Author:Paul Gilmartin

Christian Finnegan

The standup comedian (Comedy Central PresentsChapelle’s ShowBest Week EverCountdown with Keith Olberman) opens up about the tragedy and parental mental illness that shaped his childhood and still affects him today as well as his struggle to trust and feel confident about his future.

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Italy’s View on Female Addicts: A Guest Blog by Violetta Bellocchio

So last year I was at this house party, secretly complaining about how everyone was lamer than advertised and no one got I was all done up as Edie Sedgwick – also, another Edie showed up and she was skinnier than me, totally annihilating the competition without even trying – and Mardi Gras is a bit of a chore when you can’t drink (or get high, or whatever), but at the same time: I had been on (mild) antidepressants for a few days then and I was supposed to buckle up and write a Nonfiction Book about Addiction in Italy, which I was Contractually Obligated to Do, but it still made me feel so dumb and short-limbed and shame-bombed I couldn’t quite bring myself to talk about it. So I smiled, I guess. There was a lot of smiling and non-committing going on.

Meanwhile, a girl dressed as Sookie Stackhouse got so drunk so fast you’d never tell she’d been sober in the first place, EVER. She couldn’t walk anymore, she couldn’t talk anymore.

I looked on, as a guest made a number of calls in the space of maybe five minutes. She needs to leave. She needs to go home, She can’t stay here. He really sprang into action, that guy. He talked the girl into leaving the party; he arranged for a cab to pick her up; he escorted her out, a small, sure hand on her back, and he got her into the cab, made sure the driver had the right address, enough money for the ride.

Later, as I thanked him for taking pity on her, he downplayed it all. He was still pretty worried about The Girl, but at least he did something. He physically extracted her from a situation that could only get worse; he made sure she could Go Home, be safe. Smart guy.

As a female partygoer put it, thus ensuring she’d always be remembered as Female Partygoer, Sookie had «a bit of a habit» with public wastedness; AND, «she’s always super embarrassed about this stuff when she thinks about it».

This is the closest thing I’ve ever seen happening to an intervention on Italian soil.

Before that night, I’d never much cared for the guy – he came off as a loud, overdramatic sort, and once he’d spent thirty straight minutes over dinner extolling the virtues of Thor’s abs, so I stopped hanging out with him, safe in the knowledge I was his female counterpart in the eyes of mutual acquaintances. (Hey: you gotta protect yourself.) After that? He was My Hero for a while.

Also, the person I’ve been calling «the girl» was in her thirties.

A thirty year old woman, getting wasted at one of those things – «a small gathering of friends», i.e. a house party packed full of people who just happened to work in the same field as her. The quickest, surest way to gain some reputation, as professional women around here are supposed – expected – … requested? – you get it: they HAVE to be able to hold their liquor, to know when to stop. How to stop. Stick three fingers down your throat, count the glasses, drink some water, pace yourself. Pacing is very important, my dear. Control yourself. Show some restraint in your lack of fucks to give.

Sookie was – is – a hard-partying lady. All business. Someone who – to the best of my knowledge – has always semi-pitied me for my abstaining ways, but still. A friend of a friend. She was the Best Man at a wedding I got invited to.

I know how it works.

I should know. I was an addict, an alcoholic, a girl who routinely binged on a bit of everything, before figuring out that binge-something was a thing now. That my lack of commitment to a single substance to abuse was par for the course, not yet another sign of my general fail at adulthood.

When I stopped doing everything bad all together, four months after turning 28, I decided my only chance of Not Ruining This For Me was shut up about the person I had been; if I kept silent and worked hard, I’d get a brand new start. I could get everything I wanted.

A few of the things I shut up about:

– being hospitalized at 25 for what my medical record called ebbrezza alcolica, so: not quite alcohol poisoning, but close? The record states, upon being admitted to the hospital, «la paziente appare agitata, disorientata» and «she refuses to speak Italian, choosing to express herself in English and Spanish».

[ – I can’t speak Spanish. At all. So I was either possessed or magically gifted, it’s kind of your call now. ]

– stumbling through very literal woods, pitch black, looking for my way out of a rave and back to a tiny train station, two hours away from Berlin; I can’t tell if a map had been drawn on my hand, but I don’t think it had.

– finding myself in Bologna in the morning, knowing I’d left Milan the previous day to see New Order play in a Turin park, and I’d made a surprising number of drunken decisions, culminating with me following a guy all the way to Bologna just to get a hotel room from 10 to 12 AM; a month later I was staring down a pregnancy test, praying I could get out of this one without giving the guy any say on the abortion I was OBVIOUSLY going to have. (No abortion in the end. Still, it’s the principle of the thing.)

– whoring myself out for the opportunity of raiding a supply closet / medicine cabinet and a 60/40 chance of scoring. (This I was always more willing to go easy on myself for; I’d say, the drugs. I remember it made me feel gritty and realistic at the time.)

– bracing for an inevitable hangover by listening to Stretch Out and Wait 19 times in a row, right before dawn, in my parents’ empty apartment.

I got clean when it crept up on me: before I could die, for real, I had to take ten-fifteen-twenty more years of this.

I lucked into a support group at 28. Didn’t touch a drink ever since. I’m one of the precious few, the lucky ones.

Of course, the way I went about being good was :

a. never admitting out loud I had been That Girl, over and over, despite staircases of evidence to the contrary;

and b. giving myself a fresh new trauma whenever I did remember something about That Girl.

Any time something she’d said and done popped back up into my head, I held my breath, I  shut my eyes. I went no no no no no. It wasn’t you. It never happened.

I used to slap my hand against my head, thwack, whenever holding my breath didn’t cut it.

The price to be paid: panic attacks, anxiety attacks, long- and short-term memory loss – always a pleasure to deal with, especially when you’re writing a book about your own misdemeanors – and what my current therapist summed up as me being haunted by my past self.

Anyway.

I did end up doing that book. Giving the small advance back wasn’t an option. Also, I’d broken down in horrible public tears, in a bar, as I was listening to Muse. (And as I cried I was like, of course, it had to be Muse, can’t think of a way to make this more embarrassing.) And I tried recovering what was left of my memory. (I’d say the process was 90% getting over myself and 10% writing down what came back. Stuff comes back.) I handed it in to a nice editor, who, once again, surprised me by asking if I could «be a tad more specific here and there» – so: get more dirt on myself – rather than politely requesting to tone that shit down. And I did end up including the Sookie Stackhouse bit – Sookie who was most definitely not dressed up as Sookie; nope, she went with something waaaay more hilarious in hindsight, but you do what you do to give other people the illusion of staying anonymous – BUT: I had reasons to do it. To go public about my residual shame, the smoke clinging to my skin all over.

Last year, I didn’t feel I had the moral authority to stage an intervention of my own on The Girl – after all, my social proximity to her has always been of the friend-of-a-friend variety; I didn’t know much about the places she came from, the state she was in.

What I could do: be a stupendous nag about it. Ask about it, in a roundabout way. The Italian way.

The day after the party, I called one of those mutual friends, someone who used to party with Sookie, a good friend. An empowered slut-person right along with Sookie, albeit, MAYBE, with a SMIDGE more sense in choosing who to shack up with on a longish-term basis. (MAYBE.)

So I called That Person up, and I told them what had happened at a party That Person had only put a five-minute cameo in, and then I asked, – does it happen often to her?. (And then I asked, – is it getting worse? – )

– Oh, no – , That Person said. – Last night was an accident.

– Ok.

– She had nothing to eat. She just didn’t pace herself. She was high, too.

– Ok.

– But I don’t really hang out with her anymore.

– Ok.

– Different lifestyles is all.

– Ok.

– How are you holding up these days?

– Eh. Same bullshit anyway.

– I know what you mean.

Then I think we talked about The Dark Knight. But I’m not sure.

I’m not sure anyone ever paid me the same basic human kindness, either. It’s too fun to have a screaming mess of girl shambling around, falling on her face over and over. That’s some quality entetainment right there.

And Italy thrives on that.

Female Partygoer, Wasted.

I guess it happened once – I’d been an obnoxious, fast drunk during a radio livestream. Some guy I barely knew called the station, a little after I’d pass out, and he said, alright, you had your fun, do NOT make a podcast of it. And he was shamed for it by the livestream crowd, I’ll tell you that. They said he was acting like a policeman; they accused him of being the white knight no one had asked for. Still, he could be an intimidating kind of guy, and I was spared a permanent stain on my reputation. One of many.

But that, I never knew. He never took credit for being kind to me.

I found out by accident, a few years down the line. (His ex wife told me.) By then I was already clean.

Last year, I had lunch with That Guy. I said thanks. He was, ah, don’t mention it. But he wanted me to mention it. Kinda like he’d been waiting for It to enter the conversation. And now I could handle it, he figured – he’d done the right thing just because he knew what  addiction does to a person firsthand. He’d lost people he cared about. Girls he cared about.

I still live in a country that denies alcoholism is a thing, at all; a country where binging and/or bulimia are framed as anorexia’s poor, unbecoming cousin, but the general public is more than happy to bitch and moan about the social alarm caused by compulsive drinking between underaged girls. Here, we’re supposed to quit our “bad habits”, our “embarrassing personality traits”, and shut up about it. Or, we can die out after a while, That works, too.

 

In the last 5 years Violetta Bellocchio’s nonfiction writing has been featured on the Italian editions of Rolling Stone, Vice and Grazia Magazine, national newspaper Corriere della Sera and monthly magazine IL mensile; She’s been a columnist on the (now sadly departed) current affairs magazine “E – il mensile di Emergency“, and has  covered gender issues on a weekly basis on Rivista Studio for more than two years ending last May.

 

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Aspergers – Listener Louise

Her childhood marked with social stress, being bullied, aggressiveness and severe digestive issues (including Barrett’s Esophagus a condition involving acid reflux usually only found in adults) Louise was finally diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, also known as high-functioning autism.  She shares on what it’s like to live with it, how it expresses itself in her life and the hurdles society has to overcome in understanding and accepting those with Aspergers.

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Confessions of a Therapist: A Guest Blog by Julie

Presently, I feel such a connection to your podcast that I am compelled beyond description to share my story. BUT, then again, the little hateful me inside me is screaming and waggling her finger “oh dear, here you go again – seeking attention from intellectual men and the masses to feel more secure in yourself and your recovery than you REALLY are. It’s all about approval with you and if you fail… WHEN you fail… you will surely regret displaying your true identity to all the internet world.”

But that’s a voice ever present, and everFUCKINGannoying. I must ignore that self loathing part of me and move forward in what I am urged to do and be – share my story and continue in recovery.

Please post this or read it on the air as you wish under my first name only “Julie.” That’s as close to real as I can get for now. I hope you understand.

So we will start in the beginning…

My mother – it’s always the mother – grew up in an abusive household with a submissive mother and terrorist father. He was a holocaust survivor and coped with his trauma by becoming a doctor in America, marrying a demure lady, and spending the rest of his miserable life whipping his family into submission. He played my mother’s siblings against her and she pretty much spent her entire life in fear and shame. She had no one to support her or defend her, so she grew to be a woman seeking love and approval in inaccessable men. She married my father who was from the get-go intellectually misalligned with her because it was safe and easy. He was and is a simple man.

My father grew up in a household with a WW2 vet father and three siblings who had to defend their submissive nurse wife from his physical and mental wrath. My father was born a preemie twin, for his mother drank, smoked, and was beaten while carrying them. She eventually developed Alzheimer’s later and forgot them all. My father smoked since he was 13 and dreamed of owning a farm. But it was not to be as money was made elsewhere. He became a tree man and spray operator to make money for the family and worked as such until he was disabled later in life.

My mother was very controlling, manipulative, emotional, fretful, and anxious while we were growing up. Her identity was as a mother only – we were her identity. She immeshed herself in us and our successes were hers, our failures were personal attacks. She had no love her whole life until us and that put us in a very percarious position. She nurtured our artistic and intellectual prowess and passion for sure, and spent all her energy in bringing us up, but when you have a mother who is fueled by praise, love, success, and attention, you are the worst and most awful child if you do not live up to her insatiable emotional demands.

My father worked all the time – mostly to support our four person family with a $35k salary – but also because it was all he knew. We never saw him growing up unless it was at dinner and by then he was so exhausted he’s fall asleep in his dinner plate and shuffle off to bed. From very little I knew my father was special. He was slow mentally, awkward with others, and seemed very much in outer space most of the time. I didn’t know then that he had an IQ of 84 and his brain was beginning to degenerate even then.

My mother and father fought all the time. She was histrionically emotional and obsessive – he was exhausted all the time and beginning to show signs of frontal lobe deterioration (which as I know now tends to make individuals act violently in early stages). My brother and I were caught between them all the time and painfully aware that our emotions came second and their drama was first.

From very young I became hyper aware of others emotions because I had to so as to protect our safety. I was my mother, father and brother’s go-to for comfort, advice, and protection. I fixed the problems and mended the fights between them. I was everyone’s perfect little girl.

But when I was bad, I was very bad. And I did it all to myself.

When I was around the age of 9 or 10, I started developing physically. I was an early bloomer being the tallest and heaviest in my class until the age of 13. I was made fun of for being fat, smart, nerdy, and just generally odd. I didn’t mind as much until I became aware of my physical and emotional form.

Around that time, my brother came into my room one night and demanded to see my breasts. I told him no and he grabbed me and forced me to lift my shirt. I was scared and ashamed, but also really excited to be drawing attention. He looked at my chest and told me to let him touch them. I said no and pulled down my shirt and he begged and yelled and made me lift my shirt. At that point I was so scared and embarrassed at his fervour I complied and he felt and looked until he was full. He was 7 or 8. I don’t think he remembers this at all. That’s when the problems started.

When I was 11/12 my mother went into self-crisis. She all of a sudden woke up from the mom-daze her life had been all about since she birthed us and started loosing weight, buying thousands of dollars of new clothes, and going out to meet men who would actually pay attention to her – match her intellectually, emotionally, and physically like my father ‘could’ not. She ‘confided’ only in me, and from a very young age I was the only one who knew what she was doing, who she was giggling with on the phone or where she vanished to for days at a time. I helped her write her newspaper dating ads and hook up with men over the phone and in person. She made me think I was special because she was trusting me with all this, but at the same time, I became the truth buffer between her and the questioning world. When she would vanish for days, I was mom. I was the punching bag. I was the cover story. I was too young to know I could say no even though I HATED her lies and deception. At the same time, as an emotionally wise young lady, I knew she was miserable in a loveless marriage and her overbearing emotions suffocated my own enough that I helped her perpetuate this madness until I escaped at 18.

In public I was this wise little lady but in private I was a mess. I cried and screamed in self loathing and anxiety alone in my room. I began to self harm with knives and burn myself with incense and lighters. I could not contain this anger and boiling emotional turmoil inside me and self harming was a private thing I could do to calm myself and prepare for the next chaotic day.

Around the age of 13 or 14, I was waiting in line for lunch food. I had made a few friends for the first time and was eager to keep them. A crush at the time looked disgusted at my lunch tray and urged, , “you know french fries make you fat.” I looked at him with shock. “They do??” I had not been raised to understand that there were such things as bad and good food for your health and was unaware of what my body looked or felt like. So in that moment, I became, without ever having heard the term, anorexic.

At 13/14 I just stopped eating all meals except for dinner. I figured that I could control this aspect of my life. My home life was utter chaos and I never knew what kind of toxic and dramatic home situation I was coming home to, but this… THIS… I could own. I could change myself merely by controlling what went into me!

I lost 45 lbs in a year. I went from 187 to 140 something and upon entry into highschool I was around 130. Healthy right? NO.

I started receiving male attention for the first time and unconsciously associated that with the weight loss. To me, loosing weight some how made me less invisible to others. I made friends and developed a social group because I no longer had this barrier of fat between me and the world and I convinced myself that in order to keep them or have them love me more deeply would involve loosing even more weight.

When I was 16 I was in a band as a backup singer when I was raped by the lead singer in the back forest behind an antique shop. I had to call a friend crying to take me to planned parenthood asap because I was ovulating. My mother found out about the trip to planned parenthood but also that I had been smoking pot for a while. I was sober at the time of the rape. She grounded me for the entire summer. I was only allowed to see two friends and only for a little bit each week. I was confined to my room in my thoughts. For the next year I lived in a detatched state. I knew I was alive but I wasn’t “there.’ I was doing everything I had to but felt nothing. I gained a lot of weight stuffing my feelings with food.

I ‘woke up’ when I was 17 and met a girl I fell briefly in love with. Until then I had been attracted to all genders but only dated men. We had a brief tryst before I met my next long term partner, but it was enough to bring me back to life and into my anorexia.

By the end of my high school years I was 120 lbs and stopped getting my period. I would not get it again until over 5 year later.

I fought long and hard to get into my dream college where I could be away from my insane family and immerse myself in my passions. I had long before known I wanted to be a therapist and focused applying to artsy hippie schools in the northeast. I got almost a full scholarship to a school that cost over $45k a year and leapt into my college years with zeal and bliss.

I was mostly on studying psychology and anthropology there but it was really the freedom to truly be ONLY me that helped me to learn so many beautiful things about the world and at the same time, drove me into the worst days of my controlling eating disorder.

Even from a far my family was terrorizing me – my mother was playing me against all her foes – she claimed my issues as her own and made her problems mine. I had to manager her life from afar and because I did not want any one to hurt, I complied. My brother was leaft alone in the chaos and went berzerk without me. He began to fail school and fight my family. I would get calls daily about his rages and my father’s suspicions of her cheating. I was begged to help and hide her secrets. I complied over and over.

To balance the chaos there, the perfectionism I portrayed in college, and the turmoil inside me, my eating issues blew up. By the age of 20 I weighed 106 lbs. I am 5′ 6”. My skin was pure white, my veins an ocean blue beneath the almost transparent epidermis. I was in size 0 pants that were too big and it hurt “so good” to sit down. My breasts shrank to nothingness (which I was so grateful for at the time) and my nails and teeth began to fall out. It felt cathartic. I felt like I was purging myself of the toxicity of my home life – shedding my skin into a new better me though college and my anorexia. I had NO CLUE that I looked like a concentration camp victim 0 a shadow of myself.

I had no physical or sexual attention because my partner at the time was miles away and abusive in her own way. I cannot get into it for fear of her knowing I am speaking of her, but sufficed to say, her selfishness and cold nature left me without physical or emotional attention for 4 years while I gave it all to her.

I had strong emotional desire to feel close to others. So much so I fantasied all the time about others around me to the point of having to leave class to masturbate. I was my own lover and loather for so many years.

Around the age of 20, two things happened. My father fell 40 feet from a tree and I met a man who would start my recovery process.

My father fell 40 feet from a tree when trying to make money to come get me home for break. He shattered his leg and fractured his spine. At the same time, the doctors diagnosed him after many tests with dementia.

The family was falling apart around me and I was desperately trying everything I could to hold them and myself together.

At the same time, at the worst of my disorder, I met a professor who gave me such unabashed support and love and companionship free from all ties and conditions that I began to seek some help. Although my body and mind were still very much not in it, I went to therapists and doctors on campus and when I graduated, I was mildly happier and weighed 115.

My mother and father had gotten divorced in the mean time very violently (it involved threats and guns and police and all sorts of madness). So by the time I came home from college to try and begin working as a therapist, the world I once knew was shattered in pieces all around me. My mother was living alone and working for the first time since she was a teen, my father was living with a stranger living on social security due to his dementia, and my brother had run off to join the marines.

I got off on my own very swiftly and began work as a counselor less than a week after graduation. I was making money at a job I loved and was very good at. I knew this was what I wanted to do the rest of my life – working with individuals with a variety of mental health issues and co-ocurring substance abuses seeking to better understand themselves. I was establishing a social circle and feeling a little less tethered down by the madness of my family. I was starting to understand that I did not have to and in fact, could not FIX THEIR problems. I was not their life coach and needed to focus more on my own physical and mental health more than anything.

In 2009 I met the love of my life – the man I will one day marry and on that night, for the first time in 5 years, I got my period and wasn’t afraid. I felt loved and incredibly secure in my life. I could not believe I had met someone so beautiful and caring in all aspects and thought that this was the beginning of the rest of my life.

But very soon after that, I began feeling very ill and not myself. Every day I would awake feeling like I had been beaten in my sleep. I began thinking more and more paranoid and erratic thoughts. I was loosing control of everything I had worked so hard to wrangle in and had NO IDEA why!

Since getting sick with mono in the winter of 2008 during college, my sleep had been disturbed to the point which I was involuntarily waking every few hours and never getting full sleep. I started feeling sick in body and mind – the result of years of body abuse and more than anything, sleep deprivation.

With my love’s support, I began seeing a plethora of specialists – EVERY ONE – to find out why I was slowly becoming sicker. I was gaining momentous weight, my mind was unfocused, and my entire body hurt. When I woke up, EVERY day, I felt like I had been hit by a car. My spine felt as if it was going to collapse and every day I felt myself DECAY.

I stopped eating again. I cried all the time. I wore ugly shlubby clothes. I had an anxiety attack whenever a camera came out or if I saw a photo of me on Facebook. I went to work but felt miserable – detached. But most of all I was ANGRY. Angry that my body decided to give NOW when I FINALLY found love in another and within myself. I was SO scared.

After a LOOOONG time and with A LOT of support from family and friends, we figured it out. I have a sleep disorder where due to eating disorder trauma, my body immediately wakes me up with a rush of adrenaline when I reach Stage 3 and 4 sleep. So without REM, the restorative part of sleep, I was slowly, well, decaying.

So we got me on meds – Cymbalata for my untreated body dis-morphia, depression and anxiety, and Gabatril for my sleep to help me enter REM. After meds, getting my period back, quitting smoking, eating more and better foods, going to consistent counseling with an incredible therapist and letting go of some things I held tight onto, I started to feel recovery.

My love was with me unconditionally and helped me slowly learn to accept and GASP loooove myself!

In the years since, I have become a person and practitioner that I can not only be proud of, but worship unabashedly.

Yeah, I still have my nutty moments, as recovery is an ever lasting journey. But I am learning how to live and love more healthfully. I am setting limits with family that are sensible and secure. I am taking care of myself and others better than ever and when I get upset, I am better equipped to handle it in the moment and thereafter.

I draw, I read, I adventure, I play RPGs, and play with life. I find joy in racooons in my backyard and typos on paperwork. I can honor moment to moment what I could not for my whole life long because I accept life as it is and know that if I am unhappy, I have the power to change it with positive action and peaceful reflection and expression with myself and others.

This is recovery. It’s fucking awesome.

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Tom from Portland

Raised by a Baptist preacher who frequently got run out of town and raped by his older sister starting when he was 4, “Tom” has had a lot to work through.  A great episode about working through trauma especially in families that can’t or choose not to communicate.   Though a serious episode for sure, there is more humor than the title suggests.  Not a downer.

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Email of the Day: Pretending it Wasn’t Rape by Anne Marie

Hi there, I was listening to episode 118 (Kulap Vilaysack Returns) and heard the survey from the woman who said she wasn’t sure if she had been sexually abused and that she went back to the man who she’d told no to after to make it her choice. I had to pause for a second to question whether I’d written that because it’s so similar to what happened to me. I was raped on a cruise while so drunk I couldn’t walk. I told the man no repeatedly and he said if I didn’t want to, I could leave. I was literally unable to leave and he ignored me saying no and did some really horrible things. I left scratches but he joked the next day that I was “aggressive.” I was mostly blacked out during the rape but I remember bits and pieces of it. He thought it was hilarious to tell me all the things “we” did and couldn’t understand why I was upset. It took me about 11 months to call it rape and I had sex with him later on the cruise trying to turn the rape into a vacation fling. One of the biggest turning points for me was reading a book called, “I Never Called It Rape.” It is an AMAZING book full of stories and survey data. I sat down in the middle of a book store and started crying when I read a statistic that said that many women have sex with their rapists afterward the same way the surveyed woman and I did. I thought I was crazy and no one could ever understand what I’d done and that it discounted what I’d been through. Knowing that my experience was “normal” and reading about acquaintance rape really helped me get through a terrible time.

All my best, Anne Marie

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Guest Blog: Why I’m Grateful I Got Sued by American Express and What you Can Learn From My Experience by Nathan Rabin

Why I’m Grateful I Got Sued By American Express and What You Can Learn From My Experiences

by Nathan Rabin 

 

An unexpected ring on my doorbell awoke me early one Sunday morning and I stumbled bleary-eyed to my front door and was greeted by a tall, strapping, sunglasses-wearing sheriff with an incongruously chipper expression clutching a sheath of papers.

“Are you Nathan Rabin?” the sheriff asked brightly before I responded affirmatively and he shoved a document in my hand reading, “American Express Vs. Nathan Rabin.”

“What was that?” my wife asked as she shook awoke.

“I think I just got sued by American Express.” I responded numbly, still trying to process what had just happened.

My psyche had a bifurcated response to this unexpected and unwanted visitor, this uniformed portent of doom. The logical, rational part of my brain processed the morning events as unfortunate but not entirely unexpected development. I had stopped paying my credit card bills. My credit card company sued me. It wasn’t that difficult to understand. The lizard part of my brain, however, was convinced I was doomed to live out my days in a debtor’s prison. Who needed logical evidence? A sheriff. Legal documents. A court case. Scary prosecuting lawyers. In my panic-stricken mind, it all amounted to a future locked in a Dickensian prison for perpetuity.

I flashed back to the phone call seven or eight months earlier where I had agreed to go into a debt consolidation program to handle what at the time seemed like an impossible and unmanageable level of debt. It’s telling that what I remembered most vividly about the conversation where I agreed to enter the debt consolidation program was not what the agent at the other end of the line but rather how he said it. I remembered less the specifics of the programs I was about to enter into less than the avuncular, reassuring tone in his voice that implicitly said, “Everything is going to be all right. You got yourself into a hell of a mess but we’re going to help you get out of it. It’ll be tough but you’ll be all right and we will protect you and make you feel safe.”

In the moment, I desperately wanted to believe that what the man said was true and that if I committed myself to the program and executed it honestly and faithfully then after three years in a scary and perilous and exceedingly expensive wilderness and about twenty thousand dollars in fees I would emerge at the end of the journey debt-free and ready to take control of my financial life.

As outlined by the nice-sounding man on the other end of the line, the road ahead of me would be incredibly difficult. He was not offering to settle my accounts quickly or cheaply. Even if I did everything the debt consolidation program asked of me, my credit score would be decimated. I would have to give up all of my credit cards and, in a flagrant violation of the American way of life, only use money I actually possessed. I was told that debt collectors would stop at nothing to get to me so I could expect a never-ending deluge of calls and letters from debt collectors and, yes, even the possibility, however faint, of legal action somewhere down the road.

The man on the other end of the line was not promising to pay off the accounts for pennies on the dollar. No, even if I did all that was asked of me, I would end up paying well over half of what I owed, albeit—and this is the part I really should have thought a whole lot more about before I took the plunge and signed on to the program—primarily to the debt consolidation group for legal fees and negotiating fees and structuring fees and any number of hidden costs I probably should have paid a lot more attention to at the time if I hadn’t been so hypnotized by the comforting gentleness in the man’s voice.

The journey that the debt consolidation program offered wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t ideal. Hell, it wasn’t even particularly good. From the outset, it was apparent that these people were parasites. I just hoped that they were parasites that would act in my best interests, that they would be bullies that would protect me from other bullies. I saw the debt consolidation program as the lesser of two evils. Sure, they were vultures benefiting from the naïveté and desperation of the poor and stressed but, at the very least, they had to be better than credit card companies and debt collectors, right? That’s setting the bar awfully low. I had no idea at the time how greatly I had over-estimated the integrity, honesty and morality of debt consolidation industry.

I had no one to blame but myself for my plunge into insolvency. In a fit of manic ambition in the summer of 2010 I bought a home, moved in with a girlfriend who would become my wife and signed a contract with Scribner to write a book about fan subcultures that would eventually be called You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me. It was a book I wasn’t sure I had the skill set or journalistic chops to write and the advance was modest enough that financially the book would be a break-even proposition under the best of circumstances once the considerable costs of touring the country following a band and going to myriad festivals and cruises were included. Yes, cruises. Weep not for me, reader, for I went broke in the stupidest, most self-indulgent and moronic manner imaginable. I halfway convinced myself that for my book about fan subcultures I needed to go on the Kid Rock Chillin’ The Most Cruise and Jam Cruise, that these were not ridiculous, unnecessary extravagances but rather essential sociological experiences related to my study of fan subcultures it was crucial for me to document.

So in 2010 I went on cruises and traveled to festivals and followed Phish for an entire summer as my bank account dwindled, my credit card debt accelerated and a crippling, rare, debilitating and uncharacteristic bout of writer’s block and professional insecurity resulted in me being unable to get anything usable out of the vast majority of the experiences from my first year of researching the book. A book I had set out to finish in a year now looked like it would take at least two years to research and write, and cost well over twice what I had originally anticipated. The payday for completing my book that would solve so many of my financial problems sank further and further into the future until it began to seem theoretical at best.

I had always prided myself on being responsible and well-organized but as the book I struggled to write slipped away from me I grew careless and overwhelmed. I was overcome with guilt and shame over having wasted so much money with so little to show for it. I felt like I had let down my editor and my  agent and my publisher and the people I was writing about. It wasn’t until I forgave myself for fucking up so badly and so consistently that I gained the strength and focus to finish my book and begin the process of rebuilding my professional and financial life.

So I justified the expense, hassle and restrictions of the debt consolidation program in part as a steep if reasonable cost to pay, karmically speaking, for having been so careless in the research of my book. It would be tough, but what in this world isn’t? I just wanted to wipe the slate clean, to atone for my financial sins and be granted absolution. This was about more than just money: it was a spiritual yearning, a need to make what had gone terribly wrong right again.

When I enter the debt consolidation program late in 2011 I owed something in the area of thirty-six thousand dollars on six or seven credit cards against a life savings of a few thousand dollars, mostly wrapped up in the stock market, a losing game I never quite had the heart to quit playing. Between my mortgage, bills and living expenses, I barely had enough left over every month to pay the minimum due on each of my accounts, which made making any kind of substantial dent in that thirty-six thousand dollars damn near impossible.

The debt consolidation program offered to resolve my 36,000 dollar debt for 20,000 dollars over a three-year program that began, tellingly enough with the debt consolidation paying itself well over six thousand dollars for services before it even considered paying off any of my creditors. The idea was for me to stop paying off my creditors immediately so that after a year and a half or two years or two and a half years they’d be so desperate to recoup their money that they would settle for accepting twenty to twenty percent of what they owed. In the meantime my credit would be decimated, I’d be hounded by creditors and I would no longer be able to exercise my god-given American right to spend money I didn’t actually have.

Signing on to the program kicked off a solid year of living from paycheck to paycheck, incurring thousands of dollars in overdraft fees and bounced checks and more weeks than I care to remember when the balance of my checking account averaged somewhere in the area of negative four hundred dollars. Financially speaking, I was in quicksand: though the debt consolidation program diligently subtracted a little over five hundred and fifty nine dollars the thirteenth of any month, none of my credit card accounts were being paid off. I was falling behind on my other bills as well. I paid my mortgage later and later each month until I started to engender late fees for the first time. I had always prided myself on being financially responsible but now in the eyes of the world I was a deadbeat, a loser, a bum.

In a capitalist society we use money and status and class to keep score. By that criteria, I was a zero. I was substantially less than that. True, I had been a staff writer for The A.V. Club for fifteen years and was in the process of finishing and publishing my fourth book but American Express seemed patently unimpressed with my literary pedigree. They just wanted their fucking money and weren’t about to relent until they had it.

The debt consolidation program had promised to return control of my economic life to me for a steep fee. Instead, I felt more powerless and vulnerable than ever before. I came to see money as a poisonous, destructive force. I couldn’t imagine a future where I wasn’t constantly strapped, where I didn’t have to keep selling off my belongings to keep the lights on and food on the table. It was as if this life of perpetual financial panic was the only one I had ever known, that I’d never experienced a reality where on some days my only liquid assets were literally the spare change in the Gatorade jar at work. I began to feel as if my problems followed me around like Pigpen’s cloud of stink, that people would look at me and think, “Wow, that guy is completely fucked!” without even needing to know the specifics.

My mind is flooded with vivid snapshots from this period in the financial wilderness, like having a charge for a beer and a slice of pizza get declined at a pizza place in Brooklyn because the credit limit on the one card I still used on emergency occasions had shrunk to under seven dollars because my credit score was so awful or having to call my wife with a mouth full of Novocain and ask if she could pay for a double root canal with her father’s credit card because my debit card had just been declined. On Valentine’s Day.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When the sheriff showed up at my front door and completely upended my sense of security I was only five years removed from receiving a six-figure advance for writing a memoir for Scribner at 31 and only three years removed from traveling the country sharing my heartwarming tale of triumph over adversity in connection with the release of said memoir. When I spoke about how my obsession with pop culture helped me overcome a childhood of abandonment, institutionalization and despair to become a successful writer I felt like a fraud, since all happy endings are provisional, fragile and, on some level, illusory. They’re mirages that disappear in a poof more than sturdy homes to dwell in for perpetuity.

I was peddling a tale of triumph of adversity while convinced that I would forever be mired in adversity, that adversity had become my natural state. It’s hard to buy into yourself as a success story when, deep down, you fear that your success is neither merited nor real. It’s even harder to think of yourself as a success when you’re being sued by a credit card company, are mired in debt and hand-cuffed to a dodgy debt consolidation group for the indefinite future.

Being sued played havoc with my fragile self-esteem and sense of security. It felt as if the bottom had fallen out and that I had compounded the mistake of getting so deep into debt with the even greater error of hiring a debt consolidation group. I once viewed the debt consolidation group as my savior. Now I suspected I needed someone to save me from them.

Like many depressives, I engaged in apocalyptic thinking but when I told my therapist about getting sued by American Express her response surprised me.

“Yeah. The economy sucks,” she responded matter-of-factly in a way that quietly put everything into perspective. This was not some special punishment the universe had created solely for me. I was not being unduly persecuted by fate.

I had simply gotten in over my head like so many people before me. I was not alone. I was, to use a phrase that appears on the podcast often, one of many. Seemingly everybody was hurting financially. They just didn’t talk about it publicly, especially if that hurt took the terrifying, dramatic form of sheriffs and court cases and legal documents.

It’s easy to feel isolated and alone and singled out when a massive international credit card company files a lawsuit against you but I was never alone. I took enormous comfort in that.

In one of the more Kafkaesque developments of my case, I had to pay two hundred dollars to the city just to file legal papers defending myself: It cost me a big chunk of change just to show up in court to defend myself for being so broke I couldn’t pay off my creditors any longer.

For many Americans, debt is part of everyday life. When that sheriff showed up at my front door debt went from being an unfortunate but eminently bearable abstraction to a terrifying, concrete reality, from a constantly shifting and morphing sum of money that I would probably have to pay off at some point, maybe, in the future, to a terrifying reality that could very easily lead to my wages being garnished and my possessions being re-possessed. The not-so-subtle intimation of the sheriff’s visit that ominous morning was that the state of Chicago would take my shit by force if necessary because I had gotten myself into that bad of a bind.

During my first appearance before a judge at The Daley Center in Chicago I endured a scary gauntlet of metal detectors and case numbers and a glowering bailiff who broadcasted her contempt for humanity with every fiber of her being and a judge who looked exactly like Rod Blagojevich and regarded my feeble attempts to defend myself with the debt consolidation group’s help with an all-too-understandable combination of pity and irritation.

Over time I came to appreciate the banal comedy of the courtroom. It felt like I had a five-episode arc as a hapless defendant on a mediocre 1980s legal sitcom about a corrupt Chicago judge and the kooky courtroom he presides over. The wood paneling of the courtroom, the judge who looked exactly like Rod Blagojevich and spoke in a Chicago accent as thick as a slice of deep dish from Lou Malnati’s, the quietly enraged bailiff with her mouth fixed in a permanent frown, her eyes locked in a permanent scowl: it was a very Chicago kind of tragicomedy and I was just grateful that I was but a visitor and not a permanent fixture, a guest star and not someone locked into this dreariness day in and day out.

The debt consolidation group I had signed up with had “Law” in its name but that seemed to be the extent of its connection with the legal profession. During my dealings with the debt consolidation group, the phrase, “Now I’m not a lawyer, but” popped up so frequently and with such dispiriting predictability that it threatened to become a catchphrase.

It wasn’t until after I had been sued that I came to the troubling realization that it was in the debt consolidation group’s best interests to keep me in debt as long as possible. As long as I was still in the system and wrestling with outstanding debts the company could continue to collect fees but the moment I was debt-free the money train would end and those delicious charges would disappear. I had signed on with the debt consolidation group thinking it was the lesser of two evils. I was wrong. I thought I needed them to protect me from credit card companies. It turned out I needed someone to protect me from the debt consolidation company.

So I started opening the letters debt collectors sent me and was pleasantly surprised to find them filled with exceedingly reasonable offers to settle my outstanding debts for twenty five to thirty five percent of the original total. At this point a strange reversal occurred as the debt collectors I had considered the enemy I now came to see as allies with the same goal as me: ending my debt as quickly and cleanly as possible. I similarly came to see the debt consolidation group as a formidable obstacle intent on eking every last penny out of me and keeping me in debt as long as possible.

So I started calling up the debt collectors and settling with them outside the debt consolidation program, which wouldn’t even speak to many of my creditors until much further along in the process (i.e after the debt consolidation group collected all of its own fees). Little by little, I started scrounging up enough money to start paying off my creditors one at a time. It was incredibly liberating paying off a six thousand dollar debt for two thousand dollars. I began to see a sliver of light in a vast eternity of darkness.

I raised a few thousand dollars by selling off my stocks, received some timely aid from my wife’s family and received an additional windfall when we got married. I sold everything I could. Best of all, I was no longer spending tens of thousands of dollars researching a book I was, by that point, well on my way to finishing. I sure as shit wasn’t going on any more cruises, for professional reasons or otherwise. I was no longer careless. I was deliberate. I was focused.

I discovered that I was just as capable of settling with my creditors as the debt consolidation group was. There was no art or science to it, just basic common sense: it was ultimately just a matter of either accepting the offer on the table or proposing a settlement somewhere in the 25 to 35 percent range. I was overjoyed to finally be paying off my debts. It felt as if my financial karma was finally spinning in the right direction. The debt consolidation group warned me that if I settled with American Express too quickly it would make me a much more appealing target for lawsuits from my other creditors but if I paid off all my other creditors that would obviously not be a problem. I diligently began pulling myself out of a deep mountain of debt, one credit card account at a time until eventually the only account I had left was American Express.

I had presumably paid the debt consolidation group somewhere between five to eight thousand dollars for its negotiating prowess and legal expertise but if I had scrawled, “Credit card companies are dumb and bad and money should belong to everyone” on a piece of cardboard paper in red crayon and embellished the statement with flowers and hearts it would have represented only slightly less impressive a legal case than the one my debt consolidation group prepared for me. The judge—who I’m still halfway convinced actually somehow was Rod Blagojevich and not an uncanny lookalike—stopped just short of rolling his eyes and making the universal gesture for jerking off whenever I would stand in front of him and mumble the two or three sentences the debt consolidation group told me to say each time I’d appear in court for some minor matter.

My misadventures in penury ended not with a bang but with a whimper. When I received the final payment for a book I’d written about musical subcultures I was able to call up the opposing lawyers and settle immediately for seventy-five percent of what I owed (not a great deal, sure, but at that point I just wanted the experience to be over). The debt consolidation group had assured me that if I was willing to fight it out in court for five or six months they might be able to knock off five hundred dollars off that amount (while in the process collecting well over five hundred dollars in fees for themselves in the process) but at that point I just wanted the headache to end.

I look back at my descent into debt with incredible gratitude rather than bitterness. My relationship with money is a lot healthier and more functional now. I take profound satisfaction in being able to pay off my bills. I appreciate money like I never did before. I’m even grateful that the debt consolidation group set me on the road to being debt-free, even if I ended up doing most of the work myself.

Empathy is a wonderful gift. I found that my anger subsided when I empathized and identified not just with the other people being sued by American Express (of whom I imagine there are a great deal) but also with the opposing lawyer and even the credit card company suing me. The lawyer with the bad hair plugs did not have some special vendetta against me. He was just a schmuck with a bad job and cheap suits making the best of the shitty hand life had dealt him. And while I came to take a dim view of capitalism and particularly credit card companies during my misadventures in penury and extreme debt you ultimately can’t fault a credit card company for acting like a credit card company or a debt consolidation group for acting like a debt consolidation group.

I can’t even be mad at the people who worked for the debt consolidation group: they were just cogs in a machine that exploits the vulnerability and naiveté of the desperate and strapped. That empathy extends to not beating myself up over wasting a massive amount of money on the debt consolidation program. I was naive and overwhelmed and I made bad decisions out of fear and desperation. There’s no crime in that unless your ferocious inner prosecutor decides to make the case and after my experiences with American Express and the debt consolidation group I’m eager to avoid legal entanglements of any kind, be they metaphorical, psychological or symbolic.

Nathan Rabin is a previous guest on The Mental Illness Happy Hour, a staff writer for The Dissolve, the new film site from Pitchfork Media. He was previously the head writer for The A.V Club, a position he held for sixteen years. You can help him further escape a life of destitution by buying his new book You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me (preferably through the Amazon link on this site!

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Email of the Day: Cutting Ties with her Mom by “Ren”

Hey, Paul. I’m catching up on some old podcasts and am listening to the one with Lynn Chen and wanted to make a comment regarding being afraid to confront your mom because she’s a narcissist who invalidates what you say. FWIW, here’s my experience with doing just that, although that was not my intention at first. If you want to use this on your podcast under listener email or what have you, please feel free. I just ask you call me “Ren” if you do

For years I had always hoped my mom would apologize or at the very least acknowledge the way she treated both me and my dad, but it never happened. The closest she got was admitting she had been jealous of me (she would get the same hair cut I had, buy similar outfits to mine, get piercings to mimic mine, copy my hair color, etc). The final straw was when we were visiting her for Thanksgiving 4 years ago and she made fun of my daughter for using the word “sibling” and said “People don’t talk like that. No wonder you don’t have any friends.” She also gave her a hard time for asking before taking something, and saying “please” and “thank you.” Well, it hurt my daughter’s feelings and made her cry, and I went off on mom and told her that she made fun of me and browbeat me when I was a kid, and by god, she was not about to do that to my kid. It went downhill from there, and I laid everything out that I had been carrying around for 40 years – all the shame, embarrassment, self-esteem issues, her false accusations, the beatings, everything. I was so angry I was shaking and crying, and she went to the other end of the house because the things she was saying back made me so angry I would have hit her had she not gone away, and she picked up on that and made herself scarce. I have never, ever hit my mother, but at that moment if she had not shut up, I am so scared I would have.

My mom was the queen of creating drama where none existed. If nothing drama-worthy was going on, she would make shit up or embellish something to make it sound much worse than it really was. It went way beyond simple exaggeration and was meant to shock and hurt. Finding Chickweed tracked in the house turned into “she found pot” on me. If a male cousin was found to have porn in his house, that made him a child molester. Crazy stuff like that.

I had a miscarriage before my daughter was born and she told everyone in the family I had an abortion. Two of my aunts came to me and asked me about it and said mother had told them this, but they didn’t think it sounded like me. I was stunned. A cousin got into a domestic dispute and she told everyone my cousin had a nervous breakdown and had tried to kill her husband and was arrested. It was more like someone filed a complaint for noise and no one went anywhere. She accused my dad of being on drugs because he had the nerve to come home from work and clean house so she could have time to study when she was in nursing school. He moved the seat back in the car to vacuum underneath so she accused him of cheating on her because the seat wasn’t in the right place. She was (and still is) doing the same thing to others now. Dad is dead so he is away from it now. The last I heard from her was 3 years ago on my birthday when she sent a message to me on Face Book basically threatening me if I didn’t keep quiet (she is afraid her coworkers would find out how nasty and racist she is) and telling me I am either evil or mentally warped. I figure if she is saying or doing anything that would embarrass her, then she is the one who needs to think about her behavior and change it.

The point of this story is: She and I have been estranged for 4 years because of that Thanksgiving blow-up, but I was finally able to say what I needed to say, there were other relatives present who knew what I was saying was true because some of the things that happened were in front of them so many years ago, and they acknowledged my recollections. My mom always had a way of saying “You’re dreaming” or “That never happened and you know it.” I was finally able to acknowledge she would never apologize and was finally able to let go of that hope and move on. My self esteem issues are finally resolved, I feel more competent as an adult, I no longer give a rat’s ass what she thinks about me, and I don’t have the stress or drama that she loves to create among those around her. Two of her sisters who were there and took my side have also walked away from her, because they are not in good health and decided the stress and drama just weren’t worth it anymore. One who is in hospice has told her nurses that mother isn’t allowed anywhere near her. My mother is PISSED about it, too.

Sorry this is so long! Do what you need to do to get healthy and move on. There are worse things that can happen that having your mom cut ties with you. My daughter and I are much more relaxed nowadays, and I have finally stopped obsessing with the thought of my mom reaching out and saying she’s sorry. It is incredibly freeing, and while scary at the time, it was THE most important thing for me to heal. This would make for an interesting memoir some day.

P.S. I am an only child, my daughter is her only grandchild, and I found out about a year ago that we have been cut out of her will. I guess that isn’t entirely true: She is leaving each of us one dollar. I am trying to decide if I should email her and tell her to keep the dollar, or just let it go and let her think she is getting the last FUCK YOU when she finally dies. I would be very tempted to let her know that I know if she ends up dying slowly just to keep her from having the satisfaction. My therapist thinks that may just pull me back into drama. I don’t know…At least that saves me the trouble of being the executor. That’s a pain in the ass

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