I Need to Do Everything in My Power Not to Be Poor

I’m in the computer lab of my hometown library, the Ventura County library, facing the restroom doors. My stepdad threatened to kill my family two days ago and is currently locked away in a hospital. Before he was carted away, he dumped water on the family computer and smashed everyone’s phones.

I came to the library almost reflexively, even though I haven’t been back here since the day of my eighth grade graduation, the year my family was homeless. We spent that time learning what public spaces had free restrooms no one would question you bathing in. The library’s was the closest to my middle school, and so it’s where my mom took me to freshen up that afternoon, laughing as water splashed down the front of my pants as if we were on some fun adventure.

To be fair, we technically had a house then. My mom and stepdad bought a property with three units in a poor neighborhood. The idea was for my stepdad, a contractor, to fix up the units and then rent them for more money than probably anyone would be willing to pay in that part of town. This was their “get rich quick” scheme of the week. (Prior to that, their dream life involved living like gypsies on the beach, but my two younger siblings and I were not too keen on sleeping in the dirt while my stepdad passed out drunk on a mattress in the bed of his pickup truck. And prior to that, they hoped I would become a famous child actor, only to become very disappointed in and disgusted by me when a casting agent told my mom I didn’t smile enough and wasn’t thin anyway.) 

My stepdad gutted the inside of the front unit until it was just a shell. My parents moved their truck bed mattress inside while my siblings and I still slept on the floor. We had no running water, no electricity, and no walls. When we had to use the toilet, my siblings and I went to the meat market down the street while my stepdad urinated all over the fence and pooped in a bucket he would later toss in a neighbor’s trash bin. When a quick splash in a sink wasn’t enough to clean up, we went to the YMCA. When my siblings and I had to do homework or otherwise get some space, we sat at rickety desks we found in the units’ backyard, a literal landfill.

My family claimed bankruptcy that year and the property was taken by the bank; my stepdad was too drunk and abusing too many painkillers to fix up anything.

My parents then bought a yacht through some sort of complicated loan application lie, I presume. We moved into another house that would also eventually get taken by the bank after I left for college (and after my stepdad had torn up the walls and floors during meth-induced rages). My mom bought a Lexus and a Mercedes during those times, both of which were also repo’d.

I’m sure there are countless profound life lessons I could take away from my upbringing. However, this is the only one that sticks: I need to do everything in my power to not be poor.

Yes, my family is one big mentally ill ball of dysfunction, and yes, I should probably be more focused on how I can help my (now three) younger siblings survive the financial and emotional mess my mom and stepdad have created through their sociopathic disregard for other human beings.

But all I can think is: How do I make sure I don’t wind up in debt like my mom–ever? The answer is seemingly simple: Don’t finance someone’s addictions, don’t ignore your problems by buying into a lifestyle you can’t afford, and don’t think you can outrun your debts.

If I’m being honest though, I don’t just want to scrape by; I want to live comfortably always and I don’t ever want to feel bad about that desire. I believe I deserve a nice life. I don’t want to think about how that sounds like something my mom might say.

I live in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the country. I don’t want to move away from it, which is fine because right now, I can afford it. But when I consider possible scenarios in which my seven-year-old sister might wind up living in my apartment, my first concern is how that will ruin my life.

How will I be able to keep up with after-work happy hours and simultaneously pay for her to join a gymnastics team so she doesn’t feel totally uprooted from her current, “normal” life? I’m also unsure as to how often you have to buy growing children new clothing, and if that is my responsibility or something another financially independent sibling should offer to cover? Do I have to buy special food for her, or can I force her to eat whatever’s in my fridge like I often do myself? Perhaps most pressingly, what am I to do about all my therapy bills and the electric shock treatment I sometimes secretly fantasize about having so I can just forget everything altogether instead of accidentally sobbing uncontrollably in library parking lots?

I don’t know the cost of any of this, and I don’t think that I’m the person who should have to figure it out. I’m already the one who has to call the mental hospital where my stepdad is currently 5150′d to, against my mom’s wishes, beg them to keep him forever because I’m afraid he’s going to finally murder us all. I think if I have to make that phone call, someone else should do the math on the rest of it.

 

Rebecca Pederson is an editor at Yelp. Her Aunt Leslie loves her blog.

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43 Comments / Post A Comment

DickensianCat (#971)

Wow. Thank you for sharing this with us.

youwillgeteaten (#2,959)

I’ve been reading the billfold for a while but this is the first post on it i related to.

youwillgeteaten (#2,959)

@youwillgeteaten oh and a real comment i guess: YMCA/YWCA memberships can be applied for on a sliding scale, gymnastics classes usually cost extra but at least your sis could splash around in the swimming pool on weekends. If you become your sister’s legal guardian you’re probably elligble for some type of food assistance, but if she’s just staying with you for a while you might be stuck with Kickstarter. Domestic violence hotlines can give you recommendations for resources. I recommend getting a new phone number and and not telling your parents.

Good luck.

Stina (#686)

@youwillgeteaten Adding on to what you said… If she becomes her sister’s guardian she and the child might be eligible for Medicaid benefits if she earns under a certain amount.

But good luck to the author and her siblings.

@youwillgeteaten Kickstarter won’t allow charity or personal expense campaigns. For that, you need IndieGoGo.

@youwillgeteaten I don’t read bill fold but this touched me too

minijen (#656)

This is brave, tragic and hopeful. Thank you.

RocketSurgeon (#747)

Thank you for sharing this. I sincerely hope that you and your siblings get the comfortable life you dream of and more. Also, your experiences remind me of Jeannette Walls’ in “The Glass Castle”. If you’ve never read it, and are interested in reading about someone else’s perhaps similar upbringing, I highly recommend it.

Trilby (#191)

That’s a tough way to grow up but it sounds like you’re on the right track at least. For a seven year old, you buy new clothes as they outgrow, or ruin, what they have. They don’t need special food (Child Chow?) but often have very strong likes/dislikes. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that!

Morbo (#1,236)

Well this puts “Things To Think About Before Pursuing Grad School” into perspective.

This was well-written, and a good summation on what drives a lot of people in this country.

Srslythough (#2,483)

If you do need to take in your sister, do it through the proper channels- your county’s child services department and the court system (your sister would become a ward of the state of California). Then you’ll be a relative caregiver, and you will be paid (depending on your county, it’s probably around $1,000 a month) to take care of her, given a clothing allowance, and she will get Medi-cal. I’m a foster care social worker in LA County, but the entire state should be somewhat similar.

thebeams (#2,966)

@Srslythough This is very good advice!

Rebecca – if things come to that I’m sure that it’ll be hard to get used at first but eventually find a balance where you can enjoy you life as you do now and still provide for your sister. I hope everything works out for you!

Benny Profane (#2,963)

I don’t get it. How could you possibly have made it into and through “college” (full scholarship? amazing student debt?) and to SF, which is, I agree, the most expensive place to live in the west, and even consider after work “happy hours”, after such a dysfunctional life. Are we maybe exaggerating a……..bit, young lady?

@Benny Profane Is this serious?!

melis (#42)

@polka dots vs stripes It looks like this is the only comment this person has ever made on the Billfold. Have to wonder who’s behind it.

sox (#246)

@Benny Profane
Right?! She makes it sound like she goes to happy hour all the time but I bet really she hardly ever goes and seriously? “Happy” is probably not even a thing in her vocabulary except when she’s sobbing in her sliding scale therapist’s office asking why she can never, ever ever have it.

Or maybe your worldview could use some expansion?

BadUncle (#449)

@Benny Profane I don’t get it. How could you possibly have made it into and through “college”

How do you fuck anything but your hand with that kind of “personality?”

mochi (#585)

@Benny Profane Wonder what kind of sheltered life someone must lead for this post to seem far fetched. Look out your window. :/.

mochi (#585)

@melis someone who addresses strangers as “young lady”. our first clue.

flammable (#2,976)

@Benny Profane If you read her bio, it appears as though she is an editor for Yelp – thus these Happy Hours are likely a mostly-mandatory part of her job in keeping up with the current happenings of the city and being a face for the company.

KPeeps (#1,140)

@polka dots vs stripes There’s always one commentor that has to distrust everything as if a 500 word blog post would have every single detail of her life. I’m sure a lot happened we don’t need to know about in order to understand her story.

tiptoemammal (#152)

@Benny Profane Not only is your comment poorly written and riddled with improper punctuation, and not only is your tone presumptuous and condescending, and not only is your logic invalid and your argument weak, but also you are just completely incorrect and obviously speaking outside of your depth. If you’d had a childhood anything like the one described here, you’d know that we are the people who care the MOST about our education and career ambitions. We are the people sitting in the front of the classroom furiously taking notes and caring about every grade. We are driven by a special kind of fire. This is because of the reason explained by the very title of this piece (so you also get an F for reading comprehension): we are determined (moreso than others who’ve never experienced it)not to be poor. After living a life of misery based on other people’s terrible life choices, you make sure to NEVER be dependent on anyone else’s life choices again. Granted, this is typically true only of people who manage to escape early childhood with a modicum of self-efficacy, and many don’t. But many, many of us do, and we demonstrate resilience like no other. Take a class on Risk and Resilience if you truly want to understand more about how/why this happens. And drop that “young lady” crap, please. It’s just awful.

eveo (#600)

That’s my girl.

BadUncle (#449)

While a powerful and sad story, it’s inspiring that Ms. Pederson endures. It’s always amazing when people outlast their crazy families. A close friend should have never survived growing up with a bipolar father with dangerous, get-rich-quick-schemes-of-the-week and without the attention span to buy groceries or pay the heating bill. He went onto Cornell and a masters and a great career. So I’m sure the smart and agile learn from their parents’ mistakes.

leafyseadragon (#2,974)

@BadUncle you probably didn’t mean this comment to be harsh, but i found it to be so. coming from a similar background i have not pulled myself up (in a lasting fashion), i’m struggling to be. HARD. am i dumb and clumsy?

@leafyseadragon You are not dumb and clumsy. Pulling yourself up from a dysfunctional childhood is extremely difficult. You said you’re struggling, but that’s a good thing because it means you’re trying. Fighting to climb out of it rather than blindly accepting it shows me that you are indeed smart.

BadUncle (#449)

@leafyseadragon I’m sorry you read that into my comment. I don’t know you, and my comments weren’t focused on anyone but the author. FWIW, I don’t live in a binary world where if one is not one thing, then one is the dialectical opposite.

sheistolerable (#2,382)

Thank you for this. I hope you get a sweet memoir book deal or whatever other professional success feels right to you, and if you don’t end up harboring your sister, maybe start a college fund for her now. Best of luck to you and thank you for sharing this.

mochi (#585)

So moved. Keep persevering. The flashbacks fade.

Kudos, great piece

leafyseadragon (#2,974)

i have lived something VERY similar, only i only had one sibling and my mom was mentally ill. i am in my thirties and i CANNOT get away from this life of having and having not and escaping boughts of homelessness. my husband also came from a similar background. the only thing i can think to say is that i wish i had not helped my family. they kept dragging me back into the mess. i wish i had walked away clean.

i just got back on my feet (housed!) and i’m dealing with the fallout from the latest mess. hopefully the last damn mess.

good luck! fwiw everyone will laud you and say how awesome you are for helping, but sometimes you need to put yourself first. ask, “how will this affect ME long term?”

An interesting story and so well written–great job, Rebecca.

tiptoemammal (#152)

Fucking hell(Am I allowed to say that here?). I agree, you shouldn’t have to do any of those things. You shouldn’t have had to put up with the shit you put up with as a child (from your tone I gather you know that). But you did anyways, and it sounds like you’ve done a badass job of it. So I guess if you have to keep doing shit you shouldn’t have to do because of your family, you will probably do a badass job of that, too? And then you will write strong and candid things about it after. I enjoy and admire your spirit, and suspect that not many things/situations could compel you to buckle and give up. So cheers to you, lady.

scn231 (#1,705)

Thank you for sharing. I totally related to the last sentence – there’s a point where it feels like you’ve had your share of suffering and hard decisions and can you just be done now and get your normal life you’ve been trying to register for your whole life? Good luck!!

Kitty (#2,980)

I feel like this but about my mother. I will have to take care of her in her old age (which is quickly approaching as she is turning 60 this month). I am at once scared and resentful. I don’t want her living with me because she gambled away her retirement. I don’t want her living with me because she can’t manage money. Thank you for writing this.

leafyseadragon (#2,974)

@Kitty if she is receiving SSI or disability you can get her into an assisted living facility. it’s like a giant apartment building that has a cafeteria and classes. my mother (65) lives in one. she has been there for 7 years. she loves it. and this way i don’t have to worry about her bills or food. i receive her checks (you can arrange this without declaring anyone unfit or incompetant) and pay her ‘rent’. then i give her the rest in cash. if she runs out it’s her own problem. they have nurses on staff, but they only thing they do is make the residents take their meds (important!!!). otherwise the residents are left to their own devices. my mom has been downgraded from a nice room to a rather crappy one, but that was because she wouldn’t follow the house rules about bathing and hoarding and smoking in her room. :/

Maybe writing a book or memoir is your ticket to financial stability, as well as some catharsis? I mean, your tale is riveting. You are truly a gifted writer and the world loves underdog stories. Makes me think of Dave Eggers, who raised his little brother in SF after their parents both died from cancer just weeks apart, and then went on to write some of our country’s best contemporary literature.

Also, seven year olds are still resilient enough that they practically bounce (gymnastics lessons aside). If she has you as a role model, I don’t doubt she’ll be just fine. Good luck, I am rooting for you.

I feel you on a lot of this. Not ALL of it, but a lot of it. The title stood out to me. I say that a lot. I am less leftist than I should be I guess because I just want to be comfortable sometimes.

dswest (#5,647)

Thank you for writing this. While my situation isn’t quite as harrowing as your own, I also came away from unnecessary poverty driven by reckless, unemployable parents with substance abuse problems.

What’s so difficult about escaping from those environments, which you eloquently convey here, is that the will to survive makes us hard-hearted. In order to escape the lifestyle we’re raised into, we have to enter self-preservation mode. I hoard money and probably always will. I have great finances, but if I begin to sink below a certain line, I lose my shit.

Before I cut ties with my parents altogether, I dreaded the day when my mom would call from her section 8 apartment, where she sits and smokes cigarettes and pot all day, to tell me she had cancer and had spent all her food money paying for cigs and the cable bill. I honestly don’t think I’d support her–which makes me feel like a terrible human being, even though I have a long list of evidence that shows she never felt any genuine regard for her children.

Enough about me: you’re doing well for yourself. More than that, you’re transmuting your experiences into art. If your inner journey has been anything like mine, that process is the saving grace.

You’re selfish because you had to be selfish. We can’t just turn that part of ourselves off–not when it’s decades old and was responsible for pulling us out of the ordure. Peace be with you, fellow traveler.

BubbaTheGreat (#5,648)

I couple thoughts, maybe just pointless words from an old (50) white guy.

There is a difference between poverty and mental illness. Though one tends to lead to the other. You’ve lived through both. Don’t let them be your enemy, don’t let them take you down, make them your driving force that gives you purpose.

I am not poor and have never been for wanting. I grew up in rich suburbia, my father had a good job, I have a good job. My parents, the first US generation from immigrants, came from poverty, alcoholism, physical and sexual abuse, and a myriad of physical and physicological obstacles. Things that were typical a generation ago. Things today that would result in someone going to jail or realty shows. These ‘obstacles’ fostered within my parents a burning to get out, get ahead, achieve, succeed. They didn’t complain, they didn’t ask, they just did. Most of their peers have long passed. I’ve meet many. Most have done the same fire, the same drive to excel, the same toughness. Looking through their aged exterior of my parents and their peers, past the social etiquette affluence has brought, is a toughness. An unshakeable sense of right and wrong, a driving work ethic, the desire to make good for their kids, the ability to make the right decision just because it’s the right decision without though, without hesitation. My dad’s almost 80 now. He’s a former marine who’s beaten cancer, a quadruple bypass, a stroke and still lives at home with mom taking care of their home. They are the toughest people I’ve ever known. As I’ve aged and am raising my own family, I have a deep ever widening respect for them and the obstacles they’ve overcome.

You can do the same.

Your blog states that you sometimes drink alone at home – those are warning signs, don’t follow your parents path. Learn. Survive, Excel.

The only way poverty (and many other things) will decrease in the world is if people stop reproducing.

Unless a person gets out of a trade school or college/Uni with a decent job, is single, and doesn’t have a lot of bad habits, then the chances of not falling into debt–ever, is probably close to impossible. by debt I mean having to pay toward a high credit card bill, or repaying a school loan, a car loan, etc.
Those type debts are doable, workable. So, if a person knows they are spendthrift, they need to develop a system right away, so as not to blow their money foolishly and fall into a debt hole.
For example, if the person works in the service industry, i.e. the salary is dependent on tips, then they must always deposit at least 1/2 to 2/3 daily into the bank, so they are not walking around with hot cash in hand.
Do not get a credit card, ever. At least, not until they can build up a savings in a bank account that have a debit card. You can actually rent a car and other credit card type transactions with a debit card, you just have to put down a deposit.
First card should be American Express, because you don’t roll over a debt at the end of the month.
Start buying into stocks and CDs ASAP, but only after creating, building a savings account of a few thousand dollars.
Always try to have an emergency cushion of three months salary saved up in case of losing a job.
Do all those things, and within 10 years, you can breath easily.

javamcjugg (#5,651)

Folks living in poverty stricken areas and lives seem to have no shortage of friends, family, community members pressuring them to maintain a mindset that propagates poverty. Like they want you to feel guilty for getting out and finding a better life.

Ignore them. You know where that path leads. If they’re not cheering you on, they’re toxic.

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