I Wish Everyone Spent a Few Years in Poverty, Like I Did

I Wish Everyone Spent a Few Years in Poverty, Like I Did

It would make the world a better place.

A lot of people out there still have no idea what poverty feels like. I do. My mom put us there. While there’s not much I can thank her for, it’s one thing that deserves a little gratitude. She made me a more empathetic person in the long run, even if that happened by accident.

If there’s one story I need to share with the entire world, this is it. This is the one I wish millions of people would read.

Here we go…

Mental illness is expensive as hell.

Right before my 14th birthday, my mom started acting stranger than usual. She’d always yelled and screamed. She’d always thrown things at me when I did something to upset her.

This was different.

This time, her actual words stopped making sense. So did her actions. For example, she would unscrew all the light bulbs and hide them in the freezer. When you asked her what she was doing, she’d say something like, “I’m getting the house ready to sell.” Then she’d stare at you like it made perfect sense, and you were just an idiot.

Then the conspiracy theories started. My mom told us the government was spying on us. She began to believe my dad’s friends worked for the FBI, and they were trying to entrap him in something.

My mom could never fully explain what she thought was happening. That’s how it goes with paranoid schizophrenia.

One night, she stopped sleeping. She would watch us for hours through cracks in our bedroom doors. That’s when we started to feel a little scared. It wasn’t long before she turned violent, threatening us with kitchen knives and broken glass. Soon we were afraid to spend an hour in the house with her. We slept with our doors locked.

It didn’t help.

We lost everything.

It was difficult to have my mom committed to any kind of mental health institution. I don’t mean emotionally. I mean the actual process of putting someone in a clinic against their will. It was almost impossible. This was the late 1990s. Thanks to Ronald Reagan and his political legacy, there was no safe place to put a mentally ill person without spending tens of thousands of dollars. Insurance covered a fraction.

As a 14-year-old, I didn’t understand any of that. All I knew was I wanted my mom to get better, and to stop terrorizing us.

So did my dad.

That never happened, but we tried. We bounced around our state’s failed health system for that first year. It drained my dad’s life savings faster than we could comprehend.

One afternoon, my dad called me into the kitchen and lit a cigarette. “We need to have a talk about the future.”

I was 15 now.

As he explained, we had bigger problems than my mom’s medical expenses. My dad had discovered a secret post office box, which my mom had set up years ago. It was full of unpaid credit card bills. The total came to $40,000. Adjusting for inflation, that’s about $80,000 now.

It got worse.

My mom had also somehow managed to deplete my college savings account. We had no idea what she’d spent the money on.

And it got even worse…

My grandpa had recently died from lung cancer. My dad’s stepmother had found a way to write us out of the will. We would get nothing, except a bath robe and an ash tray — and an ugly vase.

So there we were.

We were middle-class in name only.

My friends never knew what was going on. It was too embarrassing. When you’re middle-class, you’ll do anything to stay there.

You’ll even pretend.

At 16, a guy asked me to prom. My dad told me we couldn’t afford a dress. So I got a job as a cashier to pay for it, along with other expenses like the SAT, college application fees, and my graduation gown.

Working at a nice grocery store as a teenager gives you an early life lesson in Karens. They were pretty terrible. They bothered me on my breaks constantly, because they knew employees got written up every time someone complained. The reason didn’t matter. They accused me of miscounting their change, and screwing them out of coupon deals. Almost every day, someone called me a name or insulted my intelligence.

It was exhausting. When you constantly hear that you’re a worthless idiot, you start to believe it’s true.

My friends lived different lives. They made passive-aggressive comments about my job. They said things like, “My parents would never let me work for minimum wage.” They said things like, “Why don’t you just run away? That’s would I would do if I were you.”

Their lives were filled with gossip and summer flings.

Mine was filled with unwanted visits from social workers and police officers, and sometimes paramedics. It was filled with watching my mom fall off her medication routine, and then get arrested in our living room. It was filled with my friends’ parents, who took their first world problems out on a 16-year-old girl trying to save up for a prom dress.

By the way, it was a rental.

My education almost killed me.

If you worked hard enough in the early 2000s, you could afford a degree from a public university with scholarships and a part-time job. That’s what I did. I worked my way through college at bars and restaurants, putting up with all kinds of shitty bosses and clientele.

When you work these kinds of jobs, you learn firsthand what people really think about you. To them, you’re subhuman.

They think you don’t deserve anything.

Once, I almost got fired because a middle-aged woman didn’t want to pay for her dinner. She wadded up a napkin and hid it in her salad. She tried to say I’d put it there out of spite.

My manager was reaming me when the woman’s husband walked up and confessed. He looked straight at the manager the entire time he spoke, too embarrassed to even make eye contact with me. The manager never apologized. A few weeks later, he started telling everyone the “hilarious” story about the time he’d almost fired a server “named Jennifer or something” for absolutely no reason.

These weren’t isolated incidents.

Ask anyone in the service professions. It’s not that unusual to get sexually harassed and then accused of stealing by the same bro.

That’s a Tuesday…

Graduate school was even worse.

You can conceivably make it out of college without too much debt. In grad school, everything’s more expensive. Instead of working, you devote all of your time to your studies. You get a small stipend to cover your living expenses, in exchange for teaching or grading papers, or running a lab. For 7 years, I made an annual salary $15,000.

For a little while, I tried to supplement that by tutoring online and doing freelance work. The end result was days without sleep. One afternoon I practically dropped into a coma during an 8 am graduate seminar. My forehead smacked on the table.

Everyone flinched.

The program director called me into his office.

He begged, “What’s going on with you? You’re one of the best candidates we’ve got, but you’ve been a mess lately.”

I explained my financial situation.

He nodded and gave me a sympathetic look, then suggested I start taking out student loans. “Consider it an investment in yourself,” he said. “Otherwise, you’ll be dead in six months.”

So that’s what I did. While some people my age were building wealth, I took out loans so I could invest in an education. I lived in an apartment without furniture. I slept on an air mattress. Sometimes I partied too much and put the tab on my credit card, telling myself things like, “What’s a few more dollars in debt at this point?”

Everyone wants to take advantage of the poor.

Upon reflection, I’ve started to see my doctoral education and professionalization for what it really was. It wasn’t just an intellectual hazing. It was also a financial one, a ripoff.

In many cases, academia isn’t so different from the personal development industry. Rock star professors have a little bit in common with the celebrity life coaches who make fortunes off the poor and mentally ill, packing stadiums with financially and emotionally desperate people. Both of them sell a fantasy, that by going thousands of dollars in debt, you’re somehow investing in a future self.

Sadly, the end result is the same for too many of us. You wind up even more miserable, and further from your goals.

That’s where I found myself at the age of 30. Sure, I landed the job of my dreams, so I’d thought. A major university hired me on the tenure track, and made all kinds of promises about big things to come. It took a while to figure out the salary most professors make barely covers the cost of living now, and it hardly puts you in the position to raise a family.

I’d been tricked.

I’d spent the better part of my life giving my time and energy to institutions that made insane profits off my labor, while sharing none of the rewards with me. No raises. No bonuses. Nada. The best thing I ever got was a small pay bump after tenure and promotion, for publishing articles and books that actually cost me thousands of dollars to produce.

This is what happens when you’re poor.

Everyone wants to take advantage of you. Everyone wants you to go to their college, or sign up for their online course. There’s a world of people who claim to have the answers. They promise you a better future.

They don’t deliver.

Poverty has made me a kinder person.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve managed to climb out of poverty. My college degree didn’t help me do that. Neither did my MFA, or my PhD. It was just a helluva lot of hard work, and some luck.

But that’s not the lesson.

The real lesson is that nobody should have to go through what I did. And yet, millions of people go through far worse.

When I look at someone in poverty, I don’t wonder what’s wrong with them. I wonder what’s wrong with us. I get how it feels to work your entire life, and then lose it all when the society you’ve helped build completely turns its back on you. It happens all the time.

That’s why I don’t dispense lazy, self-glorifying advice like so many others do. It’s why I donate to food banks and charities. It’s why I don’t look for tax loopholes, even though I resent how the government spends some of my money. It’s why I don’t give cashiers or servers or baristas a hard time. It’s why I hand sandwiches to people when they’re hungry. It’s why sometimes I just give students cash to pay their rent or buy groceries. People need understanding more than advice.

I don’t resent the years I spent going into debt, barely making enough to keep a roof over my head. It taught me valuable lessons about the human condition. More people need to learn these lessons.

I wish everyone spent a few years in poverty.

It might change the world.

Source : Medium