Thursday, September 1, 2011
Making Peace With the M-Word
Last year I stood in front of the same judge three times. Even though I wasn’t on trial for murder and the judge looked more like my uncle than my executioner, I burned with shame. I felt like a common criminal, but knew I was actually something worse. A woman who had not only been convicted of speeding in a school zone but one who had no idea how to handle her money.
Like sex and religion, money has always been a vexing, contradictory and elusive topic. It involves numbers which alone endeared itself to me not at all. As a child, even as we shook out couch cushions for spare change, my mother drilled into my head that I could do or be anything I wanted. Living on food stamps was no reason not to reach for the stars. She encouraged me to align my future with my dreams rather than my savings. I accepted a scholarship and early admittance to the college of my choice, which happened to be the second most expensive college in the country at the time.
I arrived at school proud of my scrappiness and ability to make something out of nothing. But eventually rubbing shoulders with children of millionaires rubbed off on me. I wasn’t sure I wanted what they had; I just knew I didn’t have it. Money became an emotional barrier which separated me, at least in my own mind, from certain circles. No matter how many times I tried to balance the relationship between my self worth and my bank account, I always came up short. Eventually I started using credit cards not only to make ends meet but to make me feel a little better about myself. At first it was just a tiny charge, to take the edge off. But like a drug, after repeated use, I became dependent.
Finally, three years ago when I got laid off from my desk job, I quit credit cards cold turkey. But not only did I stop using them, in order to buy groceries, I stopped paying them, too. And it turns out credit card companies don’t like it when you do that, even if it’s for your own good. But rather than deal with the mess I was creating, I hid from it. Confronting my lack of funds meant confronting my lack of worth. I couldn’t see how one didn’t equal the other.
When I got sued- a fiscal version of the DUI- I resisted the urge to bury myself under the covers--- or under the ground. Miraculously, instead, I asked for help. I researched. I made phone calls. I sent emails. I peeked into the dark, terrifying corners I had created, mostly in the top drawer of my desk where stacks of unopened mail teemed like the head of Medusa.
In the end, a friend and former lawyer generously offered me her and her husband’s assistance. But not before I’d sobbed on the phone, admitting how ashamed I felt. “Oh Valley,” she’d said, “Credit card debt? Please! Last year I had two different friends convicted of embezzlement!” If she had been Mother Teresa absolving me of my sins, I could not have felt better. My friend and her husband’s combination of nonjudgmental kindness and belief in “paying it forward” helped pull me out of not only a monetary hole, but an emotional one.
My problems didn’t vanish when I faced them, but amazing things did begin to happen. Money actually started to come in through work that I actually loved. I no longer felt like I was spending my last dollar each time I pulled out my wallet. And I realized I have more to offer than the sum total of my pockets--- or anyone else’s.
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of talking to a judge aspiring to be a writer—outside of the courtroom. As we talked literature, I realized I felt neither criminal nor less than. I realized that he and I stood on common ground, sharing equal footing. And that’s a feeling money can’t buy.