A little over ten years ago my family faced a debt crisis.
Unbeknownst to me, my husband had been racking up credit card debt trying to get some businesses off the ground, and he'd borrowed large sums of money from friends and family. He'd also taken out a second mortgage on our home, a mortgage we could no longer afford.
When he finally admitted to me there was no money left to pay our bills, I was stunned. I collapsed into a deep depression, interspersed with periods of feeling terrified, angry, and ashamed.
I was raised in a family where you lived within your means, saved more than you spent, paid your bills on time, and never talked about money. Not being able to handle one's finances was perceived as a moral failure, and I felt as though I'd failed miserably.
At first, the only people I spoke to about the debt were professionals, but they were focused on the practical side of the debt, such as advising me about bankruptcy protection or telling me how to avoid foreclosure on our home.
These conversations didn't relieve the enormous emotional weight of the debt I carried around with me every day. The conversations usually made me feel worse.
I knew things were bad when experienced bankruptcy attorneys were unable to hide the shock on their faces when my husband presented them with the total amount of debt he'd taken out in our names. The first time I heard the number, I ran to a bathroom to throw up.
I realized that I needed to share my emotional burden with someone or else risk falling into a deeper depression. I began reaching out to a few trusted family members and friends. It wasn't always evident how people would react. Mostly it was with compassion and sympathy, but there was occasional judgment and scorn.
One of the mothers of my son's friends ended up becoming my most compassionate confidante, while another friend, someone with whom I was very close, seemed to enjoy watching me suffer. (The Germans call this schadenfreude, which literally means "damage joy.")
And while my family erupted with anger when they learned about the extent of the debt, it was not directed at me, but at my husband. However, their anger with him worsened my own feelings of shame and guilt, and it divided our families.
Despite any negative reactions I received, "going public" with my debt was a good move in the right direction. I no longer felt like I had this horrible secret I had to keep hidden from friends and family, which relieved a lot of the emotional stress I carried around.
As I opened up to friends and family, I also learned that some of them, too, had dealt with debt during their lives. Hearing their own stories and how they worked through their own difficult times gave me hope I'd figure out a way through my own.
The most significant benefit for me has been learning from the experience. One of my biggest fears in life has been going broke. That fear actually came to be, and I survived it. It wasn't pretty, it wasn't an adventure, and I certainly don't want to repeat it. But I discovered I'm a lot stronger and more resilient than I thought I was.
Going through a debt crisis deepened my compassion for others. It can be easy to judge and think people are where they are in life because they've made the wrong choices. For example, medical debt is a huge problem for millions of Americans. All it can take is one hospital stay or an unexpected medical diagnosis to trigger a devastating financial crisis. Bad things happen to good people, and the choices we make in life don't necessarily factor into outcomes.
With some help from family, friends, and professional guidance, I was able to recover financially. It didn't happen overnight; it took years to get back on my feet.
My marriage didn't survive the crisis, and I had to switch careers and move to another state as these decisions made the most financial sense for me.
Over time, my credit score went from sub-500 to over 800, which has remained steady for the last several years. I was lucky in that my parents had taught me good money habits that, now back on my own, have served me well. I pay myself first, live within my means, keep close tabs on my spending, and do my best to prepare for the future, which is uncertain for all of us.
In addition, I abandoned the family credo of never talking about money. I'm in a relationship now where my partner and I sit down together every week to talk about our finances, retirement plans, and how we spend our money, and I have friends with whom I'm comfortable talking about financial matters. It feels good to be open about a subject that's so important in our lives!
I'm here today to say that wherever you are with your debt, help is available. You don't have to suffer alone. You can start by confiding in a trusted friend or family member. Groups like Debtors Anonymous can offer emotional support and camaraderie from other people dealing with similar money issues.
Recently Hanscom FCU began offering free financial coaching with certified coaches. This is something I would have taken advantage of years ago as a member who regularly banked at our Bedford branch.
You can begin the process of unburdening yourself from the yoke of debt by speaking with a professional who can help you get back on the path to financial wellness.
And because we know talking about debt and money can invoke shame and embarrassment, our coaching is confidential and judgment-free. You can even meet with a coach at one of our branches, talk on the phone, or meet virtually through your computer. I know it's hard to talk about your debt; I've been there. But you don't have to deal with it alone.
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