Poor Man’s Feast: When They Say You Don’t Exist

Posted inCreative Voices

Yesterday, I was unable to get into my Substack account for over fifteen hours.

It was a very simple problem: I’d gotten a new phone a week or so ago, and during the information transfer, it killed my authenticator app, so I downloaded a new one and tried to link it to my Substack account, but I couldn’t sign into my Substack account because I didn’t have the original authenticator (which had been deleted) and couldn’t get a new Substack QR code for a new authenticator app because….I couldn’t log in. Because I didn’t have the authenticator codes. Because I couldn’t log in. Because I didn’t have the authenticator codes.

After hour seven, I found myself online with SUPPORT, which is an AI chatbot that kept trying to help me by asking me to log in. But I couldn’t log in. Because: no authenticator codes. And no way of getting them.

Okay Elissa, we can fix that! the chatbot said, and brought me back to the original chat screen telling me to log in. Which I couldn’t do because, no authenticator codes.


This went on for most of the day until I was finally given an email address for SUPPORT. Of course, it was a TOS (terms of service) email address, and my case was CLOSED by them because it wasn’t a terms of service issue. And I had to start all over again. Finally, at the end of the chat with the bot, I did what I always do when I’m trying to get a human being to help me on a customer service call (where you punch in 0 repeatedly until you by-pass all of the other prompts): I typed in HUMAN HUMAN HUMAN I NEED TO SPEAK TO A HUMAN BECAUSE I AM A HUMAN.

The bot replied: I see that you want to speak with a human, Elissa. Click HERE, and I will help you. So I did, and it brought me back to the same chatbot box. And then it said WE HAVE DISCOVERED THE PROBLEM, ELISSA: YOU HAVE NO ACCOUNT WITH US, ELISSA, AND YOU DO NOT EXIST.

And then I had to plead with them and explain that I did, and do, exist. I really do. And that if they went into my settings for my newsletter, they would see that it was connected to the email address that I gave them. Only, they said they couldn’t BECAUSE YOU HAVE NO ACCOUNT WITH US ELISSA AND YOU DO NOT EXIST.

NO WAIT — I DO I REALLY DO EXIST PLEASE BELIEVE ME was the last thing I answered. And at two in the morning, I realized that I had been calmly told that I didn’t exist by artificial intelligence, in the same way that HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey tells Astronaut Dave who has been locked out of his spacecraft and needs HAL to open the hatch so he can get back in or he’ll die, I’M SORRY, DAVE, I CAN’T DO THAT.

It took fifteen hours, six emails to an anonymous support email that went unread, invaluable help from a highly visible Substack writer friend who talked me down off the ledge, and: here we are. Ultimately, the fix took less than five minutes with a live human. But I lost fifteen hours of work, and the knowledge that had I not been able to get back in, years of my work — essays, interviews, recipes, art — would likely have been scrubbed because a chatbot decided that I DO NOT EXIST.

An existential crisis:

No sixty-year-old woman wants to hear from anyone that she does not exist with such great and absolute certainty but especially by someone who actually does not exist. It’s not a matter of paranoia or unresolved mommy (or daddy) issues, or that tiny problem with the extra chin you started to grow in your late fifties. No mid-life writer who is sort of on the quiet side, who is definitely not loud enough or sexy enough or cool enough, or who does not read The Right Things or appear at The Right Parties wants to hear this. Remember the Evelyn Couch scene in the Winn-Dixie grocery store parking lot in Fried Green Tomatoes? The one where she’s patiently waiting for a spot and gets cut off by two mean girls in a red VW Bug? Why does this happen? Because Mrs. Couch is invisible; she doesn’t exist to these women, or even her husband for that matter. When she welcomes him home one night wrapped in Saran Wrap, he walks right past her to the television set, sits down, and watches the sports channel.

The question of existence is reductionist and unequivocal, and is meant to be: it’s easier that way. Whole nations, whole ethnicities and races and religions and socioeconomic groups are regularly told that they don’t exist and therefore are simply not viable. I’m sorry, the Master Bot says, you do not exist, so you will be removed. We will pretend that you’re not here, you never happened, you’re irrelevant.

Here is the question on which the actual chatbot model is based: what is the simplest answer to the most basic question? If we can’t figure out what to do with you, we’ll just say you’re not real. You don’t exist. You’re invisible. Problem solved.

The answer We can’t help you because you don’t exist is foundational to our modern model of dehumanization, from the top down and at every level in between. In geopolitics, one group screams at another YOU DON’T EXIST and the other one answers NO YOU DON’T EXIST! and around and around we go, and we wonder why nothing can be solved. A few weeks ago, I was attempting to fill an expensive prescription that, literally, no pharmacy is interested in filling and no insurance company is interested in covering. I called my insurance company and I heard the nice man on the other hand clacking away on his keyboard. He came back to me and said According to our records, you don’t exist. I told him I had just filled another prescription using the same insurance, and it was no problem. It must have been a mistake, he said, because you don’t exist: there is no record of you. According to our records.

There’s a great old MASH episode when Hawkeye is mistakenly listed as dead; he no longer exists. The Army — Hawkeye is told they never make mistakes — has taken him off its payroll and has let his father back in Maine know that his son has died. Hawkeye has to jump through hoops to get reinstated in Life, although he hates the war he’s found himself in, hates the bloodshed and the battles and the death and the hopelessness. He wants to call home to let his father know he’s okay and that it was just an error, but he can’t: dead men can’t make phone calls.

And then, of course, there’s George Bailey, in It’s A Wonderful Life, who whispers in the throes of horrific despair that he wishes he had never been born. About to commit suicide, he instead flings himself into a snowy, raging river to rescue a jumper whose hat miraculously never comes off. George is granted his wish by this mysterious jumper and is instantly rendered unknown by his community; he no longer has a wife or children, a mother, a business, people who know and love him, or even hate him. He is just un-humaned, and irrelevant. But in that jump to save this other soul instead of taking his own life, George experiences a baptism of sorts and, in the language of my friends in recovery, the very meaning of service; he wanders through the Bardo seeing what the universe would be like without him, until he is brought back to his real life with all its human perils and pitfalls, and is given a second birth, a second chance. He will never beg to be rendered non-existent again.

LISTEN TO ME: I DO EXIST is what I said to the chatbot last night, as though it could understand me, and as though it even cared. And I came to realize that even in the throes of fury, and despair, and fear, and rage, and exhaustion, and the invisibility of life as a sixty year old woman living in a world that has decided that I am irrelevant, I am hanging on for dear life with my bloody fingertips, and I will not — not — go away.

This post was originally published on Elissa Altman’s blog Poor Man’s Feast, The James Beard Award-winning journal about the intersection of food, spirit, and the families that drive you crazy. Read more on her Substack, or keep up with her archives here.

Header photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash.