I am the oldest of seven kids. We were raised in middle class by strict Catholic parents. We always had enough of what we needed. When I was in sixth grade I had a crush on a cute guy from my church. Five years later we dated and were soon engaged. He was drafted and went to Viet Nam. Two months after he returned,I married him. I was nineteen. His employer had transferred him to a new city shortly before the wedding, so I dropped out of college and began married life away from family and friends.
I went back to school off and on, part time, evenings, and studied computer programming. During that time I worked full time in an office, then as a prison guard. I took off a year when my first son was born. Back in school, I took him to some classes and worked as a cocktail waitress at night. My second son was born two years after his brother. When the baby was four weeks old I went back to work as a bartender.
The boys accompanied me to the computer lab some evenings that I didn’t have to work. While the younger one ran the halls in his walker, his three-year-old brother copied computer programming cards for me on the keypunch machine. He liked the eighty-character lines of nothing but asterisk because it sounded like a machine gun! It didn’t take long before I changed my major to accounting. I graduated when I was thirty-six years old. The boys were six and eight. They were proud of their mom as they stood with my parents and my best friend. I wasn’t proud at all. I was just glad to be finished. And I had no job prospects.
I worked in the accounting department of a savings and loan that went under. After a few months at an unacceptable job I did bookkeeping for a different financial institution an hour from home. During that job I was divorced. Wanting to be closer to home I took another disastrous job that lasted three months. The depression that had haunted me since childhood became harder to control.
Unemployment and a series of short-term jobs followed. As the depression worsened, so did my income. I “donated” plasma, pawned jewelry, and did whatever I could legally do to stay afloat. I refinanced the house to get my ex-husband’s name off the original mortgage. It turned out to be one of those shady deals, and I could not keep up by working ten hours a week at a discount chain store.
The boys were in college. The furnace and water heater had died two years earlier. The phone was disconnected about that time, too. After three months without electricity and water, my dad and sister dropped in to check on me.They were shocked. I was so ashamed. They helped me find a way to get water and lights back on, but the mortgage was already in foreclosure. A few months later I found myself living in a room at the Y with my prized possessions in a storage unit miles away. I hit rock bottom.
Some dear new friends at the Y took me under their wings and taught me the ropes. On certain days we would visit food pantries. We would share our food and cook meals together. Stone soup every night! The soup kitchen became a welcome sight. I cried the first time I ate there. The volunteers were so kind and understanding. They told me not to be ashamed because hard times can happen to anyone. And they always had a genuine smile.
The Y ladies told me where to go for free medical help, how to get money for emergencies, and lots of other information not usually known to the middle class from which I had fallen. They encouraged me to get help at a mental health clinic. I went, and the meds kept increasing. They got me into a transitional housing program. A tiny apartment, just five hundred square feet.Utility assistance was also available.
A month after I got my key, the next-door neighbor fell asleep with ground beef frying on the stove. I thought it odd that I smelled someone grilling out on their patio in April. Then smoke rolled into my kitchen. I went in, woke him up, and got him outside. Then I used my fire extinguisher to put out the fire. It caused $18,000 damage to his apartment, but it did not spread to the other three units in the building. The fire inspector told me my neighbor had only about five minutes left before he would have died from smoke inhalation. Now I have asthma and I’m prone to bronchitis and pneumonia.
Meanwhile, more meds were prescribed and my depression stayed. Over a year passed before I could get food stamps and Medicaid. More meds. It was nearly impossible to concentrate. I didn’t know what day it was, or even if it was day or night.
I was denied disability. The fourth level hearing judge agreed that I have multiple disabling conditions, but that I should be able to do work such a slight janitorial (with chemicals that cause asthma attacks), or light assembly. I might last one day before it would drive me nuts. I was afraid I’d “go postal”in such a job!
I decided that being an unemployed zombie was not much of a life. Despite the bipolar II diagnosis, I told my mental health providers that I wanted to wean off all the psych meds under their supervision. I tried it cold turkey years earlier with horrible results. They agreed. About a year later I was med-free.was beginning to have a life again.
A good friend invited me to volunteer at a TEAMwork poverty simulation.I loved it. I’ve done dozens since then. It opened the door for me to become involved with that organization. That was about six years ago. I volunteered in their office and worked part-time for a while.
Another volunteer experience led to another part-time job at another organization. I worked both for a while. When the first job ended, I volunteered for a year at yet another organization. I am now employed there full time.
It is wonderful to have a full time job. However, there is no retirement, no insurance benefit. I earn too much to have Medicaid or food stamps. If I need to go to the Emergency Room for an asthma attack, well, I just can’t afford it. Yes, it could be fatal, but I just have to pray instead. I had pneumonia four months ago. I didn’t miss any work. I found a doctor who gave me samples to get me through. Since then I’ve had numerous asthma attacks. I keep looking and praying that a better job will come along.
Job profile testing says that clerical work is the least satisfying for me. My ideal job would include working independently, networking, being creative,writing, speaking, teaching, helping others, and having intellectual challenges with tangible results.
I became a Circle leader four years ago. My allies are all intelligent, caring professionals. One is a retired business owner. The other three are professors;two of them are retired. For three years they supported me in the Circle and challenged me to look forward and keep a positive outlook. We stopped our monthly meetings over a year ago, but we remain friends. I am so much better off now. Their coaching is finally beginning to sink in!
So I’m a square peg in a round hole. I feed my soul with creative outlets outside the office. I’d love to find that dream job, or at least one where I can use my special talents and skills and be appreciated. The reality is that I’m lucky, with my age and track record, to have any job at all.
It’s a struggle to make ends meet, but I have learned to find value in myself that is not measured by a paycheck. I’m learning new ways to overcome the hurdles and keep despair at bay. I know there are others who understand my situation and cheer me. When that new job comes along, I’ll be much better prepared, more confident, and thankful that I’ve made dozens of true friends along this journey.
— As told to Jiawan Li
Ball State University
This story originally appeared in Facing Poverty, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by TEAMwork for Quality Living in Muncie, Indiana.