Just when you think you've endured every humiliation, survived every pride-squashing event, every single thing that comes with being one of the "less fortunate", something comes along to remind you. Something happens and all of a sudden it's like that old, healing wound is ripped open again, the pain that had become a vague memory comes charging back up to the surface. The shame, the embarrassment, the hurt.
And the pain is intensified when it's a friend who reopens that wound.
When you're "financially challenged" like I've been for the past 3 years, it's kind of like experiencing a death. The death of a lifestyle, if you will. You go through a wide range of emotions, just as you would when dealing with the passing of a loved one. Because, let's be honest...we don't love our money like we do our people, but we do love the comfort and the ease with which we go through our daily existence here on Earth. When things change, as they sometimes do, the shock and the grief is very real. So very, very real.
But, we humans are nothing if not resilient. After a while, I adjusted to my current situation. I don't like it, and I'm totally determined to change it, but for the meantime, I adapted. I still can't stand the stress. It still hurts my heart when I see my kids trying to grapple with the monumental task of trying to fit in, trying to blend with peers who have so much. I still feel a shifting of my zen when a friend mentions something totally innocent like going on a trip or Christmas shopping or looking at new cars and then, remembering that they are talking to Poor Jenny, cast their eyes downward and quickly change the subject. Or worse, when they get that look on their faces, like I just walked in on them rolling around on a pile of money. That guilty look.
I thought, for the most part, that awkwardness was over. Pretty much everyone in my life, my friends especially, are aware of what's been going on. They've been there with me through the initial shock when Big Daddy first quit paying child support, through my decline from "happily middle class" to "super unhappy peasant". Through the loss of my home, through the bankruptcy, through the frozen checking account and the days when both my cupboards and gas tank were bare (like two weeks ago, hardy har har). What I'm saying is, I thought there was a mutual understanding between me and my hens. I'm broke, they (for the most part) aren't. But we were co-existing quite nicely, I thought. An unwritten code had been implemented: we are equals for the most part, except that I'm not the one who can go shopping on a whim, or out to eat, or to go get pedicures or sign up for 3 months of hot yoga. Other than that, though...equals. I'll drink a glass of wine with you, watch stupid t.v. shows, gab about chick things until the wee hours of the night.
Until last week. The friend in question, along with a few of our mutual friends, reads my little blog so I'm going to keep this very impartial, very factual. I'm not writing about it to "get" her, or to make her appear small or clueless. Because she's not. She's a sweet friend, a funny friend, and I love her. What we went through last week was not only eye-opening, it turned out to be so very educational for me. Taught me to step outside my little poverty-stricken box for a minute and to see things from a different perspective. And for that, I'm thankful. I needed that.
My friend had a birthday party. My friend lives in a city I like to call Buttf*ck Egypt, as I call pretty much any city that's more than 15 miles away from my cozy village. This comes from a decade of driving a truck that gets about 10 miles per gallon. Again, something that I have become used to. If it's a long drive, chances are that I'm not able to go unless I can mooch a ride. I simply cannot afford to put any more gas in my truck than I already do. Sad? Pathetic? Yep. But it is what it is.
Now, I didn't RSVP to the party in a timely fashion. Truth be told, I was waiting it out, seeing what the gods of driving and money threw my way that week. Ended up, big surprise, that what they threw wasn't good. It was a week away from my next paycheck and the gas tank was bare. So was our fridge, but that's a whole 'nother post. Bottom line was, I couldn't go to her party. I sent her a message, told her I was sorry, that I loved her, and wished her a happy birthday. I felt bad, yes. But I had $16.00 in my checking account and four kids to feed and the money tree in the backyard was completely bare. It was a done deal.
Until another friend of mine posted on my facebook wall. A short, innocent post about an upcoming concert, and would I be going? I posted back, saying I didn't have tickets but I'd check with another friend of ours to see what the prospects were. Of course I didn't have the money, but hey...you never know when the Concert Ticket Fairy is going to appear. Stranger things have happened.
And that's when all hell broke loose. Birthday friend saw the post, and then sent me a message. Saying she was sorry that I couldn't make her party. Oh, and by the way...hope those concert tickets are free.
Ouch. I replied, one of my lengthy replies (kind of like this one...hmmm). Apologized, told her I felt bad, but remember, I'm Poor Jenny. And I did feel bad. Not only bad because I missed her party, but suddenly bad about my situation. Bad because I couldn't afford to drive 20-some miles to help a friend celebrate a birthday. Just bad.
She replied, and her reply was the one that opened the floodgates of emotion. All of those old feelings came back, refreshed and tanned after their lengthy stay on that sunny isle I like to call "Denial". Shame, embarrassment, guilt. My old buddies.
I won't go into detail about what she said, but it had to do with her impression that I was lying about my financial situation. Because she was sure that I was making, and this is verbatim, "non-essential purchases". Oops, I guess I did go into some detail. But that was what she said, and that was what made me feel, to be blunt, like shit.
I replied back, explaining my poorness, describing in great detail what it's like to live as I do, how I have to pick and choose between essential and non-essential purchases. I was actually trying to prove to someone, someone I thought was my friend, exactly how poor I am.
To make a long and super wordy story a tiny bit shorter, we went back and forth a few times. I felt sick, I felt like a giant loser, I felt exposed. I found myself trying to justify my life, and it was ugly.
Until I had an epiphany: she couldn't possibly understand. I could try and explain it for a million years and she, like most of the people in my everyday life, could never ever understand.
Because unless you've been down here in the trenches with me, unless you've actually lived through this nightmarish time, there is no way in hell you can understand. I imagine it's like trying to explain what it feels like to have a baby to someone who's never done it, or what it's like for a guy to explain to a girl what it feels like to have a boner (really? Am I the only one who has ever wondered?). It's just not possible.
Can they sympathize? You betcha. Kind of empathize? Maybe. But really and truly "get it"? Nope. Does that make me superior in some sick, twisted way? Does it make her (or others) some sort of unfeeling ogre, someone lacking in compassion? ABSOLUTELY NOT. And that's when the healing began again. I saw this situation, finally, from her perspective. She was hurt, she was angry, she was sad. I put myself in her shoes, and I saw it from her vantage point. I recalled what my life used to be like, back before these dark days. I remembered how it used to be, when life wasn't divvied up into dollars and cents and essential vs. non-essential purchases.
And I got it. I apologized. I don't know if our friendship will survive this bump in the road. I hope it does, but I don't know. I do know that it taught me something, and I hope it taught her something as well.
It taught me to take off my blinders every once in a while, and to remember that my reality is just that: it's mine. I don't have to explain it, or justify it to anyone, but I do have to realize that not everyone understands. It doesn't mean that they're not my friends, or that they aren't wonderful, caring and compassionate people. It just means I have to do a better job of seeing things differently. Because someday, I'm going to need to go back to these days. I'm going to have to dredge up the memories and remember what it was like.
My goal in this life is to learn something, anything, every single day. I learned a lot last week.