Today is payday for my day job, which means that I sit down and pay the bills that will be due before the next payday. Perhaps it just means the capitalists have won, but the feeling of it being payday and sitting down and being able to pay all of your bills – there is truly nothing like it.
I get how sad that sounds. But I have spent a not-insignificant portion of my life – both as a child and as an adult – not having a lot of access to money to pay just the regular, everyday bills. Poverty changes your brain.
In my twenties, my business card said I was an “Account Executive”, but basically I helped rich old people hide their money from the government.
I was successful, in that I made good money and I was praised for my performance, but a failure, in that I hated the pressure my managers put on me, and I hated the pressure I felt to push people into solutions that made money for me but were of dubious real long term value for them. I was a failure because I hated my life, and wouldn’t do anything about it.
If you know the movie Glengarry, Glenn Ross, my life was a lot like a weekly visit from the guy from Mitch and Murray. I once was told by a manager that I just needed to buy a more expensive car – because then I would have more debt and thus be more motivated to close deals.
I hated that money drove everything in my life. I hated that it was the only way we kept score. I hated that it was all that mattered. I made good money (especially for a 28-year-old kid) but we spent it like drunken sailors, too.
Eventually, I noticed that I had to drink a pint of vodka in my car to work up the courage to go into the office, and I quit.
I made $96,000 in my last year of selling money at the beginning of this century. The next year I made $18,000, got a divorce, and moved into a friend’s attic apartment.
So, all that is to say, I have lots of screwed-up narratives in my head about money.
Earlier this week, one of our cats had some weird symptoms that we needed to take her to the vet. This was unplanned and unexpected, and I hate that my only hesitancy around taking her was that I was unsure how much this would cost. To be clear – it wasn’t that we had no money to pay for it – we do – but that open-ended question just hung over me.
I have broken teeth in my mouth I am scared to go to the dentist for. Not because of fears around pain or fear of dentists or even that it is likely that at some point in the next ten years I shall have to migrate to dentures – it is that it is a huge open-ended question mark around how much it will all cost and that there is every possibility that I will have a pleasant visit with a professional who will, at the end of our meeting, tell me I owe them $3500, with no warning in advance.
The lowest I have ever felt in my life was one summer morning in May, in Durham, NC. We had just left Duke Hospital, where my wife was being evaluated for eligibility to have a heart transplant that would save her life and give her a normal life expectancy, rather than the 3-7 years she had if she did not get it.
That morning, we had a meeting with the financial counselor, who looked at our insurance coverage and told me that if we did not get approval from one of our insurances to cover this procedure, I would have to show evidence that I had $20,000 in cash before they would list her as eligible for transplant.
I did not have $20,000. I worked at a small, scrappy grass-roots severely underfunded nonprofit that I had founded, and I made very little money while doing good work. I did not know where I could get $20,000. I had very little hope, under normal circumstances, of ever seeing $20,000 at one time.
And so, with a smile on her face, this nice person at Duke told me that because of choices that I had made around vocation and income and yes, money, my wife might die.
Spoiler alert: We got it worked out, she had the surgery, and she did not die.
But I still feel all sorts of anxiety about money. While writing the passage above about that day at Duke Hospital, I had to stop and get up and walk around, because even though it is almost 7 years later, it is all still too fresh in my brain.
So, when I decided to launch the membership program earlier this month as a way to make my writing economically viable, I had butterflies galore. All the old stories reared their head.
“Who are you to try to get paid money because you write things on a blog? It’s not like it’s real writing.”
“You aren’t good enough to get paid to write.”
“Nobody will support you, and you will just look stupid.”
“Writing is fun for you. Things that are fun we should do for free.”
“You are just going to be let down.”
But those are just stories I tell myself and have no bearing at all on what happens in reality. Because my brain is filled with old stories. Stories that are not kind to me.
In the Spike Jonze movie Her, the titular character says that the past is just a story we tell ourselves. And we can learn to tell ourselves better stories.
So, I’m trying to write (in my head) better stories about money, abundance, and scarcity, and better stories about my worth as an artist, as a writer, and as a person.
I’m trying to learn to tell myself better stories about myself.
And part of that is coming to believe that my labor has value and that other people believe that as well. That I need not apologize for making money for doing something which I both enjoy and do well. And that it is OK for me to ask for what I need.