Even if I don’t exactly remember the day, my mother has told the story enough times to imprint what looks like a memory into my mind. We’re at my elementary school playground. It’s a mild, overcast day, because it’s Seattle, and yet everything seems to glow, as if drenched in sunlight, because it’s a memory of my childhood. I am seven…no: eight years old. My hair is still blonde, my eyes a grey-blue that will turn hazel brown within a year or two. In my story-memory, I am wearing a frilly white dress; pleated skirt, pink and yellow tulips stitched across my chest. In reality, I was probably wearing something more like pink sweat pants and a green sweatshirt with some kind of smiling cartoonish animal printed across it.
I run over to my mom from the playground, cheeks ruddy from play, eyes glittering. I have something to tell her, something important. I wait a moment, pause to catch my breath, then lean toward her, voice low and conspiratorial, and confess, “Mom, I think I’m going to be famous.”
Kids are notorious wild fantasizers. Hearing a child declare her future fame is not uncommon or particularly noteworthy, but when I said it, I really meant it. I believed in my future fame. It wasn’t completely unfounded. I had my first poem published when I was eight, in The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, a magazine to which established poets aspire for publication. I made my first $100 off writing that same year, and for several years I was the chronic first place winner at the Mercer Island Books youth poetry contest. I’m not telling you all this just to brag. I’m telling you this because I was not born a failure. I had every reason to believe that I would grow to be, if not actually famous, a successful writer. Or at the very least, not poor.
My mother, who once loved to recollect the story of my self-predicted fame, has stopped telling it. Last week, I missed therapy because I had to go to the Department of Human and Health Services to apply for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. Otherwise known as Food Stamps. I hold two writing degrees, and still receive compliments and offers for publication, but I am also unemployed, my credit is an abyss I will never crawl out of in this lifetime, and I struggle to maintain tenancy in a roach-infested rundown apartment owned by Seattle’s most notorious slumlord.
Why? Why does someone who once held so much promise, whose claims to future fame were believed not only by herself but everyone else too, who could incite middle school kids to forgo recess to rehearse in the plays she had written; why is she living chronically poor on the brink of homelessness?
The Economics of my Mental Illness
Studies, thought experiments, analyses, observation: They will all tell you in, in their own ways, that poverty and mental illness are linked. There’s a chicken and the egg argument circulating about the subject; does mental illness cause poverty, or does poverty cause mental illness? And just like any chicken-egg question, the answer appears circular. Unemployment and chronic poverty come preloaded with stressors that can aggravate latent mental illnesses, or even cause depression, anxiety, and other neuroses. Many symptoms of various mental illnesses are antithetical to sustained employment and good spending habits, however, which means that people with mental illness are often pushed down a vicious cycle of benefit dependency, poverty, and illness.
There are skeptics-there are always skeptics-who believe that mental illness is some kind of excuse. An excuse to be lazy. An excuse to throw “pity parties” (a term I hate). An excuse to sap benefits from the government; one of the accusations I find almost as hilarious as I find it infuriating, because as anyone who’s ever had to make $400 somehow cover $800 rent and bills and household items knows, government benefits are shamefully insufficient. If I could trade my PTSD symptoms for a 9 to 5 and the promise that I would never again have to worry that my girls and I would be homeless, I’d do it without question. And I bet most, if not all, of those caught in the mental illness-poverty trap would do the same.
Still think poverty’s a choice? That the “trap” isn’t real?
Here’s what’s really stopping me from getting out of poverty:
Today I woke up around 7:30 to get the girls ready for daycare. I know, for some parents, a 7:30 wake-up time would be a blessing. It would mean sleeping in. For me, 7:30 is a struggle. Three weeks ago, it was a struggle because I was up all night, afraid to sleep, terrorized by nightmares of The Ex choking me, pushing in my eyes, or trying to get back together with me, which was perhaps the worst variety.
Now 7:30 is a struggle because I’ve started taking Prazosin, an alpha-blocker designed to treat high blood pressure that the VA discovered relieves nightmares in people with PTSD. Because I don’t have high blood pressure, Prazosin makes me incredibly tired. I won’t stop taking it; this pill has not only put an end to my PTSD-related nightmares, it has virtually removed The Ex from my brain. Not just in nightmare form; daytime too. Creepy, intrusive thoughts? Hallucinating his face on the bodies of other, similarly built men? All gone. Which just proves that I really and truly have no lingering feelings for this man. It’s all trauma.
But the drug makes me sleepy. And extremely groggy. So I wade through the morning routine with my begrudging daughters, who would only sleep another twenty minutes naturally but seem fixated on fighting tooth-n-nail for those extra twenty anyway. My husband and I get the girls dressed and ready via a cranky back-and-forth, and manage to get them loaded onto their vanpool to daycare, sometimes grinning; sometimes screeching.
After the girls go to daycare, I got to bed. I used to stay up, but I can’t now. I feel my heart skipping weirdly in my chest. My breath shortens with the slightest exertion. I feel light, like I may faint or float away; my blood pressure is dangerously low, and the only way I can feel better is by sleeping more. But I won’t stop taking it, because this pill has virtually erased my abuser my from my mind, and almost anything is worth that.
I can’t get out of bed earlier than 9:30 without feeling like I’m going to faint. Often, it’s closer to 10. Even then, even after three cups of coffee, there is a fog of lethargy floating around my limbs throughout the day. It has severely impacted my daily workout routine; causing me to scale down to 1-2 days a week. Which is not good. Regular exercise is part of my stay-somewhat-sane-and-wholly-alive routine; right now I’m sacrificing one aspect of my mental health for another. Supposedly these side-effects go away after a while. I’m still waiting.
If you don’t get how this affects my economic status, think about how many jobs I can perform with the kind of start time my medication necessitates. Then, think about when those jobs would end, and read on…
Once upon a time, my husband and I visited our local (but actually quite difficult to access) DSHS office, where we learned that while we could, potentially, qualify for daycare assistance, we would both have to secure employment first, and then secure a qualifying daycare, one which would accept both of our daughters and the state subsidy. Which of course makes no sense and seems intentionally designed to deter people from actually using the program.
We checked to see how much a local full-time daycare would cost us. $2200 a month for both girls. Twice our rent, which we already struggle to pay monthly.
But you already know that we do have child care, and even van service; something which our family is incredibly lucky to access.
Well, luck actually didn’t have a whole lot to do with it. I had to almost die, twice, for our family to receive these services.
Our daughter’s daycare, and the accompanying van service, is state funded, but it’s a different program than the employment-based DSHS funding most families have to rely upon. In order for a child to place in our girls’ daycare, she must have a recommendation from a social worker. Usually one from Child Protective Services.
The last time I had a job, I made sure never to mention the name of my daughter’s daycare. Or any identifying details. The moment anyone-including my own mother-hears where my daughters go to daycare, they assume that I, or my husband, are abusive.
Our family got the recommendation because I attempted suicide. Something I did in reaction to a PTSD trigger. It would take several months and another PTSD-related near fatality for the program to listen to the recommendation and place my daughters.
That’s right. It literally took me almost dying, twice, to get the help and support that would allow me to participate in regular therapy, or to even consider working.
And now? The price is my reputation. I have to live with people thinking I’m a bad mother in order to keep my kids in daycare. But a reputation is a small price to pay for what my family and I receive in return.
How does this interfere with our economic status though? Shouldn’t it help?
Well, like most things limited by state funding…or, rather, like most things limited by state funding and about which the public has negative associations..it has its problems. The first one being that the girls get home really early. It’s only partial daycare. So if you couple it with the time I am actually able to get out of the house-or even if that limitation gets resolved-it’s not enough time for both my husband and myself to work full time. It’s also closed one weekday every other week. Which most jobs will not accommodate.
Don’t get me wrong: Some free time is better than no free time. But these limitations are real, and they are pretty big. Or, they would be, if I were in a position to work a conventional, full-time job.
Which I’m not.
I have mentioned before that I had to quit my job because of my PTSD. But I’ve never said exactly why.
It was a job I hated but had done before and could do well enough to make at least a little money-telefundraising for a local arts program. I hated the job, but liked my boss and most of my co-workers. A good work environment can make up for crappy job almost as much as a good paycheck can. I would have stuck it out.
But nothing can make up for PTSD symptoms.
I began to hallucinate my ex when I would go out. I’d experience the shock and fear of seeing him over and over again, only to realize it was some other guy with his general build and coloring.
Anxiety began to overwhelm me. I remember sitting in my house as the time I needed to leave approached, tense, crouched into myself, face drawn with worry. I didn’t want to go outside. I didn’t want to take the bus. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I certainly didn’t want to get on the phones. Every day I battled with myself; to go in, or call out?
On the days when I’d go in, I would pray silently during each call that nobody would answer; that I could just get through the work day coloring quietly in my adult coloring book without having to try to convince anyone out of their money. When patrons did, inevitably, answer, I would rush through the call, looking for the outs they were more than happy to provide. I was once good at this job. Not anymore. My paltry paychecks did not motivate me to go in very often.
When I’d call out, I would feel an intense rush of anxiety. I would tremble as I made the call. I would feel cold, my vision would blur as though my pupils were intensely dilated. Then I’d make the call, leaving a voicemail if I was lucky, rambling through an actual call with my boss if I was not, and once I hung up my entire body would relax. Cool relief would flood through me; a palpable, liquid sensation that melted my tensed muscles. I would sink into the couch, and fight off the guilty thoughts as best as I could because it felt so great not to have to face the fear and anxiety of the unknown outside.
The United States Judicial System
Yes, the US judicial system is failing DV survivors in a big way, and almost nobody is talking about it.
My PTSD symptoms were already damaging before The Ex returned to my life. Damaging, but manageable. Yes, sometimes they flared up. Sometimes they flared up in big, enormous ways. Day to day, however, I could manage. I could function.
Then he returned to my life.
A man who was charged with assaulting his pregnant girlfriend, who is known among local prosecutors as “the biter,” who escaped international kidnapping charges only because the woman he’d kidnapped permanently fled the country, who spent four years in prison for violating a protection order and witness tampering, who willingly abandoned his months-old son to go to another country and visit his five year old daughter for the first time, who beat and raped his son’s mother, and who remained willingly absent from his life for five more years after being released from prison; that man should not be allowed to suddenly walk into a court room, file some papers, and begin harassing and controlling his former victims again.
But he can. And he is. And I have been the one to suffer.
The shit I’ve had to endure ranges from having to stand quietly while listening to the voice of my abuser, my rapist, the man who stole me from myself, while he blatantly lied about me to a judge; to recounting the worst instances of abuse to a stranger, even though my I haven’t disclosed many of these things to my own therapist; to getting abusive, threatening comments from his girlfriend on this very blog (on this post, if you’re curious, but I didn’t mod the comment through…sorry); to having to ask my husband to take off from work so that I can show up to court all because my abuser wants me to; to having to pay court fees that I can’t afford.
And we haven’t even gone to mediation or trial yet. According to my lawyer (and his girlfriend) he is running out of money. He may not be able to pay his lawyer’s trial retainer. If he can’t come up with the money, if he represents himself, it would ultimately, I’m sure, work in my favor. This is not a man gifted with self control, or legal prowess. But it would also give him the right and power to interrogate me directly in court, despite the Domestic Violence Protection Order I have in place against him. Why is that allowed? Why is that okay? Why is any of this allowed?
And how can anyone realistically expect me to work while this is happening? Above all the other reasons, this damn court case has probably affected my current, acute economic status the most.
Even my boss, who would take a hit by losing me in the middle of a campaign; even she understood why I left. She was sympathetic.
Surviving rape itself is enough to affect someone’s economic status.
Whether a survivor develops PTSD or not, rape causes psychological changes that are difficult to reverse. Abuse is bad enough. Physical abuse comes with its own set of psychological difficulties.
But rape is a whole other animal.
My husband likes to use the term “poverty mentality” a lot, and for a while, I didn’t really get what he meant.
But then I thought about it. And I realized, not only do I understand what it means, I understand what it does to a person, because I have it.
In its most basic form, a poverty mentality is the driving thought that you will never have enough. That you will never be happy, you will never be fulfiled, you will never be content, and your well-being is, ultimately, out of your control. It leads to feelings of helplessness and victimization.
I wasn’t raised with a lot of money; in fact, I was the poorest of all of my friends. I don’t remember wanting for much though. The only thing I really regretted not having was my own backyard, and even that I did have, part of the time, at my dad’s house. So even though I have always lived under the federal poverty line, I never felt limited by my economic status. I never felt trapped.
Then I was raped.
You must have heard it before: Rape is not about sex, it’s about control. When I googled that to find an article to link, I found a lot of articles saying it’s not true. That rape is about sex. Well, I’ve been raped, and sex may, yes, be part of it, but rape is about control.
Rape robs the victim of power over her own body, moreso than even physical abuse. It takes something from her that is supposed to be a vehicle for pleasure, for expressing love, for creating life, and it turns it against her and makes it about pain and powerlessness instead. Rape is one of the worst things you can do to a person, and take it from me: Being raped by someone you love is devastating. Beyond devastating. If you think it would somehow be better to be raped by someone who you’ve had consensual sex with, think again. I don’t know what it’s like to be raped by a stranger, and it’s pointless to try to compare them. I just know that being raped by someone I loved, someone who I’d had consensual sex with, turned my reality into chaos. I didn’t feel like my choices were mine anymore, or that I was even capable of making good choices. I didn’t feel like my body was mine anymore, either.
Rape, especially repeated rape like I experienced, encourages a poverty mentality, regardless of actual economic status, because it causes the victim to feel constantly in fear. For her physical safety. For her emotional safety. Rape makes her feel inherently lacking, and in constant danger of losing whatever happiness or strength she manages to gain purchase upon. Society seems to have come to a general consensus now that our thoughts affect our reality. So if someone has developed a poverty mentality in reaction to being raped, can’t you understand how this would affect her actual economic status?
Poverty mentality can be worked through, and overcome. But it’s work. Hard work. And getting past the rape comes first. That’s no easy feat, especially when you do have PTSD as a result.
Addiction and PTSD go hand in hand. I’m not living in active addiction anymore. It doesn’t affect my money directly now. And, honestly, while there were times that my addiction led me to almost or, for a short period, actually become homeless, a lot of my PTSD related addiction occurred while I was in school. Which meant that I had financial aid to help keep my habit and my housing in place. But the decisions I made then, and the actions I took to keep my addiction going, affected my credit, which means that now I have very few choices. Those very few choices have led me to live in a cockroach infested, rundown apartment which hasn’t had the carpets changed, or even cleaned by the owners, in years (probably decades), where the slumlord-owner refuses to do the simple task of adding our name to our electricity account, which means we can’t get the subsidy we should qualify for, and where we constantly have to be armed with bleach in order to battle an onslaught of toxic black mold.
People can sympathize with rape, with abuse, even with mental illness, but for many; drug addiction is where the sympathies short out. I don’t blame you, if you’re one of those people. I used to be too.
But addiction is not a choice. If it were, nobody would make it. Addiction sucks.
As happy as I am to no longer be addicted to drugs, as much as I want to be away from that life, I have to credit it with a few things. My education, and my life itself.
Addiction negatively affected both of those things, in the end, but drugs allowed me to go to class when I would have otherwise been freaking out with flashbacks and anxiety. Drugs allowed me to take a substance and get high instead of killing myself. I don’t advocate drug use as a solution to PTSD. They are not. But there were definitely times, before I found therapy that even began to work, when the ability to take drugs saved my life.
They also cost me thousands upon thousands of dollars and ruined my credit. So even though I can’t really regret something which allowed me to move through a time that may otherwise have killed me, my past addiction certainly still affects my economic status today.
The correlation between mental illness and poverty is real and it is complex. Everyone living this reality has their own unique story; their own reasons. And yes, there is a difference between a reason and an excuse.
I’m fighting. I want out. I don’t want to be poor forever. That little girl who won all the contests, who was assured of her future success, who dreamed of attending Yale..well maybe the chance for Yale is passed, maybe I don’t even want that anymore, but that little girls is still in here somewhere. Deep in hiding from the horror of hurt that this body has experienced. Possibly comatose. But alive. And I plan to revive her.
My life is on hold until this court case is over. Depending on the outcome, it may be on hold forever. I hope not. I hope I make it through, for my family; for me.
Whether I do or I don’t, however, hopefully this thing I’ve written here can at least help you understand the economics of mental illness. Maybe next time you see a homeless guy shaking and asking for charity, maybe you’ll give him a dollar. Maybe you’ll pay the groceries of the woman with the stringy hair who’s digging for her EBT card at the grocery store. Or maybe you’ll just talk, or even just smile at the girl with the sad eyes, who sits on the stoop of some building, skipping school to stare down a future that feels empty.
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Til next time.