What filing for bankruptcy taught me

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

One summer, we were inventive with bags of potatoes, butter, and a hot pot. My mother waitressed for twelve hours a day to make $10 in tips, and when she came home we passed plates of fried, mashed, and roasted potatoes between us. I watched her count out her tips and spread the bills across the table. Part of me broke because she kept working harder for less. Chicken legs from the bodega had become a luxury. The notion of having something as frivolous and empty as a salad was dark comedy. Back then, we ate what sustained us, what kept us full for hours on end so we didn’t have to think about hunger. That summer, I swam the length of the 16-foot pool in Sunset Park. For hours, I’d tread water and I hadn’t noticed how my body slimmed down to bone. All I could think about was the steam from the fifty-cent hot dogs outside. How the smell wafted and lingered. How I asked one of my girlfriends, casually, can I get a bite?

Much of my childhood was spent thinking about money.

When I zipped up the skirt of my first suit, I felt fancy. I spent $200 for a navy blue Jones New York suit and I wore it to my internship with pride. In college, I convinced myself that I would never want for anything. I sold myself into a career in finance because I thought proximity to money would somehow erase the summer of potatoes and hot pots. I memorized ratios, pontificated on LBOs, and debated the merits of long-term financing with my all-male study group with a fervor that bordered on obsession. During my senior year, I acquired my first credit card and I held it my hand like it was some sort of jewel. I swiped, I charged, I put it on the card. Racking up $800 in debt felt insurmountable back then. Now, I would give anything to owe that kind of money.

No one tells you that money means nothing. No one tells you that having things means nothing other than the fact that you’ve managed to stockpile your sadness. You’ve managed to do the unthinkable — give an emotion weight, shape, and form. Money will never fill the emptiness, the hole in your heart that seems to forever widen. Over two decades, I made an extraordinary amount of money and all I had to show for it was a home stuffed with clothes I’d never wear, books I’d never read, and gadgetry I had no interest in using. And still, I was sad.

All I wanted as a child was a full fridge — not this.

My generation was taught that our credit rating was a fragile child that required constant attention. Bad credit equated to financial ruin and financial ruin was life ruin. So, throughout bouts of unemployment and escalating debt, I still managed to keep my credit up in 700s. Until last year.

They tell you that the first warning signs are the way you open your mail. I had managed to open my bills without seeing the full balance, only the minimum payment due. I had become a woman who paid the minimum, a woman who used humor as a means to deflect all of my bad (and often reckless) decisions. For a time, this was easy to do because I made just enough money to bandage a dam even though I knew its collapse and ensuing flood were inevitable. Until last year when I faced months of unemployment and my debt became a thing that threatened to swallow me whole. Until I opened each bill, laid them out in front of me as my mother had once done with her earnings, and tabulated my loses.

What have I done?

It’s strange to finally arrive at the place you’d always knew you’d be. I could either take responsibility for my mess or wallow on it. Last year, I contacted a bankruptcy attorney and started taking credit counseling classes. I re-learned all the things I’d already known but failed to put into practice. The experience was like the difference between hearing and listening. At 42, I was finally listening.

I filed for Chapter 13, which means I’m repaying my debt, but on a more manageable repayment plan over a period of five years. Filing for bankruptcy felt shameful. Here I was watching the people who had once worked for me buying homes, living the full stretch of their lives. I had failed and I carried this shame quietly for a while until someone told me that there’s nothing shameful in being honest with yourself. There’s no failure in looking at your life and wanting to change it. There’s no embarrassment in being accountable for your decisions and deciding to make healthier ones. I finally understand that things are just things unworthy of our attachment.

I sold half of my belongings. At first, I felt the sting of losing what I had accumulated, but that paled in comparison to the weight I no longer had to bear. Now, I evaluate each purchase as a need vs. a want, and I take long walks when I’m feeling anxious instead of blackout-buying books on Amazon. I’m using what I have — including food — until I have to buy more. I’ve become downright surgical about what comes into my home. And, inspired by Cait Flanders’ journey, I plan to embark on a shopping ban of my own.

I’d be naive to say anything other than the fact that this journey has only just begun. The work in reconciling need and want takes considerable study and self-observation, and I still live in a home that’s well beyond my means. But the weight is gone. The shame is gone. What’s left is the work.