Justice and Advocacy · Psychology and mental illness

Slow Progress

When you report symptoms of depression and anxiety, the doctors give you a chart to fill out. Rating on a scale of frequency, it asks questions like how often you feel like you’d be better off dead, or take little interest in doing things. Though I caved to trying psychiatric medications years ago, they still haven’t found anything to bring down my scores from the most extreme.

One question on this chart has always stood out to me. It asks, “Do you feel that you are being punished?”  It’s such a strange question to ask someone who has had to let go of everything in life – a career, a family, an extended family, a home, convenience itself. How am I to look at my experience and feel that I am not being punished?

I started my research on economic inequality from a place of anger. Anger is great for writing if you know how to edit yourself out of saying something absurd and indefensible. It heats my blood, which is also great for my poor circulation. It motivates me to put one word in front of the other.

But each fall and winter, my depression puts my emotions into hibernation. Writing is more of a task than an escape. The motivation has been sucked out of me, and the fight to eat and sleep is more pressing than the fight to keep telling the world about how awful it is. How I’m so lucky to have sponsors and patrons and clients, when so many of the people I know don’t have those opportunities, yet I’m still dragging along, clinging to my vices because they’re all I can afford.

My need to be grateful fights with my depression. I don’t have a right to be depressed, my depression tells me. Yet every day, as I break down in the kitchen because I’m tired of cooking chicken and rice and stretching out the food stamps to last, as I take hours to accomplish basic errands because I cannot afford a car, as I work to find more work for myself that can be done at home, I know that I need to keep speaking about poverty, because it is a relentless monster that is hurting so many people.

There are extremes to poverty. But to have that conversation would mean breaking down the entire nature of the word “poverty.” As I study the economic complexities of eradicating poverty, I’ve learned it’s important to ask why poverty exists in the first place. I think the religious answer has always been that poverty is a fact of life, it just is a thing that happens. There’s a vague notion, both among the religious and nonreligious, that those who are poor pretty much deserve to be poor – it’s Karma or fate or punishment for being a bad person.

Another punishing element of poverty is that it’s literally criminalized. If you don’t have enough to pay, you’ll be punished with, of course, having to pay more money. This applies to late fees, interest on debts, counts against a credit score, and parking tickets. I once had a job where everyone but the managers had to pay to park, and if I couldn’t get my boss to let me run outside and refill the meter, I’d get a ticket. It doesn’t make sense to punish lack of money with charging more money – unless the whole purpose is to exact money from the poor. As has been circulating on revolutionary social media, “Punishable by a fine means legal for the rich.”

Growing up, I thought I was poor. But I was not – everything was just spread really thin because we had over a dozen people living on a single middle-class income. My parents didn’t like the idea of handouts or laziness being rewarded, and treated poverty like it was a choice. Something they had chosen by having so many children. I was reflecting on the mixed messages recently, realizing I couldn’t wrap my head around them at all. We were poor because of how many people there were, my dad loved to say. But he also loved to say that everyone should have large families because children aren’t actually that big of an expense.

Pursuing an economic narrative that holds water has not been easy – that is, I was looking in all the wrong places at first. I once religiously read Tim Ferris’ books on how to get ahead financially. I believed that the solution was in my own productivity and output. That was what I’d been taught, and all of my siblings are so obsessed with being productive that we can’t relax. Now I’m reading about a much bigger, older world than the one I was introduced to. A 6,000-year-old earth simply cannot hold the vastness of our evolutionary history. A 6,000-year-old earth cannot even hold the many dynasties and civilizations that predate Greco-Roman-European-U.S. rule.

Now I see that poverty is relentless for the exact reason that wealth relentlessly flows to the wealthiest among us. I once researched and argued for trickle-down capitalist economics, and I hope this gives me some understanding of those who still believe what I used to. But once I found myself homeless and employed, the dragging hours of having nothing to do except swelter in a car between shifts were a worse punishment than anything my parents concocted when I was a child.

Poverty is so impersonal. From the homeless on the streets of the U.S. to the 2 million displaced people in Yemen, the poor suffer the collateral damage of other powers. There is no control over the situation, except to keep selling your labor. So what happens when you realize that no matter how hard you work, you’ll never get ahead? What if, in fact, the system was designed to keep you running in place?

These are the questions I’m working on answering. But right now, instead of feeling angry, I feel very depressed about it all, and the researching process takes about ten times the energy output I have to give. Every movement drags. Every experience is tainted with a cloud of depression. Genuine emotion comes in short outbursts, and mostly, they are more helpful to my therapy than to my writing.

I ponder often Amanda Palmer’s amazing book The Art of Asking, in which she goes to great lengths to explain that it is perfectly acceptable to ask, and keep asking, when you’re an artist in need. But it’s not that easy when you’re poor, and while I adore Amanda and her work and what she’s done for artists, her affluent background with a dependable family and full education in art makes it hard for me to relate. But I hope one day to emulate Amanda Fucking Palmer and embrace my art with as much revelry and abandon. I know that such things cannot be fabricated. They take the practice of reflection, mindfulness, and dedicated work on the art that matters. That is the work I am prioritizing in my life. As always, please do not give to your own detriment, and only give if you can spare. But if you want to help me stay housed this month, my PayPal and CashApp information are here.

I sat down to write about how my mind and body are going through a lot, and it became about my immediate needs. I want so badly to break beyond this threshold and get to a point where I can give of my excess, rather than struggling to get by. So often, I see people saying “I want to get rich so I can give my money away.” I think this is a noble enough goal, at least in capitalist-colonist terms. Yet the real solution would be something far broader – a redistribution of resources that doesn’t define wealth according to currency and property. For now, what we can do for each other is spread resources to those in need.

Needs come to the foreground every time I talk to my therapist, and it hinders me to be worried about life as it is, because I’m trying to recover. When life is as full of punishing hard knocks for a young adult as it was in their rocky childhood, what are we to say about recovery as a whole? People want to hear a story of victory, and to hear that a survivor is doing well, recovering and getting better. But I’m stalled, hung up on the need to survive, and it’s tempting to constantly worry about the present instead of processing the past.

I am finally coming out of my freeze, and after several months of slogging through the effort of trying different medications, it seems that I’m on ones that work now. I’m so grateful to everyone who has been helping me along on this journey – more than words can say. 

As the months have passed, and it’s been over a year since I’ve been able to drive, life has slowed down and I am learning to be patient with its pace. I have to plan around bus schedules that take hours to take me to appointments. I’m trying to read more, and get on social media less. I’m also working a lot on my book and on videos, because this month I was given a new camera and microphone! Thank you so much to those who sent them.

I believe that we can help alleviate the punishment that capitalism inflicts by helping each other. Life is relentlessly slow when you’re poor, right down to having to walk everywhere, including to carry your groceries home from the store.  

I will never be “better,” or in perfect health. But I feel like I’m finally regaining some executive function over myself, and that’s awesome. Thank you for believing in me through the times that I couldn’t believe in myself.