the not being able to work thing. Like a good, supportive community, a foundation sprung up to help raise money for her treatment so she won’t have to get a liver transplant and enter further into hospitalization hell.

Back around 2006 something similar happened to me (although my life was arguably not threatened). I’m not trying to “me too” on this; I want to tell you how this medical upheaval removed me from the community I loved and worked hard in, something I do not want to see happen again to someone else.

I was a cartoonist. An award-winning one. Won Friends of Lulu’s Best New Female Talent 2007 and a Nerdlinger in the same year. Had a weekly strip on a popular teen girls site. I was making money, just a enough to scrimp by on. Had no health insurance. Worked for myself. No paid time off.

And then I needed to get jaw surgery. It was something I’d been needing for a long time, but it was only as a working adult that I could muscle down to save the money I needed pay for it. But I wasn’t saving fast enough. I kept sliding into debt, bouncing checks. I was working hard, giving my craft and community my all, but finally the pain became too much.

A friend of mine in the industry started a donation pool, and I was touched by how many fans and people I looked up to gave what they could to me. It was the most touching gesture in my life. But the money was a fraction of what surgery would cost. It actually only covered the preparatory braces I had to get.

If I wanted to stop the pain, I had to do something differently. I had to make more money. I had to get health insurance. After some false starts while the economy crashed and burned, I took my HTML and CSS skills and got a job as a web designer for an adult advertising agency. It was not glamorous work. It did not help me improve my craft or speak at conferences. It was a dead end job that I stuck with even through times where, had I not needed to hang in there and get my surgery, any self-respecting employee would have quit.

Post after post on my old Livejournal reads, “Did battle with insurance company again. Had to take time off work to show up in person.” I had to use paid leave for my recovery period. I had to pay $16k of my own money to cover deductibles and out of network costs.

It took so much time away from my life, my career. After the ordeal was over, I knew I could never go back to comics. I would always be waiting for another emergency to drop. But I also left my burnout job as quickly as possible. Since then my career in web development has skyrocketed. I’ve found a new community and friends in this industry.

You don’t realize how important your community is until you don’t have it. During those years that I had no time to work on comics or fully engage in web development, I was so alone. I was floating. I was simultaneously feeling gratitude and humility while guilt for having to leave the only people who cared. I was letting go of a community I loved back in comics. But even though we loved each other so much, there was no way they could afford to keep me.

I don’t think this is a fair system. I don’t think Molly should have to go through this fundraising process. She’s an asset to the community. In a better healthcare system, all of her needs would be met, stress and hassle free, and she could jump back in when she’s all better–whenever that should be. No pressure.

At delicate times like these, we really do risk losing people in our community to burnout from juggling work, healthcare and financial hassles. This is a reality. I’ve watched other people go through this. Sometimes they seem to vanish, buried under the fallout of their crisis.

We need to be strong for Molly and help her as much as we can. We cannot let her fall away.

And we also need to fight to make the system one that doesn’t throw people under the bus. Nowhere is this more noticeable than when it happens to prominent, key figures in our own professional communities. But it happens all the time to “less important,” out of sight people in communities that “don’t contribute” as much to the greater whole… people like me, back in comics.

Please, consider helping Molly… and consider contacting your state’s representatives to demand the best healthcare system in the world for what we’d like to think of as the greatest country in the world. (Hint hint: Written letters get a lot more attention than emails and have bigger impacts.)

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