Saturday, July 25, 2009

Pocket Review of Totally Freaking Out

So, I read a great book this week called, "Fear and Other Uninvited Guests" by Harriet Lerner, a well-known, Brooklyn-born, Topeka-dwelling psychiatrist. She states that the three uninvited guests that have the most significant impact on the lives of us all are: fear (obviously), anxiety, and shame - a sort of crap triumvirate. I am forced to agree with her. Most of us do, I think, walk around with an ass-ton of anxiety because we live in fear that we will be revealed as talentless charlatans, and thus be shamed in front of all humanity. 

Other than offering the comfort that we all feel these dark emotions on some level, Dr. Lerner posits that giving voice to them is extremely helpful; as the more you internalize your shame and anxiety, the greater the power those emotions have over you. Apparently, the only thing worse than feeling afraid, anxious and ashamed, is feeling afraid, anxious, ashamed and isolated. These words resonated with me (as did the whole book. Lerner has a refreshing and approachable style. Following is one of my favorite passages: "Thumbing through my sixth grade diary, the record of a thoroughly miserable year, I found this quote I had typed and pasted on the page. 'I used to cry because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.' Obviously, this gave me some comfort. But comparing our suffering to that of others offers temporary relief at best. Maybe it helped me on some days to think about footless people, but on other days, I'd think about the girls in my class who had all their body parts plus boyfriends, and I'd feel worse.") So, to that end, let me say that I am aware that there are others who are in the same or much worse boats than I. Still, I am going to over-share, blog-style, in an effort to stunt the tumorous growth of my own shame.

Here's the deal: I am 38 years old, and I have accrued an insane amount of debt in the last 12 years while "pursuing my dream," (which was acting, but is now writing, though I would LOVE to act again) particularly in the last 2 plus years of living in New York. I feel like an utter failure, because it is somewhat easy for me to give myself a break regarding finances if I am engaged in creative pursuits, but much less so if I am supervising a grocery store. I am two months behind on my rent, and when I walked into the lobby of my building three days ago, I noticed that 1A, on the ground floor, had a notice taped to the door from the Marshall's office, reading that the apartment was now in the legal possession of the landlord. This has become my biggest fear, that I will see one of those notices on my door, and that I will be unable to get to and feed my two kittens. Also, one of my credit cards was sent to collections this week. Representatives from the collections agency call literally around the clock (as they are located in India), so I leave my phone on silent most of the time these days. It is very difficult to feel that one is a worthwhile human being when one is constantly harassed by creditors.

Here's how I got into this mess:
I fell and broke my rib and injured my face at the end of November, which meant I was unable to work either my part time job at Trader Joe's, or my freelance, well-paying job as a corporate meeting facilitator for nearly the entire month of December. I had no savings, and while I qualified for compensation for all of my medical bills, I did not qualify to be paid for time missed from work. Did I mention I had no savings (something I am not great at, anyway, and something which is doubly difficult in New York City)? Therefore, I charged many of my living expenses for that month. As of January, it became immediately clear that due to the state of the economy, my freelance work was at an all time low, and that enough jobs would not be coming in to sustain me. I made the choice to pursue a management position with Trader Joe's (one of the few corporations that has not been disastrously affected by the recession), thinking that a regular pay check every two weeks was better than no pay check at all. In the intervening period of three months that it took to make the definitive choice about "going full time," make my desires known to my boss at the store, and then train and succeed in getting promoted, I was making roughly 1/4 of my former income, and I responded by accruing still more debt. The promotion certainly helped, but I am now making around half of what I did when I had my freelance career.

Also, I took two trips (one in December, and one in June) to Los Angeles. One was to meet the baby of two of my dearest friends, and one trip was to attend the wedding of another of my dearest friends. In both cases, I used miles to purchase the plane tickets. In both cases, I had free places to stay. In both cases, because I am so rich in friendship, I was required to spend almost nothing, as everyone wished to take me out to eat. However, attending the wedding in June did necessitate me missing a few days of work for which I was not paid, which contributed to me being behind on my bills.

Here are the actions I have taken thus far to get out of this mess:
I entered "hardship" programs with all of my credit cards, thus negotiating a lower interest rate (in one case, for the life of the loan, in the other cases for one year), and am paying a significantly lower monthly minimum. The catch is that if I miss one payment, I will be removed from the hardship programs, and be required to pay the original minimums plus insane interest, which is why my money has been going to creditors instead of to rent. The one exception to this is the credit card that has recently gone to collections, because they refused to work with me. There are assistance programs available, but only for those with no feet - i.e. no jobs at all. No one cares if you are merely unshod.

Let me be clear that I haven't purchased things on credit like champagne and hookers. What I did purchase were things like a mattress and box spring, a window unit air conditioner, and the services of a green moving company to bring all of my belongings from L.A. Certainly, there were things I bought that I didn't need. However, in my former career, the client I worked for the most, required me to pay for all of my hotel rooms and cabs up front, and be reimbursed later. Sometimes, the timing of the reimbursement was off, and I was unable to pay off my credit card balances. I have no regrets about my former career, as I loved every second of it. I saw the world, which is something I am itching to continue to do (every day, on my way to work, I ride past an old blue sign that has faded, running ink, and reads, "Lady Barrow's Tours to Europe", and I think how badly I want to be her) and most importantly, I forged friendships that I expect to have for life. However, it is amazing how quickly debt accumulates.

I changed my phone plan, and started to utilize the "friends and family" offer, so that it is half as expensive as it was. I cancelled cable (which truly bums me out, as I like to unwind after work by watching a few episodes of "Family Guy" or "Seinfeld").

I am eating cereal everyday for breakfast and PB and J everyday for lunch.

My dear friend, Niambi, was kind enough to give me a bike that had been abandoned at her house by a former tenant. I invested the $300 necessary to get the bike safe and rideable, as well as purchase a helmet and a New York City-strength lock. I am biking to work everyday, which means that I do not have to purchase an unlimited monthly Metro card (a one way ride is now $2.25 - an absurd increase, even in the few years that I've lived here).

I recognized that, much as I wanted to, I would be unable to attend my 20 year high school reunions (one for Gardendale High School, which I attended through my sophomore year, and one for my magnet school, Shades Valley RLC, from which I actually graduated.)

I have given serious thought to moving, and trying to find a roommate. However, I am in my current lease until May of 2010, and I love my ghetto adjacent apartment. I have no idea where I would come up with the first/last and security deposits required to move, let alone all the penalties I would incur for breaking my lease (subletting is not allowed, and as my building manager is a friend, and lives on the first floor, I would not be able to sublet on the sly). Also, according to what's available on Craig's List, I would be saving only around $300 a month, to go from renting a one bedroom apartment, to renting a room in someone else's apartment, which is something, to be sure, but not nearly enough. (I could move to a less safe neighborhood that is much further from work and save money on rent, but then biking would no longer be an option.)

I would save around the same amount, it turns out, by doing something drastic like moving back to Birmingham. This is because rent is not as cheap there as I believed (an apartment in a safe neighborhood is $600-$700 per month, according to The Birmingham News, and my surrogate relatives there), and the expense of purchasing a car, insurance, and gas, pretty much takes care of the $400 per month that I would be saving in rent. Also, I love New York, and want to stay here. I love my boyfriend, and want to stay in my relationship, as it is one of the best things in my life. Finally, living alone contributes directly to my mental health. Ask any native New Yorker, including my boyfriend, and they will label living alone "a luxury." Ask me, and I will label it a necessity. Here's why: I work in retail, serving thousands of customers and hundreds of employees per day. I work a ten-hour shift. I have a minimum of one hour in commute time. If everything goes well, my day is only 13 hours long. If things go wrong, it is 15 plus hours long.

The other action I am taking, now, finally, is putting the word out. I need help. I brainstormed with a friend two days ago, about ideas for making extra cash. As I work around 50 hours a week already, the thought of getting a job on my two off days makes me want to burst into tears, but I did ask a former "joeworker" and friend if she needed help in the bar/restaurant she recently purchased with her husband. I am meeting with them this week. I thought of making bracelets on the same line "as live strong Lance Armstrong" except with fabric, and selling them on Facebook. I thought of writing witty phrases (such as, "I saved Brooke from bankruptcy!") for Pieces of Flair on Facebook, as well, but don't know if there is a way to make them purchasable. I don't have anything that I can sell off, though I have racked my brain.

What do you think? A psychic friend recently told me that I am afraid of my own success, which was news to me, as I thought I was afraid of being evicted and going bankrupt. Does anyone out there have any idea what I would be successful at (other than ending sentences with prepositions)? Does anyone have any money-making ideas, or know of any job opportunities that I could totally have sex with? Is anyone else in this situation? I have never been sent to collections in my life, or until recently even been late on my rent, so I don't know what to do. I have had a few full-blown panic attacks in the last few months, which are also new for me. I am trying to calm down, think positively, and invite more productive guests into my life, so any information would be so greatly appreciated.

Thank you for listening.