Notes of a Poor Bastard: My Adventures in Unemployment, Underemployment, and Bipolar Disorder, part 2
(This is the second installment of a series. Click here for part 1.)
I’m never more conscious of my financial situation than when I consider my family. My parents–and, by extension, my siblings and I–were poor, yet our life was no better or worse than my life now. And my wife’s life. And our kids’ lives. And, in that respect, I feel as if I’m failing them.
As a kid, I went to Las Vegas two or three times, we went to theme parks in Ohio and visited Chicago a few times. My father owned a boat when I was a child and we’d take it onto Lake Michigan and spend hours cruising around.
I can’t share those or similar experiences with my kids. We haven’t flown on airplanes–I
haven’t been on one since I was ten years old–or cruised Lake Michigan or spent time in Chicago. We don’t go shopping for anything other than necessities, we don’t go to amusement parks or engage in overtly capitalist notions of fun. Part of me doesn’t mind. The anti-capitalist part of me thinks it’s probably not a bad thing. But the kid in me, the sentimental fool with thousands of sentimental memories, regrets and resents it. As foolish and trivial as that may sound, it’s the truth.
I decided to cut short my vacation. Having worked ten years at the same job, I’d felt I’d earned and deserved a break. A selfish act: by dropping out of the world of work, I slowly plunged my family into a worse situation. Money was tight, food was cheap and basic, and life’s adventures contracted. We were in a precarious situation. Always poor, we were now impoverished, and I had to change that. I had to take steps to alter our situation.
Desperation coincided with mania, which triggered a more or less constant state of anxiety. I tend to dismiss the concept of luck. In my universe, luck is a subjective interpretation of chance or coincidence. However, I fixated on luck when I motivated myself to find a job–and couldn’t fucking find one. I’ve such shit luck. Why the fuck can’t I find a job? Why won’t anyone hire me, give me a chance? What’s the problem, goddamn it. Fuck them. Fuck all of them.
The author, after accidentally taking too much Klonopin
My world darkened. Everything felt doomed and catastrophic. Nightmares prevented me from sleeping more than an hour or two consecutively each night. Waking fantasies emerged in which my family and I lived in cars and begged for scraps. With no savings, they were possibilities, and they felt likely as each passing day found me without a job.
I was still drawing unemployment but the pool got smaller and smaller as the weeks progressed. Despondency settled in. Then self- hated and loathing. Why hadn’t I tried harder in school? Why didn’t I go back to college? Am I stupid? Maybe I’m an idiot and I’m too stupid to realize I’m stupid? Am I the Dunning-Krueger effect in action? How do I step outside of myself to determine the truth value of that question?
Days and nights slipped away. I filled out application after application and rewrote and revised my resume–nothing. No calls, no expressions of interest, no desires to schedule interviews. Nothing.
I felt worthless. My wife tried to console me. She argued that I wasn’t worthless; the job market in town wasn’t great, she’d said. But you’ll find something. If she experienced negativity re: our situation, she didn’t express it. But now that I think about it, she didn’t have to: I expressed more than enough for both of us.
Taking the lead from my parents, I didn’t openly discuss my employment or our financial history to our kids or in their presence. But you should never underestimate the perception of children. They’re reasoning machines constantly paying attention to, and absorbing, information. They knew we were poor. They knew not to expect much for their birthdays or Christmas. We struggled. They knew it and experienced it as much as my wife and I did. Still, I tried to fool myself to believe the opposite, and I refused to discuss our situation around them.
But it killed me. I grew up in poverty and I had hated it. I drank and smoked pot and huffed gas and skipped school and fucked around and got into trouble, I hung out with gangbangers and got stoned and, on one occasion, got shot at while visiting my cousin’s house. I seemed to embody the statistical norm for my social strata. Upward mobility is possible in this country but not probable. You’re far more likely to slide down the social strata than climb up it. And kids tend to stay in the strata into which they’re born.
As a teenager and into my twenties, I didn’t do anything to distinguish myself, to lay the groundwork for a comfortable future. Heidegger argued that our past, present, and future influences our decisions. Our past shapes our present, he argued, and our present shapes our future. In turn, our future informs our present. I once thought it rubbish. Now I accept it.
On my worst days, I’m an anti-capitalist. But if I stop to examine my dreams and
Zdzisław Beksiński, Untitled Drawing, 1956
fantasies, they’re intertwined with capitalism and middle-class notions of life. I grew up on 60s sitcoms and movies, so I guess I internalized the ideology behind capitalist American mythos. Even now I suppose I possess it, at least to a degree. In this society, money = freedom. Without money, you’re a slave to routine, allowed only limited movement. When my mania or anxiety or depression spikes, I don’t want to go anywhere or talk to anyone. But one good days I want to go everywhere and talk to everyone. “I want to do something that matters,” as Trent Reznor once screamed. But in a country where everything costs something, my family and I usually sit at home, developing cabin fever. That’s the reality for some of us poor folk, I guess. We only have our dreams–and after a while, they, too, collapse under the weight of our poverty.
I find few things as tedious as filling out applications. One or two don’t bother me, but fifteen, twenty, thirty drive me crazy. I write and re-write the same information, over and over and over again. Then I submit the applications and wait. I wait. And while I’m waiting I fill out more applications, and I check my email and ensure my ringer’s on fifty times a day. Then I go over my resume. And I berate myself, wondering what’s wrong with me. Why am I so worthless? I’ve got a good work history, I don’t bounce from job to job, I show up and do my work, and yet no prospective employers contact me. What the fuck is wrong with me? It’s obviously me. I’m so fucking worthless. Some days I want to climb under the blanket in bed and curl up and sleep all day without talking to anyone. I’m so worthless no one would probably notice my absence.
Poor people without insurance don’t see doctors. We see nurse practitioners. I receive medical care from a free clinic with no expertise in mental health. My old NP, who understood mental illness, recently departed. Now I’m sitting in the room waiting for my new NP.
I tend to wander doctor’s offices while I wait, but now I’m seated, legs crossed, hunched forward. Exhaustion settled over me days ago and I can’t shake it. Anxiety, a more or less permanent fixture, keeps me on edge.
I’m on a half milligram of Klonopin and hope the NP will up it to 1 mg, hoping it’ll take the edge off the way .5 mg did when I first took it. The clock ticks and I rock back and forth, back and forth. Surely, bumping it to 1 mg isn’t a big deal. Right?
I take out my phone and login to my bank account. This routine occurs multiple times a day. It’s a form of torture. Tension builds as the site loads, then a torrent of anxiety washes over me. I’m always on the verge of financial ruin. There’s never more than 40 or 50 dollars in my checking account.
Turning off my phone and shoving it into my pocket, I realize constantly checking my bank account truly is a form of torture. A daily ritual. The 21st century equivalent to self-flagellation. It’s punishment, I suppose.
The NP saunters into the room and sits on a stool in front of me. The entire scene plays out in about thirty seconds. She props a laptop on her lap and stares at the screen without making eye contact. I’m not too familiar with mental health issues, she tells me. Great. But I see you’re on lamictal and Klonopin. I don’t like Klonopin, she says. I’m going to change that to Xanax.
Klonopin helps me, I say.
I don’t like it. It’s incredibly addictive.
She closes her laptop and stands and tells me a nurse will show up in a few minutes with the prescription. I protest, but she reiterates her dislike for Klonopin. Then she slides out of the room, closing the door behind her.
And that’s that.
That’s fucking that.
Daulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana with his wife and kids. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: Stories, Still Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other stories, Elegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novel. Rooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at daultondickey[at]yahoo[dot]com.