Redefining Poverty

I have learned there are ways to be poor that don’t look like the “poor” we see in movies or assume it “should’’ be.

Maggie commented on my last post, thanking me for talking about a kind of poverty “that often goes under the radar. One step away from on the street but so few real possibilities to move forward.” That gave me a moment of validation that I hadn’t realized I needed! This struggle, it has been a lonely place, partially because so many people assume I’m fine. And I feel like I should be fine

Now, I have always considered myself to be a very privileged kind of poor. Life and health circumstances have brought me here, but I have possibilities. I’ve had family and friends around to help, when they could. I have skills. I’m creative and smart. I have ideas that I’m working on, to get myself back into the black. I have many of the things I need, from my previous financial state (car, clothes, etc…) I have fluctuated up and down, and lacked stability, and struggled with anxiety. I’ve struggled. But I’ve never given up hope or “seen” (or defined) myself as being incapable.


I do recognize that when you look from the outside, it’s easy to think “but you don’t look poor…”

Nope, we don’t. We look happy. We are clean. I drive a car. I live in a house. We have pets. I have a laptop. I have a cell phone. I have decent clothes and shoes and can present myself well. My kids ride horses. When I’ve wanted to hide my state out of shame or perceived necessity, I was able to do that. Mostly because people assume. And when I do have work or figure out a lump sum payment for something, then we’re doing alright. For the moment.

But the cracks are increasingly hard to hide. The signs have been there, for those who notice. Nope, I can’t meet up for lunch – want to go for a walk instead? The windshield on my car has been cracked for years and I haven’t repaired it. The tires needed replacing and should have been done sooner. No, I’m not unaware that this is a safety problem (I just have higher priorities, like feeding my kids). Yes, my teeth need a dentist. No, we don’t have internet at home so we have to go to the library. I know I owe you a return invitation for dinner, but I have nothing to feed you. And right now, to be honest, I have $1.84 in my bank account and a few coins in my wallet.

Over the last few years, I’ve learned something, though. Our assumptions and definitions of poverty have been wrong.

Poverty is more than having no money. Poverty is having no hope. No options. No cushion to fall back on. No one to rely on. And no resources of any kind – financial, personal or professional.

That’s why social assistance and guaranteed minimum income programs matter. That is why social supports matter.

Living in poverty takes courage and strength and creativity that you couldn’t imagine – just to get by every day. Just to feed your kids or find a place to live. To find work or some support or a bit of cash to get you through the next day or two.

And, in that situation, pushed to such extremes, any one of us would struggle with mental health issues. Stress kills us – and there is no doubt that living in poverty brings with it unrelenting, mountainous levels of stress. And that just makes the poverty situation worse. That’s the cycle!

It’s easy to “light up purple” or take socks to the homeless, but I find that in general, people don’t do as well with understanding or even tolerating the realities of anxiety or depression. The behaviours that are the fallout of crisis – any kind of crisis (divorce, poverty, mental illness) – are anti-social and distancing. And people interpret them as hurtful, they take them personally and they judge.

Think about the last time someone acted strange or rude. Did you walk away thinking “what an a**hole, I didn’t deserve that” or did you think “wow, that person is suffering, I wonder how I could help?” In my experience, most people fall into the first category. I’ve been shocked that even people who know me, who have known me for a long time and know what I’m capable of and how strong, intelligent, and caring I can be, somehow so quickly forget all that and jump to the most negative conclusions about my behaviour. If I was avoiding a phone call, it must be because I don’t care. If I was cranky, I was a b*tch. If I didn’t pay a loan back on time, I was irresponsible.

Now, I know the behaviours are bad. I know I should do better. But there are days or situations where I just can’t seem to do so. And it’s the motivations or reasons behind the behaviours that I wish people wouldn’t make assumptions about. I’m still that same conscientious, super aware, caring person that I’ve always been – and behaving the way I do absolutely kills me inside. Honestly, no one beats me up for not doing better than I do.

Think about how many memes and “inspirational” quotes go around about surrounding yourself with positive people, leaving negative people behind, walking away from people who don’t treat you well. I get it, of course – I’d much prefer to be around people that  make me feel good! But the reality of supporting people in crisis is that they aren’t fun to be around. At least part of the time…

I have found a few people who forgive me and love me despite the times when I don’t return text messages or phone calls. Despite when I panic. Despite asking for help – again… I am so grateful for their patience and ability to listen. But let me tell you, there are a LOT more who demand answers, who feel hurt by my silence, who decide that if I won’t put in the effort then I must not care about them. I have been called uncaring, irresponsible, lazy, greedy and more. I’ve been told that I made my bed, now I have to lie in it. And I’ve seen that there are simply a lot of people who are so overwhelmed by their own lives that they don’t have time for more.

So what do we do?

I know that by talking about this, there will be people who will judge me and think I’m an idiot and that it’s my fault. There are people who believe that this could never happen to them. And as much as I tried to be sympathetic and caring, I used to think this couldn’t happen to me either – so I have to sympathize. There are people who will judge me and look down on me. And I try not to think about all that.

But there will also be people who are compassionate and caring. There are people who will reach out to connect with me, even when I don’t know how to connect with them. There are people who will read and understand that this situation does not define me as a person and remind me that I’m still capable and strong and lovable.

And perhaps, there will be people who will gain a new perspective on behaviours and crisis and mental health and poverty. Maybe there will be more curiosity about families who are struggling. Maybe there will be a growing ability to support rather than judge the most vulnerable and needy portions of our society. Maybe greater understanding will lead to better social policies and assistance to help those in need.

I can hope…

Posted in Anxiety, Live, Love and Learn, Poverty | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Poverty is a Triple Whammy

For more than twenty years, I worked hard. I often worked more than one job at a time. I kept jobs I didn’t like anymore, so that we would have benefits and medical and vacation pay and such. I learned and advanced and built a broad foundation of experience and knowledge.

I worked while my boyfriend  (who then became my husband) started a business, bought out his partner, sold that business, apprenticed in a new field, started a new business, changed partnership configurations a bunch of times, etc…

I was the steady income. A lot of the time, I was the main income. Several times, I was the only income.

In short, I have income earning ability. I have always been capable and willing and darned hard working.

Until life started to fall apart. My kids were increasingly troubled and struggling. My relationship with my husband was increasingly dysfunctional – or at least I recognized the dysfunction more. We tried so hard to figure out solutions and make it better. We went to counselling. We fought. A lot. And the children suffered.

Struggles like that drain you. They take up all your energy. They take away your hope and sense of self efficacy.

Now I find myself mired in a nasty poverty cycle. I struggle, bills go unpaid, I can’t find work, it’s hard to feed the kids, I borrow money to get by. I do better for a bit, but then slide back into the struggle as soon as something goes not quite as planned (and something always goes wrong, doesn’t it?) How did that happen?? part of me asks. How is this possible??

I made choices. I chose to do everything and whatever I could in order to help my kids make it through the crises they were in and grow towards healthy psychological maturity. I chose to be the parent they needed to be, no matter what. I still worked darned hard, but now with a different priority – one that didn’t pay me (as valuable and needed as it was…)

I talked about this journey at TEDxLangleyEd last year (in case you prefer watching/listening):

When my eldest struggled with school and increasing anxiety and depression, I tried to help in whatever ways I could. Eventually, she stopped attending school and I had no idea what to do. I kept a focus on building healthy attachment, talking, asking questions, and supporting her growth and learning.

Through that whole year, I never knew whether I could go to work safely and leave her. I never knew when my day or night would be hijacked by a panic attack or meltdown. I never had any time alone, since she lived with me full time and would rarely spend time with anyone else.

I tried to continue to work and continued to find it difficult. First of all, how could I commit to projects or even to reliably being available, when I never knew when my day would be entirely consumed or if I would be unable to make it to the office? And second, something I continue to struggle with now is never having time to focus solely on thinking and analyzing and pretty much anything that takes sustained concentration.

During that time, my middle one also began struggling with panic attacks and refusing to go to school. I worked with the teachers, I saw counsellors, I tried forcing him to go, I tried tricking  him into going. And it all felt wrong – betraying the trust I had worked so hard to build was doing nothing to help him feel better about school. Nor would it support his healthy development and mental health. Secure attachment and having a safe place/relationship he could trust to see him/love him/ believe in him/listen to him were critical to healthy psychological maturation. THAT had to be highest priority and my overriding focus.

Just as my eldest decided to return to school after almost a year away, my middle one moved in with me full time and realized he just couldn’t continue to attend his middle school anymore. The youngest one also moved in with my full time at that time, so now I had three kids full time and one at home, refusing to see anyone else or rarely leaving home.

I can’t even express how much energy it took to just get through each day sometimes. My life was a 7×24 therapy session. Between supporting and coaching and taking care of my kids, and working through my own struggles and issues and dysfunctional patterns (so that I could be the parent I needed to be), I felt like there was room for nothing else. Everyday, I had that “hit by a truck” kind of exhaustion.

Finding out I had an autoimmune liver disease (PSC – primary schlerosing cholangitis), whose main effects on me are itchy skin and exhaustion, didn’t help either. If I was still an employee of the Provincial Government (as I was for over ten years), I would have been off on long term disability. Alas, switching to being self employed back then left me on my own with this now.

                                                                                 photo courtesy of Cole Henry on Flickr

And there’s where the slide began. Gradually, I used up any savings and cashed in my RRSPs. Next to get used up was any borrowing capacity I might have had. It’s hard to borrow money when you don’t know when or how you’ll pay it back. And anxiety was no longer only a problem my kids struggled with. I stopped answering the phone. I still struggle to even read, let alone respond to emails or letters about money issues. I hate being irresponsible and breaking commitments – it’s not who I am or ever wanted to be.

I burned bridges with work contacts too. I’ve always relied on relationships to get/keep work. But when you let people down (which I did a lot, first because my kids made life too unpredictable, then because I was so anxious), eventually they stop trusting you. And they stop calling you. They certainly stop offering you work. And I stopped trusting myself to make realistic and achievable commitments.

Now I feel like I’ve burned up people’s goodwill too. As much as everyone says you should learn to ask for help when you need it, there’s only so much tolerance for that kind of an ask before people get frustrated or judgmental. The message becomes “what’s the matter with you?” and “why don’t you just get a job?” Believe me, I ask myself that (and more) too. All the time.

I realize now that poverty isn’t just a financial problem – it’s not just money and lack of income that has caused me to get stuck. Poverty is actually a triple whammy. It’s a loss/lack of financial capital of course. But it’s the loss of professional capital and personal capital that has really caused the greatest problems for me! Because those two make getting OUT of poverty exponentially harder. When I was just struggling with too little or no money, I still had resources available to me – family, friends, business contacts. In short, I still had hope. The downturn was just a blip.

But when all three losses of capital hit you, then hope dwindles. And everything gets so much harder!

The slide got really bad when there was no cushion left in my life. Every little step forward was threatened by a big slide back. Any little miscalculation (let alone any big mistakes) are augmented.

And this is where we need more discussion and consideration, if we want to create policy and programs that support struggling families. My situation definitely affects my children and their mental health. My children’s mental health struggles definitely impacted my situation. The social and financial benefit to society for us to get the support needed to move forward successfully, I think, will reap enormous returns – not only to my family, but to the community as a whole, over the long term!

But to be successful, supports need to address all three areas impacted:

  1. financial support, so that we have a secure place to live, can pay our bills and can eat;
  2. professional support, to find jobs and/or work that fits our skills, time and logistical needs;
  3. personal supports, to surround us with community that understands and accepts our needs. As well as medical and therapeutic resources to build healthy relationships, sense of self and ability to manage stress.

What a difference it would make to eradicate poverty, don’t you think? We can do better…

Posted in Anxiety, Live, Love and Learn, Parenting and School, Poverty | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Moving by feel…

It has been driving me nuts to not know. To not know how to move forward. To make progress. To make things better. To “fix”…

Amidst much reflection and working on an appreciative inquiry kind of approach (look to what worked previously to find the way forward), I’m realizing something: whenever I’ve faced really tough situations or crises, I’ve felt my way out. I moved by instinct, not really knowing what to do, but simply doing the next thing that FELT right.

follow your heart

Often, what felt right was the exact opposite of what people were telling me to do. Sometimes, what felt right was the exact opposite of what the voices in my own head and “logic” told me I should do!

Life was scary and overwhelming and I just couldn’t figure out what to do. And somehow, in that state of neural shutdown, I finally had no choice but to follow my gut and/or heart!

Why did I have to get to such a crisis state in order to trust my feelings? I learned young not to feel. A legacy my mother passed along from World War II were survival skills centered around hiding and denying my feelings. The ripples of war move beyond the people and places involved and extend through generations. Layer on top of that all the society and media messages about being happy and such. I suppose it makes sense.

Regardless of why, I have struggled to allow myself to feel – and particularly to trust those feelings and instincts.

In high school, I loved science. I had a great physics teacher who taught me Physics 12 one-on-one (because no one else wanted to take physics 12 at my tiny high school, and back then, such a situation was allowed despite the cost!). I also loved music (I played piano) and acting and writing. But I chose science as my route in post secondary – studying engineering at UBC. I’m an analyst and an introvert who loves quiet time in order to collate and curate all that I’ve learned and observed – so that I can make sense of it within the larger context of my life. I love when everything makes sense…

But when it came down to it and life fell apart, or my kids needed me – I stumbled around in the dark, disorganized and discombobulated. Only in hindsight did I realize the wisdom of the paths I chose.

As a parent, even when the teachers and school counsellor said I “had to” do anything necessary to force my son to come to school, then let them take it from there – my instinct made me say “No! I won’t be doing that…” They thought they knew best, how to help my son overcome panic attacks and anxiety about attending school. They had research studies and expert advice from trained psychologists and university professors. But my gut told me that I couldn’t physically and emotionally violate the trust I had been working so hard to build with him – which I would have had to do, in order to “force” him to go to school. My instinct told me that secure attachment was more important that attending school.

No matter what evidence and data and experts were brought out to convince me that I was harming my child, I knew deep down, somewhere, what mattered to me and what I wanted for my child. I knew what was most important to me, even though I couldn’t articulate it. And regardless of the self doubt and fear that arose at the thought of messing up this oh so important parenting job, I truly felt I had no choice but to follow my gut.

Overwhelmed, I simply put one foot in front of the other each day and did the things I didn’t know how NOT to do. I loved my kids. I worked on my own issues, so that I could teach them better ways of being. I figured out how NOT to react in the moment of conflict, not to tone police, not to shout. Instead, I learned how to listen beyond their words, to figure out their needs. I am still learning how to know when to push/coach/mentor and when to simply hold them or sit beside them. I am learning how to trust their voices, their ability to know what’s best for themselves, and the appropriate/healthy boundaries around decision making (which are theirs to make vs. my responsibility to keep them safe).

An even stronger example was the end of my marriage. The fighting steadily increased. The counselling we went to for almost two years wasn’t making it better. And my gut told me that the dysfunctional patterns and our daily interactions were hurting our kids. I knew they were hurting me and him too, but it was the responsibility to my kids that spurred me to action. And yet, I hesitated. I let my head rule too often – I tried to figure out what I had to do, what I could do, to make things better, to convince him to change, to change myself. But it just got worse.

In quiet moments, I knew in my gut, with absolute certainty, that I had to leave. Perhaps we could still figure things out once we each had a break and some space from each other, but first we needed to get out of the daily “fire.” And yet, in the moment of trying to talk it through and work out the details, I lost that certainty and I let the voices in my head take over. And letting that hellish time drag on is probably one of my more profound regrets. If I had acted more decisively and quickly, based on my gut level knowing, my kids would have suffered less, been traumatized less. Instead, I doubted myself.

What that all means to me now is a reminder: I have never regretted my gut/heart driven decisions. They have been right, even when they have been brutally hard.

And now, as I face more churning and mental “tail chasing”, feeling unable to figure out what to do or how to do it, I’m reminded that I need to find enough silence in order to hear my heart…

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When Shame Comes to Stay

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a long time. Each time I decide “today I’ll write it!” – instead I find other things that “need” to get done…

Honestly, even when I sit down and try, it’s such a slog. I don’t KNOW what to write. I don’t KNOW what’s going on with me sometimes. I don’t KNOW why I feel stuck.

But there is a truth that keeps smacking me in the face:

quote what you cant say

And with the death of Deven Black (a wonderful person and educator I knew via social media), I was reminded that anything that alienates and isolates me is hurting me. I don’t know all the details of Deven’s death, and I don’t in any way presume to be in the same situation – I was just struck by the surprise of learning so much had obviously happened in his life that I (and others, from the online reactions) didn’t know. Hiding from the world is an old and familiar pattern for me – one that I fall back to when I’m overwhelmed. So this post got even more important for me to tackle…

I’ve had a hard half dozen (or so) years. As long as my kids were in crisis, I could ignore some things – they were obviously “backburner” issues, because my kids needed me first and foremost. As they have been growing and getting on a much healthier path, I’ve had to face some things about myself and my own patterns.

The biggest thing right now is that I never expected to be wrestling with poverty – struggling to buy food, pay rent, buy gas, get necessities. I never thought it could happen to me. Ever.

As much as I have always tried to help people in need, I realize now that I had some assumptions too. Poverty happens to people who are lazy. Who stop trying and just expect the world to give them something they haven’t worked for. Who have no ability or skills or family to fall back on. And, well, that’s not me, at all.

All my life, I’ve been able to do whatever I wanted to do and anything I set my mind to. I have the intelligence, and capacity, and determination. I’ve been a fixer. A problem solver. More than that – an analyst and problem anticipator! Financially, I’ve always been able to find and do work. Over the almost twenty years of my marriage, I was most often the main and sometimes even the sole support for my family.

But for the first time ever, I’ve run up against things that I just can’t “fix” by myself – no matter how much I want to and no matter how much I try.

And, oh, I’ve tried! I have tried to keep as much of our struggles to myself – to work through it on my own. Maybe no one needs to know, I think. I’ve always quietly, in the background, taken care of things that I didn’t want people to know or couldn’t stand to talk about. I’ve always been able to change or get better or make things go a different path. I mean, I’m not perfect, of course – I’m only human! But there have been big things that I haven’t publicized. The skeletons in my closet, so to speak.

This time, that isn’t working. The harder I try, in fact, the worse it seems to get. Or the longer it goes on.

The shame of it all is probably the hardest part. With the assumptions and judgements so many people (including me) make about those in poverty, it has been easy to beat up on myself and feel like a failure. I’m sick and tired of trying to hide it and simply falling farther behind. I’m tired of pretending.

Shame cripples me, particularly when it moves in, unpacks its bags and stays for years. I withdraw. It changes me, as a person. I berate myself. And I’m out of integrity with who I am/want to be – I do stuff that makes things worse. I make bad decisions. I fail even more. It’s an ugly spiral that seems to go on and on and on…

I’ve tried to change. I’ve tried to ask for help. I’ve tried to share bits of myself, in safe places, with people I trust. But there are limits (to what I feel I can ask and to what people are willing/able to do to help). I feel like there’s a “statute of limitation” on getting over this problem – and I passed it a while ago.

All I know is that as long as I’m not completely open and honest about these things that I’m afraid of saying, that I’ll be stuck. So I have no idea what’s next. I’m terrified that being honest will just let MORE people judge me as inadequate and unworthy. Or that being vulnerable will further hinder my attempts to get work and get out of this hole – just making things worse.

But heck, what I’ve been doing hasn’t been working so hot. So I may as well do something different…

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