Being Broke Fucking Sucks

Headline of the year, I know: “Man Discovers Lack Of Money Is Unpleasant, News at 11!” I’ve been poor before, actually, but that was while growing up, when it was out of my hands. During my teenage years, we went from poor to working poor to lower middle class, and I’ve largely stayed around there as an adult. I have had a privileged life, make no mistake, and I retain privileges even now that many poor people don’t. But these past few months I’ve been struggling in a big way, on the brink of being totally broke and having to move back home (which would only be temporary anyway, as my mum is being evicted soon and will be homeless herself), and it’s brought to mind some things I need to talk about.

These past few weeks, while unemployed and looking for work as the last of my savings drain away, have felt like a noose slowly being taut. Sure, I made jokes about it because that’s my first reflexive response to anything, but gradually, even that stopped. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve stopped taking public transport, stopped visiting friends and family, and with only a few exceptions, basically only gone wherever my feet can take me. Depression, which is always lurking around the corner, always waiting in the back of my mind, has surged to the fore and I am once again finding it easier to stay in bed, harder to speak, harder to look people in the eye.

I remember a couple years back, when I was properly suicidal, and I literally couldn’t look people in the eye. It was because, I thought, I was afraid they would be able to see my intent, as if depression and a desire for death was writ across my corneas. Actually, I see now that it’s just shame. I’m ashamed. It crystallised for me yesterday, when I was organising one of the two necessary exceptions I’ve taken, and a friend said the place we were meeting might cost $5 to enter. I objected. She laughed and said she couldn’t tell if I was joking. I wasn’t. I cancelled the lunch part of that trip when I looked up the menus nearby, and I felt a surge of something ugly in my chest. Shame. See, when you’re in the first phase of being broke and unemployed, you pretend nothing’s changed. At least, I do.

I don’t like to admit it, but I’ll go out, and I’ll order the same food as I would otherwise and justify it somehow in my head — that’s future-me’s problem, paying the rent and whatnot, current-me wants desperately to be on the same level as his friends. I’m not though. That’s the second phase: owning the truth of the situation, and severely restricting your spending. Coming to terms with that has helped me break through the bleakness I’ve been under lately, enough so I could write this anyway, so I could look at things a bit more objectively. A few months back, when the downward slope was beckoning, I actually wrote a letter to my friend outlining my situation and certain truths I had learned. Here’s part of what I wrote:

“I think I’ve told you already, but my shoes are ragged, wearied versions of their former selves and I haven’t the means to get new ones. It’s cool and raining out, so the ground is slippery – a trial even when you’re surefooted, your heels comfortably encased. With these shoes, without traction on their soles, every step is a desperate dance with balance. I walk very, very carefully now and it’s a marked departure from my norm, which I’m beginning to realise is remarkably reckless. I’ve always loved to stride far and fast, it’s the only way to stretch these lanky legs, to feel as if I’m actually moving – otherwise I very quickly become claustrophobic, and feel as if my muscles are tensed to the point of cramping, of seizure.

So I like to move and move fast, without ever really thinking about falling, about the damage I could do to this fragile sack of bones if I was to go down at speed… I don’t think we often consider just how extraordinarily lucky we are. Oh, sure, we do when it comes to where we were born, the privilege of growing up in a “first-world” Western country, to a family with the means to feed and clothe and educate us – but I don’t think we do it enough simply on a biological level. We are lucky to have these bodies, these faces – even I, with my degenerating vision, my faulty breathing, likely sleep apnea/insomnia issues, failing memory and half-deafness, am among the extraordinarily lucky.

How do I treat this body then? With breathtaking contempt. Shovelling whatever I want into it, no matter the damage, sending it careening down streets and across traffic without looking, propelled by a raging impatience. It’s taken poverty itself to slow me down, to make me stop and reconsider: my tattered shoes have brought me to an almost-standstill, have made me appreciative anew of the legs stuffed into them, the lungs pumping air consistently, religiously into my body, the eyes which still continue to make out enough details to read and write and see faces, see lips to kiss.

It helps, of course, that I just cannot afford an injury right now. I can’t afford to not go to work. I can’t afford expensive medication. I’ve been avoiding the dentist for over a year now for just that reason, hoping the flare-ups of pain fade quickly and don’t grow into an impediment requiring urgent attention… I think we forget that the poor live in a different reality to ours, I think we forget that even the steps they take on rain-slicked streets are forced to go at a different speed, that for them, walking can be a difficult dance of concentration where for the rest of us (not me currently) it is usually an unconscious action, a thoughtless deliverance from one place to the next. While I obviously want to be financially comfortable, want a functioning computer, a non-faulty phone (my other concerns), I don’t want to forget what being broke has reminded me of – this other life I used to have, this other life which lingers beneath the nest, the life we’ve made here in this cosy house full of books.

I remember being driven from one shitty broken-into rented house to the next; I remember not having food at school, or the money to buy it, and telling a teacher I was hungry. I remember his look of exhausted compassion, of pity – now I wonder at that man, Mr. Davis I think his name was, who must have been on a shitty wage as a primary school teacher anyway, who drove a crappy little buggy of a car – as he gave some coins and told me to run up to the canteen and get some quickly before class started.

That life waits for me, still. I probably shouldn’t be a poet if I want to escape it fully, haha. I looked at a poetry magazine today whose payment for accepted submissions is $5 USD. God, I felt like I’d swallowed a lump of coal looking at that. Like my mouth was full of ash.

I know what you’re thinking: how can that only be part of what you wrote?! It’s kind of ridiculous, but I love writing letters, and when I do I seem to write like a verbose aristocrat for some reason. I don’t know why and I don’t care, it’s the only time I write without filters. Reading that now is amazing, honestly. On the one hand, I ended up having the dental emergency I feared, waking up at 4am in the morning with searing pain along my jaw. I had an infected wisdom tooth which needed to be surgically removed, the cost of which is what set me so far back I didn’t really recover. On the other hand, at some point in the months between then and now, during one of the weeks I had casual work, I was able to get new shoes.

This isn’t going to be a concern for me in the next few months; this isn’t a call for money, or any such thing. I start work tomorrow, thankfully, and I should be okay again relatively soon. It’s just important to me to be honest about the difficulties I’ve been having – despite never having enjoyed more success or recognition as a poet, as a writer – and the realities, past and present, poor and not, that I’ve had to face. It came to a head the other day when I told my mother about the Emerging Writers’ Festival sending me to Indonesia in several weeks’ time, and she said something like, oh thank god, I’ve given up on your brother, he’s back in court and will probably go back to jail soon. And I broke down and cried after that call, because implicit in that conversation was the idea that she was relying on me in some way to succeed. As if I could help her.

And I don’t have the heart to tell her that even if I do succeed as a writer, there’s no money in it. There’s barely enough for me; I only do it because without it, I wouldn’t bother living.

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7 thoughts on “Being Broke Fucking Sucks

  1. What a great piece of writing – so glad I am following you.

    This is one of those kinds of problems that makes me wonder if I am an ‘adult’ yet (assuming there is some fixed point at which one can concretely know you are in ‘adulthood’). I always thought it would be easier. Hang in there!

    I love your writing style 🙂

    • Thank you very much! Glad to have you on board 🙂

      ‘I always thought it would be easier’ could be humanity’s epitaph, honestly. There’s never a point at which we think it’s going to be as difficult to get through as it ends up being.

  2. This was incredibly vulnerable and real. I can’t imagine what it took to post it. Bravery,humility, and resilience are words that come to mind. I really can’t imagine what it is like to deal with some of your trials, but I’ve noticed that it’s the tragedies and difficulties that put things into perspective. Perhaps you were deprived of material luxury to gain richness of soul, which is all too evident in your writings. I’m not going to say being without money is not a big deal or it’ll be ok soon, because that’s a lie. It’s tough to be in a financial strain. But it is in times of dire need when you’re pushed to the very edge that your true self emerges. Or like Gibran said,

    ‘Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral’.

    May the passion of your soul murder your discomfort and dismay.

    • Thank you so much, that was a lovely thing to say. It was definitely difficult to write, and harder to post it, but I also didn’t feel I had much choice. I had to get it out of my system. I’m not the type to cry often, so when I do, I take it as a very serious sign something is amiss and I need to get a handle on it — breakdowns, I think, are breakthroughs in disguise. They make you face head-on whatever it is that’s causing so much distress. So I didn’t feel like I had much choice but to tackle it, write about it, and get it out there. I knew doing it in person would be too much for me right now, as well, as far as the people I know are concerned.

      Anyway, thanks again for your kind words.

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