Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Connection Between My Mental Health and My Debt

Among a few other mental health conditions that I've been diagnosed with over the years, major depression is something I grapple with on a regular, long-term basis. I can pinpoint the exact month and year it showed up. I was 12. It was February. One day I was happy and stable; the next, I was not. Depression latched on, its grip relentless, and it hasn't let up since.

I knew something was wrong (the suicidal thoughts and obsessive need to plan my own funeral clued me in), but it wasn't until I was 31 years old - a couple of years after my son was born - that I finally saw a therapist and a psychiatrist, got a diagnosis, and figured out how to ride out depressive episodes in a relatively healthy-ish way.

This means that I spent almost 20 years of my life wrestling with mental illness pretty much on my own. If that sounds like a terrible idea, you're right, but I did everything in my power to hide my condition. I chose coping mechanisms that largely masked the chaos in my brain rather than calling attention to it. No drugs, alcohol, or reckless behavior for me: I grew up in a super-conservative household and was too afraid of an unsavory afterlife to engage in anything that risky. 

Instead, my coping mechanisms included the following strategies:
  • Pushing myself to achieve perfection at school. I made A's throughout high school and graduated summa cum laude from college, not because I cared that much about the subject matter (don't ask me to recall anything from Physics II or Differential Equations), but because I just wanted to get everything right.
  • Pushing myself to be the perfect Christian teenager. This went out the window in college, but in high school, my squeaky clean image was everything to me.
  • Sleeping (all the time, especially during bad depressive episodes)
  • Eating (any time I wasn't sleeping)
  • Traveling. A lot. And here's where the debt part comes in...
Traveling has always been one of my favorite things to do, and for various reasons. Before starting therapy, I used travel as a means of escape. Oddly, only when I was completely out of my element in an unfamiliar place did I feel stable, competent, and happy. Thus, I did whatever I could to travel whenever I could. 

As a teenager, I was strategic and savvy about how I organized these escapes. My M.O. was something like this: I would sign up for a church-based missions trip, ask people in my congregation to contribute to said trip, and then head off on what was essentially a fully-funded excursion. (Disclaimer: This now seems awfully sneaky, but I wasn't really aware of why I was doing what I was doing while I was doing it, and I definitely gave my all to the mission of each expedition.) The trips didn't cure me of my mental highs and lows, but they would temporarily bring my emotional rollercoaster to a blessed halt.

Maybe it was the distraction of new surroundings. Maybe it was being away from triggers at home.  Maybe it was the high of not knowing what to expect. 

Whatever the reason, it worked.

By the time I graduated from high school, I'd been to Europe, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, and Venezuela, all on the church's dime. Most of these trips were anything but easy. In Haiti, I encountered poverty the likes of which I've never experienced before or since. In Mexico, on a Habitat for Humanity trip, I got food poisoning and spent the better part of a week huddled in an outhouse. During the first few days of my foreign exchange trip to Jamaica, I wound up trapped in a tiny shack in the Blue Mountains with an elderly couple who didn't speak English and who refused to let me leave (long story; ask me later). While none of these experiences were in any way comfortable, they somehow felt more tolerable than the emotions I lived with when I was home in my safe, suburban American neighborhood.

My mental health didn't improve much after high school, so despite my persistently limited income, I continued to seek escape through (non-budget) travel. Without the generous donations of churchgoers to see me through, I used the magic of credit cards to pay for several trips in the 13-year timespan between graduation and therapy:
  • The romantic getaway to a posh resort in St. Lucia 
  • The month-long hiking trip across the Alps 
  • The tall ship sailing expedition between England and the Canary Islands
  • The babymoon trip to Hawaii
  • The many, many mini-getaways to places within the continental U.S.
  • The cruise to the Bahamas
  • The trip to Europe
  • Wow, this list keeps getting longer...
  • Etc.
When I went back to graduate school, I chose a subject that would allow me to travel frequently. I added Montreal, Montserrat, Brazil, and Italy (twice) to my travel repertoire. During this time, my flight and hotel expenses were largely covered by grants, but these trips inevitably incurred multiple smaller expenses that coalesced as higher and higher balances on my credit card, which I had trouble paying off on a grad student salary.

In short: when I look at my debt, my gut reaction is to think, "I messed up." But on second glance, I see a long history of trying to cope. I see a survival strategy. That's why I am not shaming myself for any of this. I mean, I survived two decades of depression with no help. As long as that's the bottom line, does it matter what that entails? In debt or dead: I'll take the former.

I still struggle with depression. Some days are better than others, but although I have better coping mechanisms now, and great friends, and a supportive family, and manageable goals, and a blog that stokes my creativity, some days are still excruciating. I just do my best. I try to keep my credit card far, far away from Expedia and TripAdvisor.

If you're living with a mental illness, and if that illness is reflected in the way you spend money or the balance on your credit card, I just want to say that I get it. You did the best you could, given that you're living with a condition that is brutal, isolating, and relentless. You're doing it (or did it) so that you survive, and I give you massive, massive props for that.

And if, like me, you've made it out of the abyss with a boatload of debt, just know that there's still time to sort it out. The main thing is that you're here! Awesome, unmatchable you! Yes, money is important. Yes, saving is important. Yes, reducing debt is important. But you are more important. 

There is nothing more important than your life.

27 comments:

  1. This needs to be on Rock Star Finance. Well said! I absolutely love your blog by the way. Please don't stop writing :)

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    1. Wow! What a wonderful compliment. <3 I've always enjoyed writing, but I stopped doing it about 10 years ago because my perfectionism stood in my way. This blog has reignited my passion for words.

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  2. Thanks for writing this. I also cope with depression and anxiety -- mostly fairly well -- and the travel thing makes sense to me. I've never done that, but I have noticed that what helps when I'm in a bad spot is usually changing my perspective, aka getting out of the house. The last few years I've done a lot of volunteering, partly because of that. I tend to get caught up in mental loops and spirals and seeing/working with other people is a big part of breaking out of that for me. So it makes sense to me that travel would do the same kind of thing for you --it's not *just* running away. (Of course, excellent if you can break out of the loops without using a credit card!)

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    1. I really, really appreciate your comment, cr. Great insights re: travel. I think you're right: part of it is about changing my perspective and getting out of my own head. Traveling is a wonderful way to do that.

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  3. Oh, sorry, that's C@thesingledollar -- my blogger profile is kind of screwed up.

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  4. I am so glad you accepted that you can't deal with your mental health on your own and got help. As someone who waited way too long herself to accept the fact that she couldn't continue fighting alone, that step is so important. I LOVE how much grace you're giving yourself too for having racked up that debt-as-coping-mechanism. Debt sucks, but you're right, you being here is so much more important than you not having debt!

    Traveling was/has never been a coping mechanism for me, mostly because I just straight-up can't afford it. But the most immediate plan I have for FI includes lots of travel, and this post makes me wonder if part of my love of travel does stem from a "let me get out of my usual life, which includes lots of depression and anxiety" place. Not all of it for sure-I love travel for learning and seeing and experiencing new things-but maybe part of it does stem from that. It's interesting to think about.

    Thank you, too, for writing this piece. It took me months to decide I was going to talk about it myself, and I'm all for more people talking about their mental health struggles. :)

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    1. Thank you so much, Erin. <3 I really appreciate that you shared your own struggles, and I'm so glad you found support, too. So many people grapple with anxiety and depression. I agree that we need to talk about it more and work to normalize it.

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  5. Oooff I can really relate to the travel escapism. Like you, I spent much of the last seven or eight years traveling the world - somehow, it was the only time I ever felt quite right. Travel definitely put my problems, fears, anxieties into perspective and gave them less power in my life.

    I am so glad you are getting help. That is something I need to work on prioritizing and one of my 2018 goals is to get back into therapy. Thanks for being so vulnerable and sharing this important post.

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    1. Thank you so much, Kate! I really need to get back into therapy, too. It's so beneficial to have a nonjudgmental space in which to vent and reflect.

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  6. "Traveling has always been one of my favorite things to do, and for various reasons. Before starting therapy, I used travel as a means of escape. Oddly, only when I was completely out of my element in an unfamiliar place did I feel stable, competent, and happy. Thus, I did whatever I could to travel whenever I could. "

    This.

    My situation wasn't exactly the same, but it's definitely a way to cope! I'm glad you're able to look back on that debt with perspective rather than tearing yourself up about it. And seeing the world isn't such a bad way to end up in that situation--I've seen way more unhealthy coping mechanisms!

    So glad you found the help you needed to find a little more peace. That in and of itself takes bravery and courage--and I'm assuming at least a little bit of money. :p

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    1. You are so right. It's hard to regret any of the trips I've taken, especially abroad, because they were so formative for me. In that sense, the travel was worth every penny.

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  7. "The main thing is that you're here! Awesome, unmatchable you! Yes, money is important. Yes, saving is important. Yes, reducing debt is important. But you are more important."

    Beautiful, 76k. I think regardless of situation, this needs to be said more!

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    1. Thank you so much for your support, Mrs. AR!

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  8. Awesome post. Thanks for sharing your vulnerability and honesty. That takes courage. It will undoubtedly help others. The more I live the more I realize everything comes back to psychology.

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    1. I really appreciate that, Wealthy Doc. And it's so true... Debt tells a story. It's not just about the money.

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  9. Wow....thank you....just...thank you.

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    1. You are so welcome! And feel free to reach out if you ever need a sounding board.

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  10. Beginning to read this, it was as though I was looking in a mirror. I've been through very similar experiences both related to mental health and money. Fortunately I've been able to experience mental relief and (mostly) normalcy from the help of professionals and a wonderful spouse (and kids). All I can say is thank you for posting such inspiring and personal experiences and thoughts. Glad I saw you on Rockstar Finance. Well deserved.

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    1. Thank you! <3 I feel like this is a conversation that needs to happen more often - the connection between mental health and financial stability. I am so glad that you have experienced mental relief and that you have such a wonderful support system.

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  11. Thanks for your honesty! What a refreshing read. I got sober 8 years ago and spend the last 4 digging my way out of debt. I have a lot of peace of mind with financial peace but the harder thing has been just learning to love myself. You are inspiring.

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    1. Thank you so much! Kudos on your journey. Getting sober and getting out of debt are incredible achievements, and you should be very proud of that.

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  12. Wow, this post is really powerful! Keep up the good work

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    1. Thank you so much, Peerless Money Mentor! I appreciate that.

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  13. "I still struggle with depression. Some days are better than others, but although I have better coping mechanisms now, and great friends, and a supportive family, and manageable goals, and a blog that stokes my creativity, some days are still excruciating. I just do my best. I try to keep my credit card far, far away from Expedia and TripAdvisor."

    If you're really finding it difficult to stop using your credit card, you might consider freezing it in some water in a tupperware container. This is a great way to keep your card and have access when you really need it but since it will take a couple hours to thaw out, it's a great safeguard against impulse purchases.

    Great blog, I'm looking forward to following your progress!

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    1. I think my family would take enormous enjoyment in seeing me try to bash my credit card out of a block of ice! LOL. Luckily, we have the credit cards under control - a huge win over this past year or so.

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  14. I adore your blog, and I'm SOOOOO happy you got featured on Rock Star Finance. Hugs!!!!

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  15. What a great post. It flowed so well! Oh, mental illness... and how we cope because how is one to know?

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