This is Part 3 of a 4-part series. If you haven’t read the first two posts, please do so before continuing with this one, as each new post builds upon the previous ones. You can find Part 1 here,and Part 2 here. ~Kimberly
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If those first two posts were hard to write, this one’s going to turn me into a blubbering mess. Because all of what I just wrote about has led up to this: the way this kind of stress makes you crumble from the inside out.
For those who are ultra sensitive, I want to alert you to some possible triggers in this post. I will be covering topics like anxiety, depression, and feelings of shame in raw, painful detail. So if you are prone to these things yourself or are sensitive to triggers, please proceed with caution. I, for one, am writing this with a fresh roll of TP at my side, because I know I will cry as I write.
I also added “physical” to the title of this post. My original focus was going to be on the mental and emotional ramifications of living with chronic financial stress. Then I realized that was a little dumb. I’m the one who bursts into shingles at the first sign of negative stress (or bad weather, or someone else’s cold, or…); it would be silly for me to ignore the fact that stress can also make you physically ill. So, we’ll start with that.
Sometimes I wonder if my shingles and PHN weren’t somehow caused by financial stress. While I am already a slight medical oddity with other conditions that could contribute to what I have, I can’t help but wonder if I literally stressed myself sick. It’s not entirely impossible. Stress is known to cause hypertension, gastrointestinal issues and other medical problems. My immune system has always been on the weak side, so I was already starting off on the wrong foot; but what if always worrying about money and jobs and rent was what caused my body to say, “ENOUGH!” and break out into evil shingles volcanoes every month?
After four years of living with PHN and chronic shingles, I have noticed enough patterns to recognize some triggers. Some of them are hormonal (yay, woman troubles); some are environmental: abrupt weather changes, other people’s germs and viruses when they’re sick (which is the worst because I get what they have AND shingles); but some are stress related. Negative stress, in particular. Positive stress can eventually bring about an attack if I’m not careful about pacing myself, but negative stress like money issues? That will bring on that band of pre-shingles pain up my left trap and shoulder, down to my waist and hip, and I know that I have to step back, take my meds and extra vitamins, and chill. Because if I don’t, I pay for it dearly.
But it’s not always something as severe as shingles. All those little colds, the seemingly minor digestive issues, that perpetual feeling of exhaustion coupled with malaise that you might be wondering why you always have? All of these can be manifestations of too much stress. It’s not your imagination. I know what it’s like to be constantly asked why you’re always sick, or told that you’re just being a drama queen, or faking it. And yes, there are people who are like that (and they need to stop it already, because they’re giving the rest of us a bad name). But if more people understood the myriad of tiny stressors that build upon each other when you’re under financial duress, maybe they’d understand. Maybe they’d see that after a while, staying up worrying about money every night can exhaust you to the point of getting a cold. Thinking about what bill is most important to pay before all others can tie your gut in knots, making it hard to eat or hard to… you know (hey, I’m being real here). Wondering if the footsteps approaching your door are fellow tenants going somewhere, or your landlord coming to give you a notice, is enough to make you want to hurl.
Excessive stress does make you physically ill. And if there’s one thing not having enough money is good at purchasing, it’s too much stress.
Okay, this one’s going to be rough.
Of all the horrible things that can happen when you’re living in a financially precarious situation, I believe the worst is how it can shatter your spirit. It doesn’t happen immediately, of course. At the beginning, you do your best to shake it off, square your shoulders with resolve and tackle your issues head on. But after weeks, months, or even years of perpetual money angst, that resolve starts to crumble. You begin to feel defeated. Like a failure. Like you did something wrong. Like there’s no way out.
I remember when we were in the throes of the Great Recession, around 2009 or 2010, there were several sad news stories popping up everywhere. So and so from this or that state committed murder-suicide because he or she had become unemployed. Or they would commit some heinous crime they would never have committed because they lost their house. This was happening regularly, and it was quite troubling. Why was America killing itself, all of a sudden? Then I took a closer look at what they all had in common and got my answer: money problems.
Thousands of Americans who had been doing okay had their lives turned upside down by the Great Recession. Jobs were lost, paychecks disappeared, bills accumulated, homes were foreclosed on, family roles had to change to make ends meet… And if they didn’t crumble after all that, then divorce and other family catastrophes would happen. Everyone was sick, hundreds of people were fighting for the same $9/hr job – it was downright heartbreaking to see so many people suddenly feel like they had no other way out but to kill themselves because they couldn’t afford to fund their lives.
The sad part is, I totally get it because I felt that way myself exactly two years ago this month.
(Oh, man. I’m sobbing right now.)
Depression and Anxiety
I have a lot to cover on this one, so please bear with me.
Nearly a year ago, I finally came out of the closet about my anxiety and depression on this blog in a post called Turning Point. I don’t know why, but for the longest time I felt ashamed to admit to it here. I guess because I try to “hold it together” so to speak, so I’m not always the Negative Nancy some readers used to call me because I was always bringing up money issues.
But after what I’d gone through in 2012 and 2013, the two hardest years for me personally, I didn’t care anymore. I wasn’t worried about what the naysayers thought. I suffer from Depression and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, they’re real medical conditions, and there shouldn’t be any shame in that at all.
I’d already been struggling financially for a few years by that point, and was a good 2 years into my illness. I was fat, depressed, miserable, and angry. Angry that I was always sick, angry that I’d lost yet another job because I couldn’t stay well enough long enough; angry that I’d trusted the wrong person with my book project; angry that I couldn’t afford to visit my dying father for one last hug before he had to leave me; angry that money – or the lack thereof – always had to ruin everything.
Even though I was angry, I wasn’t mad enough to do anything to help myself (I don’t know about you, but sometimes I like getting mad; it’s cathartic, especially after a depressive episode). See, by this time, I was already in the deepest depressive episode of my life. I was, quite literally, paralyzed by my depression and anxiety. The way they fought and fed off each other kept me pinned to my bed while I iced my latest shingles flare. I felt pain everywhere: on my skin, in my nerves, in my heart, my mind, my soul. I tried so hard to put on a happy face whenever I had to leave the house, but other than that, I was just a mess. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t do anything but hurt.
My anguish was so severe that for the first time in my life, I wanted to harm myself. I didn’t have an exact plan, or even the motivation to think of one, but I finally understood what it might be like to be a cutter. I hurt so badly on the inside that I’d become almost numb; the only thing that seemed to make sense was to feel some sort of physical pain to shock me back to reality. The feeling was strong enough to scare me, and I made sure to call certain friends to contract to safety with them (Ironic fun fact: I worked as a mental health counselor for 5 years when I was in college, so I was on the other side of this, helping clients who felt what I’m describing. Of the many amazing things I took with me from that job, contracting to safety was one I never thought I’d have to use for myself. But I’m very grateful that I did). To them and to my mom, I owe my life.
Looking back now, I cry for that Me from that summer. She was in so much pain, and for what? For past due bills? For having to move to an even shittier shithole and leave almost everything behind? For feeling so alone? For not being able to feel like a part of society anymore?
For money. I felt all that pain because every single one of those things was tied to not having enough money. And that’s just heartbreaking.
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You may be wondering how it’s possible for something so seemingly trivial to cause such immense anguish. It might seem like an overdramatization of a “manageable” problem. The thing is, it’s no longer “manageable” when it goes on for several years. Living under chronic financial stress even for a few months can be very damaging to the psyche and spirit; having to live through it for several years wears on you. I speak not only from personal experience, but from observing it in others. I’ve seen friends and coworkers tighten up or close up, the lines on their faces getting deeper, the light gone from their eyes because all they can focus on is survival. I’ve seen my own mother go from run-of-the-mill-Mom-anxious, to someone so severely crippled by her anxiety over not having a permanent job, that it’s painful to watch.
So, how exactly does a lack of money or fall-back cushion bring you to such a low point? It’s not always just about the bills. It’s also about how your personal relationships are affected, what you can and can’t do as a result of a limited (or nonexistent) income, how society views you after awhile. Here’s a deeper look into what I’m referring to.
Feeling trapped or boxed in.
They say money can’t buy happiness; whoever They are, they’re right. Sort of. What I’ve learned throughout the years is that money buys mobility. It buys breathing room. Access. The real happiness that money buys comes from the freedom to get things done. Not the freedom to buy random stuff (though I do remember how fun a day of retail therapy can be), but the freedom to do all the things I talked about in Part 2, but in a regular, panic-free way.
When you’re living on a limited income, you don’t have that kind of freedom, that kind of movement.Everything takes longer, costs more, and is more complicated than it needs to be, because you can’t do it in the “normal” way. As finances continue to tighten (which they inevitably do because of the constant vicious cycles I mentioned earlier), you start feeling more and more trapped. It’s like that scene in Star Wars where Han Solo (my first movie crush), Princess Leia, Luke and Chewbacca were trapped in that trash compactor. Slowly, but surely, the compactor started closing in on them. As the walls closed in on them, their panic understandably escalated. Everyone was trying in vain to stop the walls from crushing them with whatever body part or piece of scrap metal they could find. That’sexactly how I feel when I try to sell things online, or cash in my coins, or visit a pawn shop - all of those are my pieces of scrap metal to try keeping the walls from crushing me completely.
After months or years of feeling so boxed in, so limited in what you can and can’t do, like paying bills or keeping up friendships, you can start feeling defeated. Resigned. Like this is the new “normal” and you might as well just deal with it. While that may be true up to a point, it still doesn’t diminish the hurt that you feel as a result. It sucks not to be able to do what you want (or need) whenever you want (or need). Of course, that’s a freedom we Americans definitely take for granted and definitely a#firstworldproblem. But relative to this society and culture, it is the kind of thing that can chip away at one’s morale and contribute to bigger things like depression or anxiety.
Ruined Friendships/Relationships and Isolation
One unexpected side effect of the recession was the loss of several friends and acquaintances. Looking back, I realize this was for the better, because I quickly learned who was a true friend and who was just “there for me” for show. It’s not like they all ran away at once, but some of them did start distancing themselves because I always had to decline their invitations. It costs money to have a social life (even though there are PLENTY of fun things to do for free; just seems like that’s not “cool” enough these days), and if every hangout involves happy hour or dinner, I have to say no. Or if something is not in my area and not accessible by transit, if I can’t get a ride to that function, I also have to say no.
After so many times saying “no”, people start to pull away from you. And that hurts. Because when you’re already dealing with the evils of financial stress, the last thing you want to feel is alone and isolated. But not everyone gets that. They just figure that you’re “going through some stuff” and stop factoring you into their lives. Like I said, it all worked out because I was able to weed out who was a real friend and who was faking it (so. many. fakes.), but that doesn’t mean it still didn’t hurt my feelings.
And as for dating? HAAAAA!!! That’s a lost cause when you’re broke. Even worse when you’re broke with no car because then you have to disclose that embarrassing detail. I don’t know how it is for dudes in similar situations, but as a single woman in her late 30s attempting to date while chronically ill and chronically broke, I sometimes wonder why I even bother. Because what I’ve noticed, unfortunately, is that most guys don’t like it when women aren’t perfect.
No, I’m not being the jaded, angry female; I’m speaking from experience. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried dating, only to have the guy completely disappear after seeing my dumpy apartment (this was especially bad when I first moved in here and had zero furniture and boxes stacked everywhere because there was no way to settle in. I pretty much avoided having anyone over because I was so ashamed). Or having him disappear when he realizes that my illness isn’t just a thing I talk about, but an actual part of my daily life. Most guys don’t like it when their ladies don’t have their own cars, or the nice apartment, or a ton of other things that in my world, shouldn’t matter as much as the actual person. And to a certain extent, I can sort of see why the material stuff matters – in our culture, having the car or the good living set up means you have your act together. But that’s an unfair way to judge someone you don’t even know. I didn’t always used to be like this.I used to have my act together. I just don’t right now, and to be dismissed because of that without trying to get to know me as a person is definitely hurtful.
Of course, it’s possible that I keep running into the wrong guys. But after countless failed dates and pseudo relationships, I’ve noticed a pattern that makes me scared to put myself out there. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not the type of gal who needs a man in her life; I’m perfectly content being alone (not lonely; those are totally different), and consider myself an amazing date. But I’d still love to have a companion, a real partner to care for and who cares about me. It’s just hard to find that sort of thing when you’re cooped up at home because you can’t afford to go anywhere.
Loss of pride/self worth
As you can see, things can get pretty dark in the personal department when you’re struggling financially. The trapped feeling, the failed relationships, the feelings of being shut off from “real” life – all of that can take its toll on your feelings of self worth. We Americans are a proud bunch, and a lot of that pride comes from being independent and “making it” from your own hard work. These kinds of cultural values are closely intertwined with feelings of adequacy and self-worth, so when you’re not able to live up to them even after working hard, it can make you feel like you’ve somehow failed. Yet, you haven’t. You’re just stuck in a bad loop. It’s just that we can’t see that, because we’re too butthurt that we couldn’t make it in the way that’s accepted in this society.
Cultural studies aside, it comes down to basic pride. When you can provide for yourself and your family, you feel good about yourself. When you can’t, it feels like crap. When you’re able to afford decent things, or even just basic things, it feels good. When you can’t, it feels like crap. When you can go about your life without being judged for the kind of things you have or buy, that feels good. When you can’t, you feel like crap. You can see the pattern here, and after enough time feeling this way, those feelings of inadequacy can grow exponentially. And that’s unfortunate, because no one should ever have to base their self-worth as a human being on something like money.
Constantly feeling judged
This one just pisses me off. We’re live in extremely judgmental society to begin with, and the internet age has only made that worse. For some reason, we now feel it’s okay to speak our minds without giving a whit about how it affects the person we’re talking about, because there’s a screen to hide behind. I don’t know which came first – the shitty judgmental attitudes or the internet’s ability to let those jerks be heard more loudly than anyone else – but this has seeped into everyday life and it’s just terrible.
One of the most common misconceptions about the working poor or unemployed is that we’re lazy and don’t want to work. Are you friggin’ kidding me?! Losing a job, as it’s been proven before in numerous studies, is akin to losing a loved one. It’s life shattering – not just because of the financial toll it takes, but because of how it crushes your spirit. Yet, getting a new one is incredible! There is nothing like the feeling of finally belonging again, and that’s a huge part of what you feel when you finally get that job. Any job. All of a sudden you feel valuable again; like you’re finally good enough to warrant a paycheck to help you survive. To assume that those of us who either don’t have jobs, or have to work part-time for one reason or another, are lazy or looking for handouts is not only totally incorrect, it’s rude and unfair.
Another common one that kills me is the Why Do You Own That If You’re Poor? phenomenon. It’s like if you’re living on limited means, you have no right to have anything good. WTF? Since when does having (or not having) X amount of dollars in your bank account serve as a measure of your worth as a person? Everyone of us is just as deserving of good food and decent clothing as the next person. For years, I’ve gotten crap from people because I’ve had the nerve to have half-and-half in my refrigerator, or because of the kind of peanut butter I sometimes buy. Come on, now. Just because I’m living on a tight budget doesn’t mean I don’t still enjoy quality things. And did they ever stop to think that maybe I’m just really good at what I do on this blog, so that I can afford the good stuff every now and then? Because that’s really what’s going on over here (and yes, I did just toot my own horn. Sometimes it’s warranted).
Then there’s being judged because you have a cell phone, or a car, or nice clothes. Or even just being put together in a presentable fashion (how dare we!). It’s almost as if you’ve committed a crime because you didn’t show up dressed in rags with grime on your face like Eponine from Les Miserables.Newsflash! Most of us had a life prior to being broke. (I know, it’s a shocker.) A life that actually involved being able to buy good peanut butter, or have a car, or a cell phone. Some of us also have friends and family that give us these things called gifts. Sometimes these gifts have the nerve to be of decent quality or high technology (mon dieu!). Does that mean that because we’re having a hard time financially, we are not allowed to accept gifts? Please. That’s just rude.
But even if we had purchased those things with our meager means (I’ve put away money for months in order to afford a new phone that goes with my prepaid plan, because when you’re go prepaid you have to buy the phone outright and those aren’t cheap. And as a blogger/internet entrepreneur, yes, a smartphone is necessary for my work), what business is it of anyone else what someone owns? Especially when it comes to things like cell phones and cars. Yes, we’re struggling financially and those things cost money to purchase and maintain; but this is also 2015. Everything is done online and/or requires a cell phone. Most of us no longer have landlines (too expensive to have both), so cell phones are our only phones. And if you are job hunting, you kinda need to have a phone to get calls for interviews. As far as a car goes, that’s also helpful to have. Can you survive without one? Of course. But as I mentioned in Part 2, not having one greatly limits what you can and can’t do, not just when it comes to errands, but when it comes to earning your keep.
And if I dress nicely and look “clean” and “put together”, so what? It’s not because I’m “faking being poor” (another one I get regularly). It’s because it makes me feel good to look good. And as someone who’s not only financially struggling but who feels sick on a regular basis, it’s nice to look in the mirror and see something good. It boosts the morale and can help you fake that confidence to make it through the work day, or that interview for a killer job.
But the bottom line: it’s really none of anyone’s business what we own or use. Everyone has a different backstory and different circumstances. Assuming things based on what you see in an Instagram feed or in line at the grocery store is not only a waste of time (really, why are you worrying so much about what’s in a stranger’s shopping cart?), it’s stupid. Because we all know what happens when you assume…
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I could go on for days, but you get the point. All of these little nagging feelings after an extended period of time can contribute to bigger things like depression and chronic anxiety. Those conditions, whether pre-existing or brought about by life circumstances, can be devastating if left unmanaged. I know. I had enough of that build up that I wanted to hurt myself, or take the suggestions of the trolls and end my life. That’s so scary to me now, to think that I was at such a low point in my life. Thankfully, I was lucky enough not just to have friends I could trust to be my support network, but just enough insight and hope to see the small sliver of light that remained.
And my cats! I’ve gotten a lot of crap over the years for having cats as well (seriously, who are these people with so much time on their hands?), but I will tell you this: if not for how much I love my mom and the fact that I had those 3 babies to take care of (I’m down to just StuKitty now, but Beni and Hana were also with me for a lot of this), I probably would have tried harming myself in the summer of 2013. That hurts to write and read over, but it’s the truth. My cats could very well be considered service animals for all they do to keep my mood okay. They bring me joy and give me a sense of purpose, even when I can’t see one for myself. I’ve always considered my cats my babies, and no matter how awful I felt that summer, there was no way I could do that to my babies. My mommy instinct is too strong for that.
Not everyone is this lucky. Not everyone has the background in mental health and uncanny ability to remove oneself enough to see things from a clinical angle and tackle the problem that way. Not everyone has even one or two quality friends they can truly count on. Not everyone has a mom who will take from her own rent money to make sure that her grown child has enough money to buy toothpaste.In spite of everything I am very lucky, and I’ve always known that, even in my darkest hours.
And that’s where the good news begins! After reaching such a low point, there’s really nowhere else to go but up, and that’s what I’ve been working on diligently for the past two years. Not just in a financial health sense, though that’s obviously high on the To Do list; but in terms of my physical, mental and emotional wellness. No matter what I end up doing – whether getting a job somewhere or working for myself – if I don’t have the right mindset and a good handle on my health, I don’t have the same chance at success. I have to be well on the inside in order to tackle everything that comes at me from the outside. I still have a lot of work to do, but I’ve made remarkable strides in my wellness over the past two years. I want to share that with you, as well as the other good things that have come out of all of this (because there are several).
That’s exactly what I will cover in Part 4: The Good News. Stay tuned!