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…