Prologue: I was prepared to post this four days ago, until I got some truly horrible, absolutely devastating and completely unexpected news in the mail, which put me into such a cycle of hopelessness that I . . . forced, I guess?–through a bereft text to someone I thought was a trusted confidante–my psychiatrist of dubious professional judgment (okay, he had a half-star on Yelp, which should have been a red flag, but I have always had a thing for the underdog) to 5150 me to the local psych ward, which led to a transport to a Mental Facility. So I spent Thanksgiving Day–and the three days following–in a psychiatric hospital, acknowledged to be misplaced and thoroughly unjustly admitted by any of the few qualified experts who actually spoke to me. The rest of the time, I tried sleeping (pillow-free) while tears pooled on a bolted-down vinyl bed, all my personal belongings removed from me, prohibited from anything pleasure-giving including exposure to outdoors, touching or being touched by anyone with loving reassurance on the shoulder, reading (until my husband delivered one paperback book and some magazines,) or even using my own toiletries. I watched a young man gouge bloody chunks from his arm with a plastic spoon until he was given enough Norco and Valium that he became a tree, swaying slightly, a fixture on the perimeter of the short hallway that I paced tearfully for hours. I watched one woman go down into a prostrate pose–unresponsive for two hours–as I cried and called out “Sue! Tyranni-sue!”–her name for herself,) and tried to get help from any source, frantically alerting the nurses and ultimately the custodial staff, (who never in the days I was there cleaned the feces-smeared, solitary water fountain.) They finally pulled her away when her bladder let loose. We never found out what happened to her, but she did make off with pieces of all of our clothing. Tyranni-Sue loved to take people’s clothes, even Clarissa’s, who outweighed her four-fold.
Never in three days did I see anything therapeutic occur. I was never told anything but NO, never responded to with anything but “that’s our procedure,” and when I asked for a library, there was none. Music? No. A visit outdoors? Absolutely not. It was the darkest and most soul-murdering three-plus days of my life. I am so glad to be home. I wonder if that’s part of their therapy: show you hell, so that no matter how bad things get well, hell, you’ve seen worse. Following, the piece I had been about to publish before my slow-motion tour through a psychiatric hospital. It is my deepest hope none of you ever find yourself at a similar institution. If you do, we’re pulling a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
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I was earning five figures a month in sales commissions when the economy melted down in 2008. With shocking suddenness, my retail clients stopped ordering, and the checks stopped coming. My husband couldn’t readily help. He left the IT field when our two younger children were born in order to be a stay-at-home father, and of course found his skills had become too outmoded for him to jump back in. If we had only bought a house outside our income bracket and had been forced to foreclose, it would have been a complete cliché. Either way, my family and I were now at least one version of poster children for the Great Recession.
For about a year, we spun our wheels, trying to adjust to our new reality. I began a much-lower paying job in my industry while concurrently starting an upbeat blog about downsizing and simplifying after living comfortably and well during the boom times, and at first I got lots of hits. Our survival decisions were often dramatic and made for good reading: superficially-speaking, we notably downgraded our lives. We gave up our tame and tidy suburban comfort and sold our only car. At the time, and for a while after, it seemed that people were paying attention and respected our choices. But eventually our story got old enough that it felt like a caricature of itself: what I dourly called, “Chicken Soup for the Recessionista’s Soul.” “The New Poor” is no longer at the top of every news feed—even though in our greater metropolitan area, Sacramento, the number of unemployed now exceeds all previous records.
When I was a child, the one unforgivable crime in our house was laziness. In the family’s oral history, my ancestors’ work ethic was granted near-mythological status. They were solid Midwesterners and Southern Protestants, of Scottish and Scandinavian background, and like most Oklahomans, they had a bit of Cherokee blood—but above all, they were stalwart and duty bound. My grandparents were of the generation that soldiered through the Great Depression as children, and through World War II as young adults. They planted victory gardens. They doubled-up and doubled-down in hard times, bunking with relatives and reducing their quality of life in order to Do The Right Thing while it was required of them. Through everything, they worked. And worked. And when he retired, my grandfather left behind a job he had held for 40 years, but he kept working. Every morning he put on a pair of coveralls and looked for Something To Do. Idle hands? No such thing, not in our family. There was no room for the sort of chair-sittin’ and atrophy that marked the retirement years of other types of people.
My parents had sternly warned me on occasion as I was growing up that my chosen profession, to write, to be an “author,” I said, (actually, the profession that chose me . . . the one that came most naturally, fed me at someplace deep in the dark good roots of nerves and sinew, and rolled out through my fingertips as surely and easily as crayons in that factory montage we all saw on Sesame Street, the answer I gave to anyone who asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?” from as early as I can remember, the one that led to teachers nominating me for school-wide awards year after year) was not a realistic career path. So I reluctantly set that wish on a shelf, and, after years of foundering in one college, and then night school after failing the first go ‘round, doing things I didn’t want to be doing, I earned my degree at twenty-five. This led to years of a stunning study of mediocrity, progressing on through the decades through menial jobs of varying levels of enjoyment, until I eventually got plucked out of the crowd by some keen-eyed corporate executives and became their traveling salesperson. An “independent sales rep.” Quite like my father had been—perhaps not coincidentally—and finally making very good money in a job that I was at least competent in doing. I had done the right thing by denying myself the creative path, I thought, despite decades lost and friends rediscovered always asking first of me: “What did you ever do with your writing?”
That’s partly why the first months of the recession left me dumbstruck, blinking slowly and wondering what would come next. I had done the right thing. I had pushed aside my creative aspirations and joined the flock of coffee achievers. I was a business traveler. My family wanted for nothing. Everything around me was beige and new and safe, plush and hushed by the wall-to-wall carpeting and the hum of the ice-maker and the central heat and air.
Now we find ourselves heading into our fifth year of living at less than half of the the poverty line for our family size, and I’m sitting at a café, writing with the vague hope of being paid for my work sometime in the future. It has happened before, sometimes consistently—we have been on national TV for our lack of car in suburbia (because that is worthy of note, and gets shocked reactions still, I’ve found, which shocks me, as it has become normalized in our lives.) My husband is at home with our three kids; we’ve been taking turns since he started a full-time job doing the shipping and receiving at a women’s clothing store—a job beneath his intellect that he was lucky to get. So today he is making lunch and picking up Legos while I do my best to shake money from trees. I know that my extended family would respect me more if I stopped doing my freelance writing and social media management and started taking a bus to an overnight fast-food job an hour away. Do I owe it to our children to put away the laptop and take the most grueling, menial job I can get? Is that the highest moral decision? Does that match the ethics of “the best I can do?” And could I survive it, and how would it work with biking the kids to and from school, do their homework with them? How do I act in my greatest good, for my family, without obliterating myself and my sanity in the meantime? The answer was: I didn’t maintain. I didn’t keep my sanity.
I’d been encouraged by several sources to pursue Social Security Insurance for at least a while based on what has become a lifestyle I can’t maintain while concurrently operating the happily functioning part of my brain. I had some sort of nervous breakdown, and a lifetime of dysthymia and depression did the Tasmanian Devil spiral dance, transporting me into fully-flowered Nutsville. So being that I’ve had the kids for much of the day, I’m legit bonkers, I have no car and can’t work full-time anyway, I’ve turned a lesser-version of what used to be my fantasy career into the only logistical way for me to earn money right now. Combine the writing with social media management for small businesses, and I can scrape quarters into the trough like in that arcade game that always looks so promising. Not the kind of money I earned in my sales job. But if I stay awake late enough, scour enough content mills for writing gigs, I can get small assignments that pay $15 or $20, and if I manage to amass enough of them in a month, it can mean paying the electricity bill on time instead of chasing the city worker down the street after he’s just shut off the power. And sometimes I get an ongoing client for a few weeks, and that’s like having a bouquet of fresh flowers on the dining table . . . until that client’s needs have dried up, and with it, their steady payment. Then it’s like brackish water in a vase with a drooping Gerbera Daisy and peonies dropping browned petals.
One week in a winter past my husband, the kids and I rode our bikes in the cold, eleven miles roundtrip, to enjoy a rare, cheap meal out at a favorite restaurant we had loved in Austin that opened a location out here in Northern California. We don’t make things easy for ourselves, and the self-flagellator in me likes that. Our resources are always stretched dangerously thin, though, and the $45,000 we salted away in plummier days is long gone. We’re not the only ones, and I know that and don’t pity myself for the destruction 2008 wrought. All around us (neighbors as well as relatives living farther away)—for years—people have been losing their extended unemployment, living in houses where renovations were begun and then abandoned, walls just spackled and left to be finished in better times, kitchen floors exposed boards. Some have abandoned previous professions and followed artistic paths, handiwork, humbler tasks. It’s a different sort of support when everyone is on the same sinking ship. They can’t help, they can only bear witness, grab elbows, barter resources, skid backwards as the tilt becomes more acute.
I’ve done some undignified things I never thought I would do and asked for help from people I never thought I would ask, after the bottom of the barrel we were scraping became well and truly bare. Not long ago, I made such a comfortable living that we never had to scrimp. It’s at this time of year I am forced to remember when I had to leave our Thanksgiving groceries behind on the checkout belt because my debit card was declined. I feel humiliated when I think about how my children are not at all surprised when utilities are shut off, or when they ask, “can we get donuts? Does that cost money, or card?”
We have learned to be creative to get by. We have kept chickens, we have a large vegetable garden that did better when working didn’t occupy my “free time,” we barter those aforementioned resources and my social media skills for needed goods and services. One year, a few days before Christmas, I went online to sell a bicycle that my oldest had outgrown. Craigslist is strange and wonderful. It’s like this complicated and nuanced recession marketplace, and sometimes we’re one another’s saviors there. A woman wanted a not-too-expensive Christmas present for her school-age daughter, and I needed money to buy for my own kids. It was painful to remember that in past years we’d always received fat Christmas catalogs in our mailbox—and no wonder, since every marketer probably had us pegged as big spenders. It wasn’t unusual for us to drop over a thousand dollars on gifts. Now, we don’t get the J.Crew catalog, or Hearthsong, or Hanna Andersson, Sundance, or Williams-Sonoma. Just as well. Looking back, I feel stupid for not heading first to thrift, consignment, DIY, swap-meets, garage sales. Garnet Hill has not yet given up on us, but I’m not biting. It’s a game of chicken, and I guarantee I will win.
The potential bike buyer and I met on my porch. It was only 7 pm or so, but dark enough that the dangling strand of half-lit Christmas lights hanging from the leaf gutter provided the only illumination. I was glad for the forgiving darkness; maybe she wouldn’t see the slight scratches on the bike’s frame. I doubted her daughter would notice, and I knew the marks would buff out with minimal effort if she did. But then my words stumbled over themselves, and I heard myself trying to give this stranger an excuse not to buy it. “It’s not perfect, but I could come down on the price,” I said, trying not to think about what the $125 would mean to us.
She bought the bike, hurriedly handing me some folded bills. I thanked her and put the money in my pocket without counting it. It was a business transaction, but so intimate that it felt like a social one as well. We worked together to fit the bike into the backseat of her sedan, negotiating its position by micro-amounts to allow both doors to close. It was the kind of thing you do with family when you’re wedging an oversized purchase from Ikea into your car in the parking lot. Very few words, body language conveying the small adjustments that need to be made. I was struck with the urge to hug her good-bye and made a darting movement in that direction before thinking better of it. My already loose boundaries are becoming even looser as these emotionally challenging times continue.
The other day at the park, I spent hours chatting with another mom from the kindergarten, an affluent woman wearing yoga pants and driving a Lincoln Navigator. She had funny things to say about her twins. She expressed respect at seeing us on our bicycles in the rain, explained in too many words spoken too quickly about how even though they live very close to the school, there is this reason and that for why they don’t take bikes but drive instead, and I said, “Oh, if I still had a car, I would likely find any excuse, every day. I’m not holier than thou.” She complimented me on my thrift shop dress. It was only later, when talking about the vacation house her family rents in Tahoe and the ski boots she bought for the boys, that she stopped short. It was awkward. She ceased speaking as if I had poked her with a stick. The silence hung for a few beats, and then she continued but haltingly, as if embarrassed. She talked about scouring Groupon for deals, and about her religious Sunday coupon clipping. She mentioned having been poor as a child and how that’s not what matters, that it’s not what she remembers and that it’s not what my children will remember. I would like to believe her. I was taken aback that knowledge of my family’s economic situation is something that preceded us, that was such a part of our identity that it stopped our conversation cold. (And no, she doesn’t read this blog.)
I can be abrasive (who, moi?), and when younger, I wore my convictions like a blazing cloak of righteousness. I hope that now, at this vulnerable time in my life, I have become less judgmental and more approachable. I had not wanted this other woman, this mother like me, to feel anything but at ease. Still, there was this chasm between us, of needs and not-needs, and she filled it with her own embarrassed rationales. I smiled and nodded, full of sympathetic head tilts and raised eyebrows. I touched her arm, reassured her with dismissive noises. That would have been me had the recession not hit us so hard and so relentlessly.
So I’m writing this in the dark on the front porch swing, as brutally cold as it is, because I just need to get out of the house. There’s been a lot of rain, and I’ve felt uniquely trapped and what with the kids all being home from school and nothing to get them out of doors. (We did take an afternoon to adventure along the creek where the salmon are making their journey to spawn. Although it’s very much against the law, it was fascinating to watch a young boy—he couldn’t have been older than ten—trudge upstream in nothing but cut off blue jeans carrying a fish as large as his torso: “I done wrassled it and knifed its haid,” he shouted proudly to his waif-like mother. “Good work, boy, that’s dinner for tonight and then some!” It’s been a few weeks since our monthly food stamp card was re-upped. Armed with $340 for our family of five, we can just barely fill some gaps on our refrigerator and pantry shelves. No, there’s nothing romantic about being poor—but there is joy in small things. This morning, as I slept for the last precious hour or so before waking, I dreamed of eating bacon. I could get bacon, maybe. Soon, even, I think. And there’s a waffle-maker somewhere in our house of too-much-stuff, which I’ve been slowly but surely selling on these buy/sell/trade groups on Facebook. But I won’t sell the waffle-maker: because dang it, one of these weekend mornings, I hope my future holds a plate with a waffle soaked in butter and good, real maple syrup, and bacon on the side.
And that leads me to this admission: The color and clatter of our chaotic existence now gives me more pleasure, (when I’m able to claw with un-manicured fingernails and raise my tear-weary eyes just high enough to see beyond the edge of my dark and cavernous hole of paralyzing guilt, fear, and worry—insert sardonic laugh,) than my corporate affluence ever did. There is a joyous, delicious jangle and pop to this sort of freedom, (when I’m not deep in depression and anxiety—more sardonic laughter.) My northern European ancestors populated Oklahoma Territory, and my Cherokee relatives, having been relocated against their will, endured the Trail of Tears and joined them. That land, that time, and the people who embraced those challenges mark those aforementioned sinews and synapses deep at the heart of me. Maybe it is those ancestors who made me a writer and a survivor, although of late, I feel like I’m not doing the “surviving” part very well. But each day my children feel loved and go to bed with full bellies is a successful day, and those keep happening, so I’m going to call that “survival.” Can I get a group agreement on that? At any rate, it feels like an evolutionary imperative: I just need to concentrate on the map inscribed at a cellular level and summon the strength and capability to lift us up and carry us through these hard years. Then I can see the sparks of light that illuminate and inspire me, more than any empty material successes ever had. And days come when I get an email through Facebook or somewhere that says, “Hey, I’m with such-and-such company. We’re very impressed with your writing, and we’d like to pay you to do some for us. May we trouble you for your phone number?”
Today was a day like any other. The children emerged from their beds, as pink and helpless as mewling kittens, and skittered downstairs where they could cocoon themselves in blankets and cluster near our one wall-heater against the early-morning chill. Regardless of the weather, my plan is to straddle my colorfully-festooned bicycle and head out the door to the food bank, as we are so close to the only holiday that isn’t commercially commodified to death, but one in which I hope my family will add to the neighbors’ feast we’ve been invited to join, and have abundance in the weeks that follow. (If I’m lucky, I’ll get a ride. We’ll see.) Later, I will purge some of the soil from the neglected garden and use it to fill the pots on the porch that have been holding plants donated by a friend, but remain root-bound in their plastic shop containers. Maybe I’ll fill the empty slow cooker with simple soup components . . . or maybe I’ll rely on my husband’s far-superior culinary abilities. Yes, that. I might wield the pick axe and continue my work on the side yard, cut down the dead branches from the pear tree, and check on the ripeness of our obscenely overloaded orange tree (our traditional Christmas offering to neighbors and loved ones or anyone who wants oranges, they’re ready right around Dec. 22, consider yourself notified. I deliver,) because the instinct for hard physical labor is built into me, too, and just like my elderly grandfather who kept dragging brush and cleaning leaf gutters into his nineties, it flat-out feels good. And feeling good has been hard to come by for me, as late. (I’ve not been doing well in the state-of-mind aspect of surviving. Molly says, “I love my crying mom.”) Then I will open my laptop and do the work I was meant to do, which sometimes pays well but, for a long time, has not. Throughout, I will keep my knees (metaphorically) slightly bent so I am ready for movement, my back strong and locked straight, my eyes cast forward, ever forward.