“Ineed to splurge on a new pair of work shoes soon,” my husband has been saying for the last three months, if not longer.
His choice of words tells you everything you need to know about our financial situation. His current pair of shoes is worn out; he hasn’t got another. In his job, he’s on his feet all day and he also walks a lot as we no longer have a car.
Thankfully, Seattle’s mass transit system is cheap.
And yet, there’s seldom enough money left after paying rent to buy food and renew my husband’s monthly bus pass.
So he walks around with one-dollar bills and a pocketful of quarters, paying for each ride individually to spread costs, even if that increases his monthly transport spend by about a third.
This is inevitable; a bus pass isn’t edible.
Meanwhile, I seldom go out, but when I do I remain within a five-mile radius of home, wherever I can walk to.
Because major depressive disorder is so incapacitating it has stolen my writing voice, my livelihood, thus forcing my household into perilous hardship.
Once or twice a month — to haul groceries, disposable paper products, and cat litter — we use an app-based car-sharing service.
In 30-minute chunks, we buy into American normalcy with a safe ride we’d never have signed up for if we had a choice as it is prohibitively expensive. In a country where excess is the default and everything is supersize, capitalism does well out of folks of lesser means like us. We cannot invest upfront so we pay as we go, which always ends up costing more. If you’ve ever bought a single roll of kitchen paper rather than a multipack, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
When I wonder out loud how we even passed the car-sharing credit check, my husband candidly speculates their standards must be quite low. We make tight bookings and hope not to get stuck in traffic jams or checkout lines. Although we rush, it happens and what savings we accrued by shopping at discount outlets evaporate. Goodbye to the cheerful prospect of a rare outing like a cup of coffee and a piece of cake to share at the local bakery.
Instead, grocery shopping becomes the outing, an occasion replete with anticipation infusing the mundane with a sense of quest, excitement, and fun. When items that once were staples become luxuries, scoring those at a discount is cause for celebration. Hurray for soap without questionable chemicals, razors that don’t shave off a layer of skin, and tiny lumpy avocados the size of eggs!
A full fridge is another victory against the budget blues, the promise of two weeks of meals if groceries stretch that far.
In a pinch, short-grain brown rice drizzled with olive oil and topped with sea salt works, as does mustard on toast.
Ours is a plant-based kitchen — where compassion for animals, reduced circumstances, and the fear of medical bills meet. Alas, plant magic does have its limitations. My husband needs glasses despite our enthusiastic carrot consumption, and a tooth threatens to leave me unless I look after it even though my dental hygiene routine is exemplary and somewhat obsessive. After root canal re-treatment surgery and antibiotics, the tooth is crowned with a doppelgänger made of porcelain and co-pay induced panic attacks.
If our bank account had a face, all color would have drained from it the minute I first sat down in the dentist’s chair and opened my mouth.
Save for the immigration doctor — a wizened man who, upon reading my blood tests results, boomed to my husband with a conspiratorial wink that I didn’t have syphilis — the dentist and the dental surgeon are the only medical professionals I see during my first three years in America.
For three self-contained years, I wrestle with depression on my own so as not to generate more bills, for fear they’ll drift into collection.
Further, my husband has been keeping the medical establishment at arm’s length since shattering his ankle in 2012. At the time of writing, some surgery bills still remain unpaid.
Because this is America, where health care is a privilege reserved those who can purchase it rather than a basic human right. Coverage is mandatory, partly subsidized by employers, but access to care is dependent on being able to afford co-pays. In our case, we’re paying for something we can seldom use.
In 2013, legal and government immigration fees call for extreme financial juggling.
We put off paying some household bills to write large checks to the lawyer and the government so my husband and I can have a new life together. As a result, we receive our first eviction notice followed by silence, stopped clocks, and darkness a few days later. When I open the front door, a note from the power company falls at my feet, informing me that power has been cut off for non-payment.
So we take out a loan against my husband’s already shrinking modest 401K, pay off some creditors, and move into the city so I can bus to work as I don’t yet drive.
Depression says no.
No to the coveted comforts of a double-income-no-kids household.
No to furnishing the second bedroom now that we finally have one.
No to partaking in city life, and — much to my husband’s chagrin — no to saving up for a home of our own, or indeed anything else.
I’m starting to feel like a bad investment, one of those that offer zero return and have the potential to ruin you.
When my guardian angel of over twenty years is diagnosed with a rare form of incurable cancer in 2014, we sell off the only asset we have — my husband’s car — so I can fly back to London and hug him. Anthony isn’t blood, but he’s family.
The rest of the money goes toward clearing debt, our bank account stops blushing, we’re hopeful again. On my birthday that year, my husband surprises me with three days north of the border, funding this budget-conscious Canadian escapade with plastic in a bid to rebuild his credit. Although we’re frugal, this turns out to be a stressful trip as my brain can’t comprehend how we can be spending money we don’t have.
When my oldest friend — whom I’ve known since high school — finds herself in the throes of a family crisis, her chronic illness flaring up, I fly to the Midwest to be with her for a few days. Lin is not blood either, but she’s also family.
My being there for the two people in the world who’ve always had my back is never questioned, and I return home to a bunch of fresh flowers on the kitchen counter.
And yet, with depression as the handler dictating how I must feel, behave, and think, I immediately revert back to full reclusive mode. Caring for others on someone else’s dime does not make me a good person. It makes me a reckless, selfish one who has no qualms in sacrificing that which she neither owns nor earned.
I’m lucky to have married a good man but I’m pawning our marriage.
Aweek before Christmas 2014, my husband’s feline life-partner of twenty-one years gets sick, sicker.
For one night, he paces and vocalizes relentlessly before falling silent, refusing to eat, move, or drink. We make him a little burrow under the bathroom sink with a pillow wrapped in dog training pads, his favorite cardigan of mine, bath towels, a hot water bottle, and blankets.
After two days checking for the almost imperceptible rise and fall of a skeletal rib cage, after two nights cradling the diminutive shape, petting gray fur gone silver with age, and yearning for one more trademark motorboat purr, a loud raspy meow breaks the silence as the cat struggles for air, and dies.
In pain for lack of a vet visit.
My husband looks like he might never stop sobbing and I feel like a killer. Even though Buddy didn’t die by my own hand, his traumatic demise is a direct result of depression torpedoing our finances.
Peak self-loathing looks like a dead cat in the cardboard box I deposit onto the vet’s slab. As he whispers one last goodbye to Buddy, my husband searches the cat’s open eyes for an unlikely sign of life. I swallow the tears I have no right to shed, rigid with guilt and fear.
Were it not for my inability to support myself financially, Buddy would have had the comfortable and dignified death he so rightly deserved.
We funnel everything we have into a private cremation for our beloved feline companion, ignore Christmas, and sign up our other cat — then a three-year old rescue tabby — for pet insurance.
Meanwhile, I hastily plug the growing hole in my résumé with some creative editing, and apply for a content writing position with an online retailer. Quizzed about why I suddenly seem so eager to jettison journalism, I stumble and improvise an answer, mumbling something about transferable skills and professing a newfound faith in consumerism so at odds with my public media background it reeks of desperation.
“Ha! Everyone needs a job, don’t they?” the interviewer interjects with barefaced disdain.
Her callousness shocks me and I briefly wonder what it feels like to humiliate people for a living. I later find out that she was what’s known in the industry as a “bar raiser.” And of course she’s not buying a single word I’m saying.
An hour of skewering scrutiny later — bathed in stress sweat so pungent even the cat has left the room — I realize that neither am I. Even after a round of editorial tests sparks off fireworks in my brain, the phony feeling won’t wear off. Instead, it grows, unassuaged by a second telephone interview or the editorial validation it delivers, the tiniest of cracks in depression’s fortress of self-loathing.
I realize that I may not be as unemployable as depression would have me believe — illness can never take away my education, skills, or international experience. This is an epiphany, one I’m still processing right now because depression likes to keep you down and docile with lies. It doesn’t take kindly to sudden insight contradicting its propaganda.
I resolve to be open about depression. But only if prompted. If not, I see little point in outing myself. My resolve is a hope-filled soufflé that soon collapses with a sigh.
Owning the red flag my mental health might wave in front of an employer’s eyes is pointless if I’m prepared to keep this flag stuffed into my pocket until someone questions me. Which, let’s face it, they’re unlikely to do as there are rules that prevent employers from asking applicants about their medical history.
Although I know exactly what I need to do, I’m not ready for it yet.
Unexpectedly, the bank gifts our joint account the same overdraft facility as my husband’s account.
He cheers; I blanch. Twice the overdraft, twice the charges and fees, twice as big a hole in our finances growing twice as fast, a hole big enough for two. Only it isn’t. The internet still gets cut off every other month. Minimum payments on credit cards don’t always happen. Soon, both cards get canceled and go into collection. Payment arrangements with the phone company become routine.
When — after fourteen months of not reading the meter and undercharging us — Seattle City Light sends a bill for $1,000, our very own one-way ticket to the point of financial no return has finally arrived.
As the elastic on our overdrafts sags, our modesty starts showing, and the only way to bankroll the present is to rob the future.
My husband files for an emergency withdrawal from his 401K, which is promptly denied. The retirement investment company only allows us to withdraw just enough to cover one dental bill, scuppering our hopes of getting back to zero.
Because, unlike impending eviction or medical bills, a dried-up cash flow is not considered an emergency.
I pat the red flag tucked into my pocket, wishing it were paper, silver or copper. Or at the very least something I could fashion into wearable garments because we’ll soon be left without a stitch to wear. The obvious answer is to write about it but as long as I refuse to publicly acknowledge my mental health struggles, my voice continues to elude me.
Having noticed our growing distress, the bank rescinds the overdraft facility on our joint account without a word.
After several false starts, losing five years to depression, moving out of the city, and getting an old secondhand car that gives us our independence back, the words return in summer 2018, prompted by Anthony Bourdain’s death.
In the absence of therapy, I finally understand that I’m the one in charge of saving my own life, which means I’ll have to go it alone and write my way out of this mess, somehow.
Maybe because I’m an immigrant to America and I’m not afraid of hard work, I wholeheartedly believe it is still possible.
Even through the darkest of times, dreams endure and show us the way forward.
And so does love.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.