There are a lot of things you don't really comprehend until you've been poor and unemployed for a long period of time. The most important may be that it's not something that you can easily put behind you, even if you find another job.
My mom grew up on a farm during the depression and quit eighth grade in order to take care of her younger brothers and sisters. As an adult she was a successful woman but she was never able to completely shake the experience of being that cold, hungry teenager.. It was an attitude I never quite grasped as I was growing up. At that point she was decades past the experience of that young teen, but those days shaped every decision she made. To me, her attitude was more amusing than anything else. It almost seemed like a cliche, hearing her talk about the depression as she opted to not buy that shiny car or a new set of clothes. To her, being broke wasn't just an abstraction, it was a core part of who she was as an adult..
I've been thinking about my mom and dad a lot in recent years, as I've struggled with my own version of the depression. One of the most surprising things I've learned is that your financial struggles don't go away when you're past the worst of things. Recovering from unemployment or a bad economy can turn into your life's work, in a way that I would not have imagined a few years ago.
About four years ago I was laid off from a job as a journalist and that one event spiraled into what has sometimes seemed to be a whirlwind of stress, anger and hopelessness. Up until losing my job my wife hadn't worked since our son had been born three years previously. He had been diagnosed with Celiac and we were getting indications he might also have Aspergers. But my wife found a job and I scrambled to find as much freelance work as I could get. But that wasn't enough and we slowly slid down the economic scale. We sold off everything we could and ultimately put our belongings into storage and ended up in a one-room weekly rental hotel room until we could turn things around.
And we slowly did make the move back in the right direction. My wife got a promotion and between my own web site and freelance work we were able to find a place of our own and try to make a normal life for our family. This past December was the first time we had been able to really enjoy the holidays in our own place in several years. While it sounds like a cliche, it was magic.
But those tough financial times don't go away so easily. We still owe a lot of money and there are times when it seems that despite our best efforts we're only a few days away from some personal disaster.
This week the disaster de jour is with the electric company. We owe them a fair amount of money, primarily from a place we lived three years ago. I've been trying to work out a repayment plan, but ultimately I have to figure out a way to somehow scrape together hundreds of dollars by Thursday. How is that going to happen? Damned if I know. I don't qualify for the winter rule to prevent disconnection and any other help is days away. Plus my checking account has about $40 in it until the weekend.
The sad thing is that while this particular financial problem is epically stressful, I'm faced with smaller versions of this problem every day. Lots of people to pay and a monthly income that is enough to pay the bills. But the budget doesn't have a lot of room in it for back payments or playing catch-up. So every day brings a new crisis and some other issue that will keep me up at night.
I spend a lot of night awake, sleepless and trying not to brood about whatever oncoming financial trainwreck might be headed my way. I try and focus on hiding the parameters of our life from my young son and taking as much of the burden as I can off of my wife. She recently asked me if I thought I had been battling depression and while my answer was glib, it was also pretty truthful. I don't have time to be depressed or despondent. I spend every waking hour writing or trying to find more work or battling to not slide backwards. I'm a fifty-plus year-old guy trapped in a scenario that has crushed people much younger than myself. It's the same juggling act that is played out in millions of households these days and it would all make for a compelling story if any of us had the time to share it.
One thing I know for sure is that no matter how this all plays out, I will never get past this experience. This level of stress, the relentless days of worrying and the horrible feeling in the pit of your stomach when you can't take care of the ones you love isn't something that goes away. There are days when I can't remember what it was like to relax or spend an hour just unwinding while reading a book. There is a relentlessness to poverty that is overwhelming and seemingly endless.
Yes, the nation's unemployment rate may be slowing declining. But there are so many people who will struggle to recover from this economy for decades. Mom, I wish I would have known then what I know now.
I'm sorry I didn't understand.