Monday, August 25

Am I people's worst nightmare?

**Giveaway alert! Read through to the end!**

Okay, so as many of you already know, I wrote a slightly controversial piece about emergency funds and it was... well... controversial.

Almost everyone disagreed with me. Some produced reasoned arguments; some had extenuating circumstances (such as self-employment). A lot of folks just kept insisting that I was leading myself down a dangerous path.

Whatever the arguments, most of the comments contained one cohesive element: I began to realize that these people’s definition of emergency is what Tim and I call our life.

A brief overview

Most of you know, but just for the record, our financial situation is as follows:

  • I am on disability, earning $832/month
  • My husband in on unemployment earning $1364/month
  • His quasi-COBRA (the company is too small for the real thing) is $476/month
  • My meds not covered by Medicare are about $100/month
  • Rent is $700

I think we can safely say that our current financial situation is not exactly most people’s ideal.

In fact, I had trouble coming up with ways it could be worse. Finally, after some brainstorming, I came up with a few:

  • We could have a mortgage
  • We could have a car payment
  • We could both be on disability
  • We could have children to support

Nightmare? Really?

When you’re busy surviving your life, you don’t have a lot of time for reflection. So I was a little shocked to realize we are living out most people’s worst fears.

This comes with a weird mix of emotions. I was oddly proud, vaguely indignant, and, most of all, I was frustrated.

I always got the sense that we fear disability/unemployment because it limits our options and our income. With so much out of our control, we fear that our finances will come crashing down around our heads.

But Tim and I are surviving. We’re even chipping away at debt .

Still, people seem convinced we’ll fail.

Safety first

The thing is, I think I touched a nerve. Emergency funds allow people to believe they can actively insulate themselves from tragedy. They’re a kind of security blanket: They don’t really have magic powers, but just having them around makes you feel safer.

And there’s nothing wrong with needing to feel safe. The world has so few absolutes, we’re practically forced to manufacture some of our own. After all, if we faced the real amount of uncertainty in the world, we’d never get out of bed. (And even then, the roof might fall on us.)

So, people need to feel safe – no crime there. What worries me is when the issue of safety supersedes critical thinking. In the grip of fear, people don’t act so much as they react.

This feels familiar

Anyone who has ever been serious ill can probably tell you how it changes peoples’ mannerisms. For me, it was going out in a wheelchair. Very educational.

There are two main reactions from the public when you’re young and sick. People either can’t look at you or can’t stop looking at you. (I have yet to figure out which is worse.)

It’s pretty awful when people studiously avoid looking at you. Once I got close, people suddenly found store window displays fascinating.

Seeing me meant accepting that the world doesn’t play fair. And while we all know this on some level, I think it’s seen as bad taste to rub it in.

But the people who did look at me weren’t any better. They stared and stared, looking so earnestly for some clue, some explanation.

If we can name something, we have some control over it. Even more, as we name and define things, we are able to distinguish between ourselves and the “other.” And when the “other” is sick, we need to differentiate ourselves just that much more.

Going the distance

And so when you find yourself talking to people about your condition (or accident, or whatever) you find them nearly desperate to praise you: you’re so strong, so brave; they could have never survived the way you did.

By making you larger than life, they can comfort themselves. You’re strong; you could handle getting sick. They couldn’t. So they’re safe.

How much choice do these people think we have? I was paralyzed and on a ventilator. It’s not like I could exactly scream, kick and bite, or lock out the physical therapist.

Moreover, I was constantly being told that mine was a temporary condition. I would get through this, they said. So I did. Mainly because I wasn’t sure what else there was to do.

Stop the world, I want to get off

So all those people who think they couldn’t handle what I handled… I have some bad news. You don’t really have a choice.

Whether you’re laid up in a hospital bed or getting a pink slip, you don’t get a lot of say in life’s major moments. The universe doesn’t bend itself to your needs – even when you think your world is breaking apart, it’ll be going on its merry way. It’ll probably even whistle a jaunty tune.

I understand that it’s hard to think clearly when you feel helpless. But, sometimes, that’s just what you are. You can throw a fit or whimper in a corner. You’ll probably give in before the universe does.

When you get right down to it, you can only have a breakdown for so long. Scream and cry, if you want. Throw things, wail, and gnash your teeth. Be my guest. Eventually you’ll be tired, dehydrated and hoarse.

  • So you get up for a glass of water, and you notice the dishes are still in the sink. You're pretty sure that's penicillin growing on them.

  • The papers are piling up outside your door. Neighborhood children have built (multi-level) forts out of them.

  • The cat's litter box is starting to offend neighboring countries.

I’m not saying you jump right back into life. It’s much slower a process than that.

But, while you sip that water, you realize that no one is going to fix this for you. So it’s either death by dust-bunny inhalation or rolling up your sleeves and tackling those dishes.

A lesson?

So, okay, people often don’t operate well when they base their actions on fear. So maybe we all need to take a closer look at just what we’re so afraid of.

I was terrified of Tim becoming unemployed. But as his health made him miss more and more days of work, I was constantly tense. I was just waiting for the inevitable. And I constantly wondered how we would be able to pay bills.

So when it finally happened, I was actually kind of relieved. When we found out he could get unemployment, we realized we’d be okay.

All that time and energy I’d spent on fear had been wasted on pointless speculation. It didn't help me prepare. It just frittered away my already-limited energy. Not the smartest choice.

So ask yourself: How much is your fear shaping your strategies, in life and in finance?


In this spirit, I’m giving away a hardback copy of Dale Carnegie’s book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. This book, which has been in my library for awhile, has an interesting approach to stress and fear.

So, here's how to enter:

  1. Refer a friend to the site. I’ll need them to leave a comment, including who referred them. (This gets your blog a mention, too, don’t forget. So it’s win-win.)
  2. Or you can save this story/blog on any social bookmarking site. Just leave me a note.
  3. Link to this story or blog on your own site.
  4. If you haven't already, go ahead and subscribe to this blog and let me know.

Multiple entries are possible, so do more than one or refer more than one person.



Blogger Cat said...

Great post- I really like how you note that you can't stop the world and get off, you just have to deal with things. Kudos for pointing out that one person's worst nightmare is another person's life. Right now I'm in a place most people would consider a nightmare (pregnant, middle of a divorce, debt) but I keep reminding myself of what I do have and it really helps.

August 25, 2008 at 12:01 PM

Blogger Abby said...

Well, first of all congratulations on your impending motherhood!

Obviously it's not the ideal circumstances, but given the situation you describe at least you've clearly thought the decision through. I've always appreciated the whole "Every baby a wanted baby" thing.

I think your situation is definitely, as your blog is called, Stranger than Fiction.

While neither you nor I have the scenarios we might have chosen, we still have a lot of blessings in our lives: supportive moms, and for you, a son, for me my new marriage. I think it's things like this that keep us (relatively) sane.

August 25, 2008 at 1:25 PM

Blogger Cat said...

You're right- I'm grateful for my family and the fact that with everything that's happened emotionally, physically it's been a perfect pregnancy and my son is doing well.

I've been reading your blog for a week or two now and really like your proactive attitude towards things.

August 25, 2008 at 1:46 PM

Blogger Donna said...

Cat: Congratulations, and I hope the stress of the debt/divorce thing isn't taking away from your enjoyment of the pregnancy.
I wasn't at an ideal place in my life when I got pregnant, either: 20 years old, no college degree and the guy didn't stick around. Some people took it as their personal mission to tell me what a mistake I was making.
The baby was the best thing that ever happened to me. She's also the author of this blog.
Good luck, and keep us posted about the little one.
Best regards,
Donna Freedman (aka Abby's mom)

August 25, 2008 at 5:45 PM

Blogger Meg said...

Well, I can't say that I'd want to be in your situation, but then you probably wouldn't want to be in mine either on some levels ; ) But no, your situation isn't close to my worst nightmare. It isn't even my nightmare, per se.

For me, my plausible but not necessarily worst financial nightmare is that my husband, the breadwinner at this point, loses his job. It's Florida and they don't have to have a reason to fire him. Perhaps he gets unemployment, but between that and what I might make (after rushing out to find some minimum wage job) we can no longer pay our minimums on the debt we have, including our mortgage. Things get worse as late fees pile on, our credit score starts turning sour and our interest rates go sky high (right now the highest we have is at 11% and many are much lower for nearly a year from now). We lose our home and have to declare bankruptcy. We leave the home we've worked on, our garden, the neighborhood. We try to find a place to live and they tell us we have to give up some or all of our cats.

No, it's not quite the end of the world. However, having our emergency fund means that if that situation happens, we can pay our minimums until -- hopefully -- my husband can find a job that pays enough. By the way, it's not that I wouldn't try to bring in income, and I am working on that, but right now there's no way it would be just about impossible for me to match his salary -- and probably impossible for him to find a similar salary quickly and without us moving which would also take time.

So there it is. My financial nightmare and justification for having an emergency fund.

August 25, 2008 at 7:49 PM

Blogger Abby said...

Wow, a two-fer!

Yes, I'm very lucky that I don't have to deal with a mortgage in and among all these fun issues. On the other hand, it may also mean not having a house of our own. Which is something I have started to work on accepting.

I hope I am being overly pessimistic, but only time will tell how much work Tim or I will be able to do and how much we can reasonably afford for housing.

That said, Meg, I think your fears are pretty well-thought-out. Which is good. I know the unknown is terrifying. I'd have started bawling if, at 18, I'd learned what I had ahead of me in the next year or so. But here I am, surviving and starting a new life with my husband. So I guess you never quite know...

August 25, 2008 at 8:52 PM

Blogger Meg said...

Hi again Abby,

Yes... sometimes I, too, am glad that I can't and didn't foresee everything. It's tough when you realize that doors have closed and you don't have the options you were counting on, knowing that there are things you worked so hard for that you'll just never be able to do no matter how hard you are willing to work for them.

Life hasn't turned out anything close to how I planned, but being flexible and trying to prepare for what I can has definitely helped me cope. Somehow, things have turned out all right after all, and maybe better than I had planned in some ways, though it's hard to change dreams midstream.

I sincerely hope that plenty of good things have and will come your way to help balance out the bad.

August 25, 2008 at 9:06 PM

Blogger Meg said...

I'm also having a bit of a nightmare life... My partner and I were denied visas to stay in China so we lost both our jobs + our house! Anyway, I have to keep reminding myself that it's temporary and if we could survive for years in a foreign country, we can totally find new jobs and start over!

I dugg + technorati-ed you.

--a different Meg

August 27, 2008 at 8:54 AM

Blogger Abby said...

Well I am very sorry to hear about your visa situation. That is really awful!

You hear all about immigrants here but sometimes we forget that we're not always welcomed with open arms in other countries.

Thanks for the two actions. I'll be sure to enter you twice, "different Meg".

I think you're right though: Learning to survive and thrive in a different culture means you should, after some re-entry adjustments, be able to come back here and do fine.

When I first started seeing a therapist for all the messiness in my head (about a year after going back to school), she said something really useful. She said she didn't think I'd had time to grieve. At the time I thought it was weird. But it has made increasing sense over time. And so my advice to you is to make sure you give yourself time to mourn that life you lost over there. Because we tend to try to make all stories have happy endings, we gloss over pain and look for silver linings. So be sure to remember (if you'll allow me to get all new-age/touchy-feely) that you lost a lot and there's nothing wrong with grieving for that loss because it was very real and very important to you.

Thanks for reading my blog and I hope to hear from you again in the future, preferably with some updates.

August 27, 2008 at 12:12 PM

Blogger DogAteMyFinances said...

I've really enjoyed your blog, and this post. Your perspective really made me think. I'm rooting for you because you're paying attention, and I think you are going to be better than fine.

Just a small quibble, you don't "earn" unemployment or disability. Surely a person as smart and articulate as you can come up with some way to earn money: part-time, at home, something.

A lot of us have had some bad luck, and even serious health issues, but we don't define ourselves with it. That is my worst nightmare, that I am forced to define myself by what I can't do because I can't think of some way to earn my keep.

Good Luck! You've really challenged my world view.

August 27, 2008 at 3:35 PM

Blogger Abby said...


Well first thanks for reading and for your compliments.

Second, yes disability is unearned income.

As for someone so "smart and articulate" finding work... (I'm assuming you were just trying to be helpful and supportive, but you have no idea how many times people with disabilities get dismissed in this manner. As though we would want to live on $832 a month.)

At any rate, it's not a matter of finding work. It's a matter of being able to work.

Here's the deal: Even if I get enough sleep (which is a minimum of 8 hours, usually 9 is optimal) despite severe restless leg syndrome, I have no idea if I will wake up the next day with energy. And if I do have energy, I don't know how long it will last. Sometimes, it's gone before breakfast. Other times, it lasts long enough to run some errands.

I've worked to normalize my energy over the past three years. I pushed so hard, for so long, trying to work like a normal person that I just maxxed my body out. I got so far worn down, it took a year or two just to get back to a good baseline.

These days, my energy is slightly more predictable. For example, I know that I'll probably be able to run an errand or two. But I don't know when. Some days, it's afternoons. Some days it's early evenings. Some days it never comes.

And when you don't have energy, you don't have much brain function, either. When I'm tired, I have trouble finding basic nouns to finish my sentences. I get confused easily.

All this means it's very hard to work within the parameters of most jobs.

I've thought about it all, really. I've considered at-home jobs like medical transcription. But not only is the course schedule very rigid, you are on very tight deadlines to get a set of tapes accomplished. So if I have a bad couple of days, which isn't uncommon, I'm in trouble.

I've also considered part-time work. But doing what is the real question. First, I burned a lot of bridges trying to work when I couldn't. So I have almost no references. And I've tried so many things, plus the three-year absence from the workplace, it's not really apparent where I should go or what I should do. I've tried newspaper work (you're never done), I've tried administrative work (simple enough but between boredom and exhaustion it doesn't work all that well), tax stuff (but I had a bad winter and missed a whole bunch of the class that I felt made me reasonable as a tax preparer and H&R Block's classes are too long and drawn out to make sure I could attend every single one). I've considered bookkeeping but would need to go back and brush up on my computer accounting skills. Even then it's terrifying because you're dealing with someone's livelihood for cryin' out loud! When you get exhausted easily and make mistakes while exhausted, that's a very scary idea. I even was a resident manager. Which didn't go well. Let's leave it at that.

This blog will be a bit of a test. And I'm waiting to be approved for some contract work from home. It's a one-time thing and probably will have an end date within the next year. But it (and the blog) gives me some proof that I can figure out a way to make money in a long-term manner.

Tim is going to make an appointment at the Dept of Vocational Rehabilitation soon, so that they can help him find work he could do even during a flare-up -- or find a good employer who understands (and gets tax breaks for working with the state on stuff like this). So I am hoping that if I also make an appointment, they might be able to figure out something for me. Preferably something that I could do from home, but I'll see wait and see what exactly they come up with.

(And incidentally, I'm only a bit tired right now and, as I went through the message again, I had left out words in about five or six places. Hopefully that gives you an idea of what I'm up against.)

The other major problem with fatigue is that just knowing you have to be somewhere at a specific time (and have energy to get there/work your hours) can be very stressful and drains energy. I know it sounds silly, but you'd be amazed how much it matters.

Anyway, this is a long response but it's incredibly hard to explain to someone who doesn't have ongoing fatigue just how much it affects you. The days I get so tired that it's almost painful to breathe, those are fewer now that I'm more careful about limits. But there are a few days each month even when I am starving but I don't want to eat because chewing would be too much effort. Fatigue is a separate, distinct kind of pain that a lot of people rarely experience.

Okay enough of this doom and gloom. It's a gorgeous day outside and I'm going to have a light dinner with Tim and then maybe take a stroll. I've been falling down on that job, lately. (Not literally, or I'd have to rename the blog "I pick up Abbies.")

August 27, 2008 at 6:13 PM

Blogger The J said...

This is a great post - and very interesting comments.

Funny, but the biggest help to my anxieties was getting sick (CFS). First, I was just too tired to care. Then almost all of the things that I was afraid were going to lead to my personal apocalypse happened, and, well, I'm still here. And my Dad agrees with you about paying down the debt first - and he's a pretty smart (and very safe) guy that way, so I believed him ;). We will still keep a little bit back if it comes down to the wire, because we've found some unexpected things can't be paid with credit cards, but we haven't started building an emergency fund just yet. That's #2 on the list for building ourselves back up!

I well know the quandary of "I can do stuff, I just can't say when I can do it!" - the work world is not built that way!!! I worked with career counsellors and disability counsellors for a long while, until I happened to be really, really lucky this month. Someone was able to get extra funds to hire me to do a scaled down version of what I'd done before, 15 hours a week, only two days a week on site. Nearly keeled me over last week, because other stuff in life popped up, and grabbed my energy! How do you tell someone "well, next week (or next month) I might be able to do 20 hours, but just let me sleep today, ok?". Companies don't like to work with "unreliable" people. Previous to this, I was trying to work on my own business - then I could do things when I could. Except those "things" now had to include bookkeeping, marketing, publishing, etc, etc... try keeping all that straight when your brain doesn't hold a train of thought for more than 10 minutes :P.

What's tremendously frustrating, is that I'm the same person I was 5 years ago, just nobody sees it anymore. Maybe if people stopped being afraid it would happen to them, they could more easily identify, and find ways to include? I don't know. I fully realize that no one can really know what you are going through unless they've been there - and since everyone's situation is unique, no one can be in the same place. I can tell you, when hearing someone's story, I'm a lot more likely to jump pretty quickly from sympathy to "ok, so what can you be/do/think?" now.

I think it's good to do your best to create a situation that is flexible to unexpected events. Even down to tidying up. (We've had a rough week, and are in the midst of packing - stuff is everywhere. This morning, gathering up mugs, I tipped over a half-cup of licorice tea - all over magazines, etc piled on the coffee table. It wouldn't have been half as tough to clean up if things had been tidied away! It just seemed to impact me this morning, the flexibility you get when things are set up to run smoothly - then when something glitches you've got the "space" to take the impact without causing a disaster.) But worrying about the actual nightmares? You can't prepare for that. You just deal.

But kicking and screaming is still allowed ;).

September 22, 2008 at 6:17 AM

Blogger Abby said...

The J,

I completely agree. With fatigue it's about giving yourself as much space to be flexible as you possibly can. Which, unfortunately, makes it hard to do most forms of work that are currently out there.

Most days I have a plan that includes a couple "must do" items and a few "please please please can I get some of this stuff done?" items. I focus on the must do stuff, then I shoot to get one or two of the rest. Some days I can. Some days, it's not an option. But it's about the only way I've found to not beat myself up about it.

September 22, 2008 at 10:50 AM


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