Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The shame of being poor

     I've pretty much been poor my entire adult life. Well, actually I think I was somewhat poor as a kid too, but my mom was pretty awesome and I didn't really realize we were poor. That's a shout out to my mom. Yay, Mom! I think I only knew we were poor because I got reduced price lunches at school.
     Throughout my seventeen years as an adult, I've nearly always (with the exception of a few months here and there) worked full time or went to school full time. Financially, my head has always been just barely above water, and I don't entirely know why. Working in the non-profit sector doesn't exactly help. It also doesn't help that I have a BA in psychology and live in Boulder, where people like me are a dime a dozen. And oh yeah, it's Boulder, where the cost of living will reduce you to tears. But I didn't metaphorically come here today to discuss why I'm poor. I came here to discuss how ashamed I am about it.
     There. I said it. I'm ashamed. Excuse me while I go cower under the bed.

    Okay. I'm back. I've always been ashamed of being poor. I hate to accept help from others. I do accept help when it is offered, and I'm grateful that there are people in my life who are willing to help me, but I hate that I need their help. I hope to one day be able to give back, but I don't know when that day will be.
      I've often made only slightly more than enough to cover rent and bills, leaving me with very little money for food. Yes, a jar of peanut butter and nutrition-less white bread are really very cheap, but one can only have so much energy on a diet like that. So, I spend a little more money to eat semi-healthy, and to also enjoy the occasional comfort food. Then I inevitably feel guilty for buying moderately priced food that actually tastes like food. One of the worst feelings I've ever had is guilt that I bought food.
     At this point in my life, my situation is close to as bad as it's ever been, except for that time in 2006 when I was homeless, but that's a story for another post. I'm currently on temporary disability due to a workplace injury and don't know when I will be able to return to work. Prior to my injury, I was making just barely enough to survive. My worker's comp benefits are two-thirds of what my wages were. Two-thirds of just barely enough is not enough.
     As I described in my "Comfort Dental leaves a discomforting taste in my mouth" post, I'm currently in need of a root canal. I have used up my allotted Medicaid dental funding for the year. Today I visited an agency in Boulder which provides emergency housing, food, medical, and other assistance to people in need.
      I really didn't want to contact this agency. I am grateful that this and other charitable organizations exist, but I've always thought: those are for other people. They're not for me. I must've done something wrong. Surely someone else is more deserving of that money.
     Friends, family, the dentist, and the horrendous pain in my mouth convinced me to make an appointment. Once again I feel the shame of being poor.
     Just last week my boyfriend's mom gave me a purple leather Coach handbag that she's never even used. It's awesome. Because it's purple. Purple is awesome. Yay! Look at me all classy with my Coach leather handbag! Then I think: I can't walk into this place with an expensive handbag, they'll think I'm trying to scam them. So what did I do? I stuffed the purse inside an ugly canvas grocery bag before going inside. Shame on me.
     I realize on a cognitive level that the shame I am feeling is not my own. It didn't come from me. I know that I didn't do anything wrong. I didn't choose to be poor, and I didn't choose to get injured. It's just life. But what I know logically and what I feel inside are two very different things. I feel ashamed for needing help.
     I'm trying let these feelings go. I'm trying to hold my head up high. Actually, I do hold my head up high, but inside I'm cowering in a shell. These feelings are not my own. They come from society and the various stigmas that unfairly get placed on the lower class.
     Today I realized something that makes me feel sick inside. Society's stigma on poor people is so imbedded in my brain, that I just don't feel it in regards to myself. I feel it about other low-income people as well. Today I was sitting in the waiting room thinking about the people around me. Part of me was thinking along these lines: "I'm not like them. I didn't do anything wrong. They probably don't have a degree like I do. I'm better dressed than that person over there."
    Yes, these are thoughts that have gone through the back of my mind on more than one occasion. I hate that I sometimes have thoughts like this and I really hate admitting that I have them. There is no actual reason I should be thinking this way. I don't know anything about these other people. They have hopes, dreams, talents, and lots of other people-like qualities. They aren't worse than me. They are stuck in a bad situation through no part of their own, just like I am. I know this on a cognitive level, just like I know that I am not a bad person, but I don't always feel it deep down where it counts.
     Now the question is: do I view other poor people as "worse than me" because I want to be able to view myself in a better light, or is it because how I feel about them is a reflection of how I truly feel about myself? I don't know. Perhaps it is a little of both.
     I am writing this with the hope that putting my feelings out there will allow me to let go of them. I don't truly believe poor people are bad people. I don't truly believe I'm a bad person. It's an idea that has been instilled in me, and I want to get rid of it.  I'm going to hold my head up high and try my damnedest not to be ashamed, and to have compassion for those in situations similar to my own. Actually, I'm just going to try and have compassion for others. Period.
     One of my favorite sayings is: it can always get worse. And it often does. But when it gets worse, I just tell myself: it could aways get even worse. I find it comforting. I hope you do too.