The $280,000 Problem

By Mark Gilman 02/05/15

The money never helped my life before Debtors Anonymous. 

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I’m jealous of people who ran businesses or made huge sums of money before embracing recovery. I never drank or did any drugs and I did absolutely nothing with my life. I am a debtor and an underearner recovering in Debtors Anonymous. I spent five years after college pissing away a six-figure inheritance, barely working. On February 5, 2010, I started going to DA meetings. Only then did I start doing anything remotely functional. I still need DA to keep my life on track. This is the story of my life before the rooms.

The only thing that got me seeking recovery was limitations, running out of money, and being cut off from my parents.

My Great-Aunt Esther (pseudonym) left me a six-figure trust to tend to my education and other needs when I was fourteen. My parents were unburdened from paying for my college education. I would never know the pressure of student loans; I could attend any university I wanted.

Graduating college in 2005, I was left with $280,000 ($340,000 in 2015 dollars). I had no clue of what to do. Being one of the smartest kids in school, I had never learned how to work. I hardly had to study, the answers were always there. Instead of embracing the challenge of essays, I would do them in a rush then get praised for my ideas. Meanwhile, struggles at home and in school with behavior, responsibility, and boundaries made me convinced I was incompetent. I feared my lauded intelligence was a parlor trick, and that I was unable to do anything real. I knew the world outside school would not be easy and this left me terrified.

During the two years after college, I would watch television, surf the web, go out to eat, and a few times a week attend a dance. My room was a pigsty, a “fuck you,” to the idea that I had to conform to expectations. I was very comfortable in deprivation and discomfort. My room matched my feelings.

My parents were not happy. Had I been working, or just getting out of the house, my folks would have been fine with me living at home. I secretly enjoyed hearing their worries and threats while remaining unmoved. In June of 2007 I found a place on Craigslist and moved in with Dane (pseudonym), a polite, tense guy in his mid 40s.

Living on my own meant I had to pay for everything and I was terrible at it. I lost my health insurance due to late payments. I attended a single DA meeting because of this, caught up in the drama of saying how broken I was while being unwilling to do anything about it. Losing the insurance was a big deal, it was for medication for depression and ADHD. But since the sticker price for the meds was less than my insurance cost, I could ignore the error of my ways.

I struggled with daily finances. My inheritance remained in a trust until I was 25, till then I had to submit spending reports to get money. I would have to save receipts for about 75% of what I spent and mail them in with a simple invoice; the trust just needed proof that I wasn't up to anything illegal. Organizing receipts and adding up expenses felt like swimming in molasses. I would often wait too long to request money and run out. A six figure piggybank was at my fingertips and I would have to ask my parents for brief loans. When they stopped doing that, I would have to figure out how to spend only 30 bucks on food for three days. None of this stopped my behavior.

I found ways of playing the same games with Dane that I played with my parents. My room was a mess. I would watch TV late, making it hard for him to sleep. I would find myself in the mood to cook at three in the morning. Offers for a monthly lunch went unheeded. He was a timid person, emailing me instead of talking in person. I walked all over him. I only lived there a year, then found my own place.

In August of 2007 I found something to do—graduate school. I settled on becoming an English teacher. I imagined how fun it would be to teach whatever I wanted in class. I had dreams of using English class as a way of deconstructing what students learn in general: teaching about primary sources, and the process of how textbooks are written. I was going to blow minds and take names.

My dreams were ambitious but my work ethic was not. From day one, I followed the same pattern I followed in college: show up late, do little homework, and procrastinate on all assignments. I knew I could coast by on my smarts and poor grades didn't stop me. Essays were written in less than 24 hours of the due date. Some final papers got extensions and were never completed. I dropped several classes to avoid a failing grades. I spent my second year taking the requisite English classes I needed for my degree at some city colleges. I thought this would change things, it didn’t. In the spring of 2009, I dropped out.

Living on my own changed nothing. I could not manage to keep my apartment remotely neat. I hardly ever had anyone come over, except ladies for romantic trysts. I tried hard to clean up before they arrived, though some were noticeably uncomfortable, and did not return. This changed nothing. My mother suggested hiring a cleaner twice a month to help me keep the place tidy. I refused. It was giving in, doing what “they” wanted, instead of doing what I wanted. Looking back, her idea was pretty good.

So why didn't I travel, see the world, escape my bullshit game and have fun? I was scared. I was too comfortable living in pain and deprivation. I rationalized that I wasn't socially savvy or mature enough. I told myself if I waited until I could support myself for a year, then I would be ready. I was too frightened to try something fun.

I did have one fun activity: swing dancing. The money let me take numerous dance classes, and expensive private lessons. Flying to other cities for workshops or weekend-long dance parties was never an issue. Though, I found that even with my passions, my disease still reared its ugly head. I would come to dances an hour and a half late, I would sign up for dance weekends in other cities and miss flights frequently (so I would waste money on rebooking fees). Sometimes, I would not go at all because I was overwhelmed with schoolwork or malaise. Once or twice I ran out of money while at an event, waiting for a disbursement from my trust, praying I wouldn't be left without spending money - or the ability to buy a plane ticket home.

After grad school, I decided to work. But my feelings of inadequacy plagued me, replying to job ads was painful. I was afraid no one would hire me, and my fears of uselessness would be proven true. Each inquiry to a job posting was a reminder that things were not easy like they were in school. I could not impress people with being smart and clever, and I was convinced I didn't have what it took to get ahead. I wanted to ignore the problem, hoping it would go away.

My first job was in the summer of 2009, I was doing door-to-door sales selling digital cash registers to restaurants. Everyone wants to sell to restaurant owners, so most of them did not have the time, or the interest. I was paid only one day a week for coming to the office and making sales calls, I was on my own for the rest. I was so intimidated I spent most of my time at home. I quit after three months, I never made a sale.

After that, I did some after-school tutoring. I was occasionally punctual. I would have to follow up with my employer with status reports and timesheets. I would always find a reason to send them in as late as possible. I was hardly working, running out of money and too scared to do anything about it.

I finally came to Debtors Anonymous on February 5, 2010. I was scheduled to go to a dance event that weekend in Philadelphia, but a snowstorm delayed the trains. I took it as an opportunity to attend my first meeting; it was the start of a very slow recovery. Had I inherited millions, I'd still be a dilettante. The only thing that got me seeking recovery was limitations, running out of money, and being cut off from my parents. Today, I have a thousand dollars to my name, but I show up to work on time, and take care of myself. Today, I feel better than when I had all the money I could spend.

Mark Gilman lives in New York City. You can follow him @untinydancer. He last wrote about how DA helped his food issues.

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