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Addicted to Poverty No More

It wasn't the money but the thinking about money that led me to more debt and homelessness--until I learned how to break the cycle.

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All washed away. Shutterstock

By Dianne Penka

01/22/14

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“It’s not about the money.”

One of the truisms that often pops up during shares in the 12 Step program of Debtors Anonymous. Try to convince this to someone who’s crawled into the room with $10,000, $50,000, $100,000 or more debt hanging over their head like a vulture on a dead tree. Yet, how I came to these rooms is a living example of this simple statement. 

Most people think…”if only I had X amount of money this would all be solved” but lottery winners are often broke within a few years of their winnings. My story is simpler but nonetheless based on the same wishful thinking, vague planning, and anxiety-fueled, misguided actions that lead many poverty addicted souls to their debt-ridden knees. 

Started Off With a $3,000 Debt

With recovery success in groups such as CoDependents Anonymous and Adult Children of Alcoholics, I was able to admit I was utterly and completely powerless over my money issues. I was only $3,000 in credit card debt but that was too much for me, and my income wasn’t getting better. I was in my mid-forties and could see a gloomy single room studio apartment in my future while I struggled to pay the bills. No Thank You! Relieved to find a Debtors Anonymous program, I became willing to change, got myself into the rooms, began to go to meetings and made earnest efforts in the suggested Debtors Anonymous way. 

 I understood the importance of becoming “teachable.” My ears grew larger and my mouth grew smaller.

During that tender beginning, I entered into a confused, unwritten, business arrangement with my brother who agreed to buy a house I would live in and pay the mortgage on. Rescued! It turns out my brother didn’t have the money to do this and I was completely uneducated on the finer points of purchasing property. I was soon homeless. Although I did continue the practice of not debting one day at a time and keeping my numbers and a spending plan, as many newcomers do that first year, I also stopped attending meetings.

The Windfall

I had a little income and stayed with friends or rented a room while I waited for my luck to turn and within a few months of hopping around… a miracle…or what DA calls a “windfall” occurred. A successful friend commissioned a series of 10 paintings for $55,000. I would receive $5,000 a month. I immediately payed off my $3,000 debt, found the perfect coach house; apartment above, art studio in garage below, and I settled in and started painting. I did not return to DA, after all… I was no longer in debt and apparently thriving.

I was sober enough to know the money wouldn’t last forever and although I knew nothing about running a business, I decided to use the money to start one. For two years, I painted and began to take action on my dream of having a dog training business. 

Then I got a call from my friend who had some money pressures of his own and had to cancel the last two commissions—a total of $10,000 I had been expecting to help me get my business together. Although I had been spending the money carefully (the $45,000 I had already earned lasted almost two years) I had not put any savings away. So I did what any good debtor would do—I got the credit cards going again. Using my brilliant business thinking, I decided that I wasn’t really debting… businesses needed investors, I was going to be my own investor and I would pay the credit cards back when I began to generate income from my business. Great idea!

Ended up with a $24,000 debt

Before I knew it, I was $24,000 in debt—$18,000 the principle, and $6,000 in late payments and interest. In my brilliant business plan I hadn’t realized that a dog-training business was not just about training… it was about generating clients. Unable to pay the rent, I found that dark vision—renting a room and struggling to make the rent—had become a reality, when I had to give up the coach house and move into a rooming house. I went from a $3,000 debt before the windfall to a $24,000 debt after the windfall.

It clearly isn’t about the money. Make a million, go into debt for five million. 

I admitted I was totally and utterly powerless over debting.

I was willing to revisit that first step again. I was clearly clueless. I just didn’t “get” money. My simplistic thinking about money started with “you need to get it” and ended with “you have to spend it.” That was the extent of my very superficial relationship with money. I had spent my life as an artist where earning and managing money did not appear on my list of things that needed attention. The painters of the fifties were my heroes. A studio, paint and canvas were all that was needed. I always seemed to get by, with a little help from my friends and family (Rescued!), part time jobs here and there and the sale of my art. But I was getting older and the crows were coming home to roost. 

During my years of recovery I have clearly seen how my money issues were not “about the money” but the way I thought about the money and clearly the way I handled the money. I had been living the unfortunate consequences of those erroneous thoughts.  

I turned back to Debtors Anonymous and became willing to learn. I made a commitment to go to the same meeting every week for one year and Not Miss One Meeting. I didn’t miss a meeting for five years and after that, rarely. Today, I’ve been in the program for going on 18 years. For the last year I’ve attended mostly phone meetings since I am busier than ever, but I miss the face to face and am planning on starting a new one in the new year.

Addiction to Zero

During my recovery I began to notice that I felt very uncomfortable if I had more money than I needed. I once received a painting commission for $5,000. I only needed $3,000 and, although grateful to receive it, I noticed a strange, inarticulate discomfort about the extra $2,000. Strangely within two days I got a call and the project was scaled back to $3,000. I experienced a subtle sense of relief. 

I noticed how difficult it was to save money. If I got a tidy sum I would quickly spend it, always on things I needed—life is expensive—but I noticed that I had an emotional investment in getting back to zero. Kind of like a gambler who is really addicted to losing. I became aware that I was addicted to Zero, or less than. I have a strong spiritual and artistic bent and there seemed to be a deep programming that felt uncomfortable with having more than I minimally needed. But that was another old story that wasn’t working anymore. 

Although I stopped using credit cards soon into the program (I did make the early choice of bankruptcy), and made prodigious efforts to avoid unsecured debt, I continued to find myself in some kind of debt—tax or medical debt or the occasional personal (but secured) loan. Debt is cunning baffling and powerful. I would pay everything off and another debt would sneak in. I paid off all my taxes (woo HOO!) then got another bill for the late charges (damn!). I would pay off my personal secured loans and have to go to the emergency room for chest pains. Without insurance.   

“Figuring things out on your own is not a tool in the program”—another truism that helped me accept guidance or Good Orderly Direction. 

The 1st  Step, the admission of powerlessness, helped me understand that alone, isolated in my decisions, I would make errors, serious errors designed to sabotage me. Left to my own devices I would keep going in circles making a deeper groove into old patterns with every turn of the circle. 

The 2nd Step allowed me to accept the idea that there was help, a way out. I wasn’t alone, there were others who had been where I had been and were now thriving thanks to this program. I understood the importance of becoming “teachable.” My ears grew larger and my mouth grew smaller. 

Most importantly, with the 3rd Step I learned, slowly but with increasing acceptance, that there really was a Power greater than me that would and could restore my crazy, erroneous, self-absorbed, stinkin thinkin to some kind of sanity. I slowly but surely began to accept the 3rd Step on a deep and profound level. My Spiritual guide, my Higher Power, has become a partner, friend and teacher. And it truly is powerful. We come to expect miracles and, at some point, I looked back at all the amazing miracles in my life and realized it would have been insane to not accept the idea that something remarkable was guiding my life. Giving myself over to it was the only sane thing to do. 

18 Years Later

I have been in Debtors Anonymous now for 18 years. I have finally paid off all my personal loans, hospital bills, and except for that $138 late payment, all of my taxes. And that will be paid off within the month. I haven’t used a credit card in 17 years. I don’t live in a rooming house, instead I have a stunning apartment with a backyard I can garden in, a great view out the front window, an extra room with a wonderful roommate, all in a great, friendly neighborhood. I’ve had my own small business publishing a 14,000 copy, bi-monthly magazine for five years. Something I wouldn’t have imagined doing in a million years but as it turns out, I’m exceptionally good at, take great pleasure in and which provides a great service to my community. I also have a second job dog training again…this time for a corporation. I utterly love the job, am exceptionally good at it as well, and it pays my rent and bills. It would not have happened without working the program, not perfectly but consistently. I became willing to learn how to have a sane, adult and responsible relationship with money through sponsorship, working those Steps and picking up the Tools of DA one at a time. It created a sea change in my thinking and actions.

I still have work to do. More growth. But now, instead of a growing dread about the future, I feel excited, connected, useful, blessed and grateful.

Dianne Penka is a pseudonym for a publisher, editor in chief, reporter and writer.

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