“There are few other words out there that carry the sense of shame and failure that “bankruptcy” and “foreclosure” do. They are words about having commitments that you couldn’t meet; they are words about loss.
They also carry judgment, don’t they? As though if you go bankrupt it must be because you went to a five-star resort with your lover, spent money you didn’t have on extravagant things. And foreclosure? Well, that’s just the little matter of losing your family home. Of sitting down in the living room and pulling your children close and saying, “We’re going to move, my loves, because Mama can’t pay the mortgage anymore.” Bow your head in shame.
So you can imagine how shredded I was about a month ago, when those words blew into my life, when the house of cards I had so carefully constructed over the last eight years came crashing down. I had constructed it after my marriage split up, when as a single mother-of-two, with a high school education and no work experience, I moved back to Canada, tried to find a job, found one, then bought a little home, and then got laid off, and started university full-time. All the while, I was eyeing nervously the fiasco of my finances and hoping like hell we were going to make it to solid ground. You can imagine that when the house of cards finally collapsed, I was devastated.
And I was shocked. Because in my mind, we had just made it to that solid ground. I got through university, I got a wonderful job. But then the tidal wave I’d been running from for the last eight years crashed over me still.
I had had a sense it might. It was the accumulation of all that time out of work, all that time in school, all those months in which I bought the groceries and school supplies on credit cards, all those late payments.
Seven times in the preceding two years I had approached the bank that held the lion’s share of my credit card debt and asked them to reduce the interest from 20 percent to something more manageable, something more like 10. I explained that I had been laid off, that I was now not only a single mom but a full-time student, living on student loans. I explained that I was trying my best to pay it off but I couldn’t even make a dent in it with interest that high. Seven times they turned me down. The last time I met with a bank officer, she told me to make all my payments on time for a year and then come back and she’d consider it. I shuffled off, head bowed.
And then the mortgage company told me they were calling the mortgage – a forty-year-mortgage with no money down, made back in the day when you could still do that. I have paid nearly sixty thousand dollars towards that mortgage. Nearly five years in, I have yet to touch the principal. Get a new lender, they told me or come up with the pay-out amount, the same amount of money I borrowed initially. Impossible. I cried.
For a week I walked around numb, as though everything I had been fighting for, so hard for so long, had just collapsed. Vanished. As though I had lost my children their home. I couldn’t believe, I told my boss, sobbing, that after all that effort, everything had all fallen apart in the end. I told her I had always been afraid I was going to die alone and be eaten by dogs and here I was – losing the house. I can’t believe, I said, I can’t believe it ended this way.
My boss held up her hand. “Hold on,” she said.”The dogs haven’t gotten you yet.”
And with that I entered into a long period of stillness, and when I emerged I went to a credit counseling place, where they took one look at all my debts and my non-existent assets and went straight to suggesting I declare bankruptcy. And then I went to a bankruptcy trustee who suggested exactly the same thing. He reviewed what that would mean for me.
“I have been paying a thousand dollars a month in credit card debt,” I said, “for more years than I can count, and I haven’t even made a dent in what I owe, never mind that I’ve paid the debt some four times over. And you’re telling me that I can pay less than that, a lot less than that, for 21 months – and then this is over?” He nodded. “Do you just make people happy all day long?” I sniffled through the tears. He said, “If it feels this good to you, you know it’s the right thing to do.”
I keep thinking I should have done this two years ago. But I kept going, kept borrowing, kept paying, kept trying, month after month. And I kept doing that for two reasons. For one, it’s the right thing to do, isn’t it? You borrow money, you pay it back. For two, there was shame. To admit defeat would be to admit failure, would be to announce to myself and the world that I couldn’t cut it.
Now I feel like, hey. I accumulated that debt to take care of my family, and I am grateful for it. And I paid that credit card debt four times over. The bank is NOT getting ripped off here. They’ve done just fine by me. And my house? We loved our little house, it has been just lovely for us. And now it will be just lovely for some other family who needs a home. We’ll find another little house, or an apartment, and we will make it fine for us, too.
Eight years ago, I grabbed my kids and carried them through a whirlwind of challenge and uncertainty. I got us to solid ground. The tidal wave may have crashed over us, but all it did was wash away the wreckage of the past. We are on terra firma. And we are free.”
- from ‘Going Bankrupt’, by Kyla Hanington, The Sunday Edition, CBC Radio, 7 Apr 2013 [hat-tip 4SlicesOfCheese]