The Complicated Relationship Between Self-Worth and Money
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The weekend beckoned alluringly, a broad vista of fabulousness. For once, we were going somewhere as a family. And not just any weekend or any destination, no—but to the Hamptons on Memorial Day weekend! What could be better, and who more deserving than we? We, who do not commonly take vacations, don’t own a car, and are parents to a six-year-old who gets whatever surplus we bring in?
Friends who own a house on Amagansett were kindly allowing us its use. Of course, we had to ask for it, but hey, we got it! Our kind hosts were to be away in Cuba for vacation (I know, right?), so the timing was perfect. The Universe, it seemed, wanted us to have a little treat. We were even going to spring for a rental car (at 500 bucks, a bit of a gouge, but the house came with no strings, after all). Then, in a further showing of planetary benevolence, a program friend offered us the use of her car for the weekend as long as we returned it vacuumed and washed. Such largesse! Now, if only the weather would cooperate!
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Friday dawned bright and clear, all blue skies and balmy breezes. Even the Gowanus waters sparkled as we miraculously navigated the LIE (Interstate 495) with nary a jam in sight. The fates conspired to give us a weekend in paradise. I was cautiously optimistic. Everything seemed perfect. Even Fresh Direct had come on time, so the Igloo was stocked with watermelon, corn on the cob and brioche slider buns.
Please God, don’t let my husband be crabby or mean.
Don’t let my kid be whiny.
Don’t let me be codependent and passive aggressive.
To the last prayer, I tacked on a preemptive strike of attendance at my kryptonite Al-Anon meeting, the one with the surfeit of old timers and hipster double winners. Off we soared in the Honda sedan, skateboard, kneepads, and Chihuahua in tow.
We arrived in good time, stopping only to savor the sushi and salad bar at the Westhampton Citarella. We then trundled to the nearby private beach and stuck our toes in the crystalline water. We couldn’t believe our good fortune as we soaked up the vitamin D. We beachcombed for coral-colored scallop shells and mottled agates furry with sea moss. Our little rescue pooch took to the beach like the proverbial fish to water. We had been told she came from Missouri, and enjoyed the thought that this was her first ocean dip.
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That night, we cooked a yummy meal and went to bed in fluffy and firm accommodations, the scent of country in our nostrils. After watching Rio 2 and Wet Hot American Summer, we drifted off to sweet slumber.
The next morning was another unadulterated vista of perfection, but there was trouble in paradise—I hadn’t slept well, and felt a bizarre twinge of sadness tugging at my sleeve.
The manicured lawns and dazzling late-model luxury cars seemed to taunt me.
We rent an apartment in the city and have considerable debt. We struggle monthly to pay our expenses and make modest strides forward. Surrounded by opulence and superficial beauty, I began to feel inadequate. The beautiful and seemingly perfect lives being led around us were a bit intimidating. I began comparing my insides to strangers’ outsides. They say you can never be too rich or too thin. I am in danger of neither, but felt claustrophobically surrounded by both.
I’ve been to the Hamptons before, and it never got to me like this. I think it’s because when I’ve gone before, we’ve been guests at weekend parties or hung out in groups. This was different, just us, on our own, navigating the illusion of possession.
The neighbors across the road were putting tons of stuff on their lawn in preparation for a sale. I drifted over to sniff it out. The woman told me they’d sold their home to friends of an art superstar and were moving out. They were bastions of normalcy—thirty-something locals with two little girls—moving to their second home, which they rented for income. I could tell Miranda (or so I’ll call her) was a little sad at selling this pretty home, but the market was good and they’d be foolish not to sell, she told me wistfully.
I scanned a few items and told myself I would be back to see if anything sold. We went to the Parrish Art Museum and looked at Chuck Close self- portraits, all enlarged pores and bristling nostril hair. On the way back, as traffic accumulated, we stopped in town to eat lunch at a see–and-be-seen kind of joint filled with the requisite chandeliers and glossy portraits of inanimate objects. Stuff porn, which there is much of in that part of the world. White-jeaned toothpick people javelined lobster salads as we silently shuddered at the menu. I asked my husband sotto voce if we should bail. My husband, who is prone to extravagance, gamely said “why not?” so we spent a hundred bucks on french toast and eggs.
We were seen, though, that’s for sure.
We scuttled back to the house. Our Chihuahua, like one of King Midas’ victims, had seemingly stood immobile by the door since our departure, poised for our return.
Our kid was getting bored, so I dragged her across the street to the lawn sale. The kids played in the house while I chatted with Miranda. I eyed an elegant white beaded Eileen Fisher dress, still in its dry cleaning wrap, smugly daring me to try it on. I checked the size label: it taunted 4. I decided against it. A pair of lamps I had ogled earlier had sold. I felt despondent. Something was amiss. I felt the spread of isolation and sadness, like a wine stain, seeping into the fabric of my soul.
As the day progressed, Miranda started plying me with the clothes she had arrayed for sale. No one was really buying them, and I think she was getting nervous she’d have to cart them out with her. To the dump or to her next home. There were piles and piles of well kept, neatly folded designer clothes—things I wouldn’t buy for myself (I am more of a thrift store shopper). But the J.Crew tee shirts and Calypso sundresses presented a new identity that I had never known I wanted, somewhere between preppy and bohemian-chic. Très Hamptons!
I chose a few items (miraculously, the size 4 Eileen Fisher fit) and was rebuked when I tried to pay. Miranda kept throwing more clothes at me as the day unspooled. Ultimately, I ended up with a suitcase full.
I felt happy, accepted, and hopeful.
This new wardrobe was the cherry on the sundae of a basically all-expenses paid trip to the Hamptons. It was like we had won a game show or something. I felt blessed, and for a moment the blues dropped away. I bathed in a familiar wash of contentment, the glow of a freebie well-garnered. All would be well. I was taken care of.
So why wasn’t my husband excited?
He almost seemed dejected by my coup—at best, resigned. He wouldn’t praise my fun new image—a red tailored J.Crew button-up and French Connection denim wrap skirt. He was, in fact, ashamed. He told me in the car the next day as we drove back to Brooklyn that he felt bad that he couldn’t provide me with new things.
I have always been enterprising. As a kid, I would tear apart my old clothes and sew new outfits together by hand. I have distinct memories of going out to eat with my family as a child and looking for the cheapest thing on the menu. It wasn’t that we were poor, or anything—my mom gave me a clothing allowance and actually spoiled me after the divorce. I just have always loved thrift store shopping and flea markets—I pride myself on my good eye and nose for a bargain. My mom never bought us store-made Halloween costumes, and taught us to value our creativity over ready-made. I won a costume contest once by painting a box yellow and cutting holes in it, and going as Swiss cheese. I started hair modeling as a teenager, and have had an honorary seat at the L’Oreal testing facility for the last decade. I estimate I have saved about $3,000 by being a peroxide guinea pig, never mind that sometimes the back of my hair looks patchy—I can’t see it. I get $40 haircuts from a mom in my neighborhood who’s handy with the shears.
Lately, though, the bargain hound in me has turned into a rabid basset. I find myself compulsively sifting through bags of old clothes and gear on the street in our neighborhood, hoping no one will see me. I take my place next to the furtive can recyclers and bottle clankers, pushing their spoils in shambling Mad Max carts. I feel a kinship with them, these enterprising foragers who make money out of trash. Recently, I scored two brand new pairs of Michael Kors sandals just in time for summer. I sort through the bags of castoffs that twenty-somethings leave behind as they move forward to their new internships and lives. Aware of, but relatively undeterred by the threat of bedbugs, I gather my trophies and slink off like a weasel with an egg. Don’t get me wrong—I wash and sanitize, and am discerning in my picking. There are awfully good castoffs on any given day in New York City. I wonder sometimes who these people are, the ones who can afford to toss out brand new clothes, and then remember that I have done this in the past.
The intensity of my foraging has gained momentum in a period of economic instability, the likes of which I have never before experienced. I have always struggled with career issues, and have often had jobs that weren’t my first choice, but I always managed to earn my way through life. Now that I am basically a full-time parent and part-time worker, my sense of economic insecurity has escalated, and I find myself preparing for the next crisis, the one right around the corner. I am also stretching myself creatively and pursuing lifelong goals that may or may not immediately pay.
I am thrilled to avoid spending money on myself while my husband rids himself effortlessly of his earnings on new albums, nights out, and other sundries. It is a binge/purge cycle of classic proportions. My mom told me that my grandfather used to keep his tee shirts and silk handkerchiefs in the mahogany dresser while my grandmother stored her underwear in fruit crates. Appalled, I asked why. “Your grandmother grew up in the Depression,” she mused. “I guess she never got over it. And she was of the generation that gave everything to the man. Once he died, she started buying herself nice things.”
This information didn’t square with the woman I knew to be well-dressed and generous, a woman who took me every fall to Nordstrom for back-to-school shopping and once let me talk her into buying an $800 orchid-colored suede trench coat that she craved. I will never forget the look on her face when she decided to buy it for herself. I hope I get to wear that look one day, never mind the coat. Grandma was in an alcoholic marriage and didn’t fully bloom until Grandpa died. Then it was as if she had a lot of catching up to do. The genie was out of the bottle: trips, jewels and shopping excursions. I was the lucky recipient of this largesse, and perhaps took it for granted.
Yet now, as a grown woman with a husband and child, I am living out some kind of apocalypse scenario.
When I was 15, I lived in an abandoned beer factory and some punk rock squats before I ended up briefly homeless. At the time, I was a teenaged speed freak on the run from my family and its circumstances. My running buddies were dumpster divers. But as a basically middle-class girl in the grips of an addiction, I was a little disgusted by the diving and more into the drug end of the equation.
So how have I become a trash picker at this late stage of my life?
When I first sobered up, I got a well–paying, though humble, waitressing job in a diner. I was 21 and back in college, so waiting tables wasn’t yet humiliating. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but it was okay for the time being. I remember needing a new bedding set and becoming paralyzed at Macy’s as I tried to choose one. The sets were all relatively expensive by my standards, and yet they all seemed unsatisfactory and overpriced. I must have stood there for at least 30 minutes, flummoxed by the magnitude of the decision. A sort of paralysis overcame me to the point that I realized it was unusual. I simply couldn’t buy myself something I needed and could afford. A creeping feeling of deprivation was percolating in me. I finally chose a set, and uncertainly left the store. I think that was a bellwether moment for me, one in which I realized I had issues with money and spending. If I were to categorize it now, I would call it financial anorexia.
This little clarion call of dis-ease around spending has gotten louder over the years.
The mantra it murmurs is this:
There will never be enough for you. Not enough money, not enough love, not enough recognition. Better you should hide and avoid scrutiny. (For some reason, it has a Yiddish accent.)
My attempts to reckon with this belief have been intermittent, but successful when I have used the steps to address it. A brief period of attending DA (Debtors Anonymous) helped me gather some tools that were quite effective in overcoming these outdated survival tapes. In particular, keeping numbers has always helped me to get clarity, willingness, and a sense of hope about the financial future. Still, I have never fully worked all the steps of DA with a sponsor, and I am afraid it shows.
The disease is a shapeshifter, always cunning and baffling. Underearning and underspending are two sides of the same coin for me—both come with a lot of shame and fear. I justify austerity with moral superiority. I cloak it in high-minded ideals. As an actor, I chose the most notoriously difficult profession to actually earn a living in the world, where about 95% of the union never works. My day jobs as a writer and yoga teacher aren’t much better. Even a text I revered as a young actor, entitled Towards a Poor Theatre, burnishes the myth of the starving artist. In yoga, I found many philosophical reasons to not consume. I enjoy the sensation of floating above the world on an ethereal cloud of non-needing. It’s easy to mock the baseness of those playing the game, but to the victor belong the spoils. Making silk purses from sow’s ears is the way I learned to isolate myself from suffering and needing others. But where does simplicity end and lack begin?
I have a responsibility now not only to myself, but to my husband and child, to earn a decent living. I must come down off my holy mountain (which can turn on a dime into an abject pit) and get vulnerable and real: I don’t make enough money to support us or to get ahead. Yes, I do the bulk of the child-rearing and domestic work, and yes, I am an artist, but the truth is that I am not happy constantly fretting over how I will pay my next round of bills, never mind actually creating security for the future.
I look out at the world’s riches, the beauty, the love, and feel apart quite frequently. I have hermetically sealed myself off in a bubble of non-needing. I have always loved fashion, but never indulge in shopping for what I would really like. I pretend it’s ok, but as my life goes by, I am not enjoying the things that would give me pleasure.
What does this do to me as an artist? On one hand, I seek refuge in my imagination and my creative gifts. I can make things, forage for others, and accept gifts as they come. I am justifiably proud of what I can pull together from nothing, life as stone soup. On another level, I am quite convinced I have underachieved and underearned because I lacked the financial reserves to fund my talents. In some ways, this may have been a subconscious excuse to not try. On some deep level, I think I am afraid to be noticed—I equate it with death. Where this phobia comes from, I am not sure, but if I had to guess, I would say it has something to do with a traumatic episode of childhood sexual abuse.
When I was still using, I had a guitarist boyfriend who dressed in rags to go home for the holidays. I asked him why, and he told me he was hoping they’d pity him and give him money. I was disgusted and shocked. How pathetic, I thought. I have always had too much pride for such a charade. And yet, in my own way, I have hoped that someone or something would rescue me from my circumstances. And now I realize that only I can, with the aid of my higher power.
A friend of mine is about to get several million dollars in a lawsuit for malpractice. She has gone through years of suffering and addiction to painkillers as a result of a botched surgery for a painful condition. I found myself envious of her impending payout, which will ensure she is secure monetarily for the rest of her life. But would I really change places with her? I have been given gifts and tools, and no more than what I can handle. If I need more, I can ask for help from my higher power and a support group dedicated to these issues. If I am experiencing a particularly uncomfortable situation, or series of lessons, it is truly because my loving higher power wants me to go deeper—this has always been the case in my recovery.
I have come to understand that gratitude is the key to unlocking abundance. Having and feeling secure are about perception. I need to always appreciate what I do have: health, talent, a loving family, my long-term recovery, many accomplishments, and many dreams. I am willing and able to pursue a vision of success and abundance with the help of my higher power. The victim role is not for me. (Unless it’s a well-paid acting job.)
I am planning to go back to Debtors Anonymous. I want to get in recovery for this very painful situation. My higher power lifted compulsive and lethal drinking and using, and I am sure it can help me with my money issues. One day at a time.
And you want to hear something funny? All those clothes from the Hamptons? I don’t even wear them. I am probably going to put them out on the street for someone else to pick through.