In November of 2007, I returned to the workforce after staying home with my three kids for ten years. My youngest child was in Kindergarten, and I needed something beyond the mommy and household stuff. I also wanted to start contributing financially. We had decided to sacrifice lots of things, especially money and the “extras” it can buy, so I could be home with our kids. It was extremely important to us. Two weeks after I returned to work, my husband’s tumor was discovered. In addition to the toll on my husband’s health and the incredible stress it placed on the family emotionally, it began to destroy any hopes we had of financial freedom. Over the past almost 7 years, any hope of financial freedom is gone, and has been replaced with the dream of just being able to be comfortable every month. By comfortable, I mean that the mortgage and monthly bills are paid, we have enough food on the table, and perhaps we can do a few fun things during the month. Our hopes of providing college educations to our children, or going on great vacations, or giving our daughters big, beautiful weddings are gone. I don’t know if I will ever be able to retire.
We are in survival mode and have been every single month since my husband stopped working in October of 2009. It’s a way of life for us. It is possibly the absolute most stressful part of my life. It’s like constantly dangling from a noose, trying to hold yourself up so you don’t suffocate. In addition to raising three kids, managing a household, and dealing with an ill husband, I work to try to make ends meet. Medical retirement and disability payments barely cover the mortgage and food. There have been times we considered shopping at the food bank. We get energy assistance so our electricity doesn’t get shut off in the winter. Our kids qualify for free or reduced lunch. We didn’t pay our mortgage for 6 months, and still could barely make it. We get free stuff for our household from the dump. When we have a little extra, we do something fun so our kids don’t have to miss out all the time. We do our best to give them things, and as a result we sacrifice what we want, or live with that much more stress. They only get one childhood, and I refuse to make them feel “poor,” or let them feel as if they are missing out.
My husband and I have both worked since we were about 12 years old. We both have a good work ethic, and we do what we need to do to provide for our family. We always paid our bills, and were responsible with our money. Then the illness took it all away. I have sat around dinner tables where people talked about how “irresponsible” people are who “live beyond their means” or don’t “keep up with their mortgage.” They criticize people who need help with mortgage programs, or who “live off the government.” Comments are made by people who have no idea what it’s like to be in that situation. People judge with no regard to the facts. They judge people who would do anything to be healthy and provide for their family. Living this way isn’t laziness or irresponsibility.
We commonly hear comments from friends or family members who complain about how they struggle or how upset they are over some financial stress they are having. These same people are hiring people to clean their houses, or are taking their kids out to eat or to some fun event several times a week. They are planning multiple vacations every year, and buying new cars. I even had one person tell me they were a little upset that they are now making so much money that they are in a new tax bracket and no longer qualify for the child tax credit. Their tax refund was going to be less this year. I sat there like an asshole and gave sympathy, when what I really wanted to say was that I would literally give one of my arms to be in the next tax bracket, rather than struggling every damn day of my life. I had just told her that we qualified for a new child tax credit because we are low income. These same people know how hard it is for us. Sort of.
There is a shame that goes along with the way we are living. I don’t know why. Shame implies that we have done something wrong. We haven’t. We’ve tried to do everything right for ourselves and for our children. I never, ever share our true financial story with anyone. We pretend it isn’t as bad as it is. People have some idea, but they don’t know what it’s really like. It’s exhausting and hopeless and depressing and frustrating. The stress leaves me teetering at the edge sometimes. Yet, somehow, we always make it through. We are lucky to have some family and friends who have been Godsends at times. There are times we wouldn’t have made it without them. The struggle is never ending, and sometimes people get tired of helping. We don’t know if we will ever be able to repay people for what they’ve done to help us. There is no end in sight to the struggle. We try to pay it forward and help other people when we can.
People talk openly about the physical, emotional and psychological effects of chronic illness on themselves and their families. But when it comes to money, people keep it to themselves. Yet, I suspect it’s one of the most detrimental aspects of living with chronic illness for everyone involved. It is by far the most stressful part of my life and affects my mood, stress level, health and outlook on life every single day. The nonchalant comments from other people make it even worse. I don’t know what the solution is, but putting it out there without shame is a good start.