Reflections on privilege and poverty.

I have known for years that peo­ple in pover­ty are not to blame for their cir­cum­stance. No one deserves to be forced into home­less­ness, or to drown in med­ical debt, or make the ter­ri­ble choice of “do I pay this bill, or feed my chil­dren?”

It doesn’t take per­son­al expe­ri­ence to know that peo­ple deserve to be housed and fed.

But expe­ri­ence inevitably brings it so much clos­er to home.

The privilege and happenstance of my roots.

Composite of the cover art for the movie, October Sky. The text "October Sky" is written in small caps in a black starry sky above a headshot of Jake Gyllenhaal as Homer Hickam and Laura Dern as Miss Riley. Beneath those headshots is the silhouette of Homer standing outside looking up at the sky.My fam­i­ly his­to­ry is an inter­est­ing sort of tale. My father is the third son of a rail­road work­er. My moth­er is the fourth child of a coal min­er. Both grew up in lit­tle noth­ing towns in south­ern West Vir­ginia. Have you seen Octo­ber Sky? Mom gets home­sick when she watch­es it. It hap­pened not ter­ri­bly far from where she lived. Dur­ing her old­est sister’s time, their school played against the school Homer Hick­am went to.

Even with the pover­ty in which they both were raised, the econ­o­my was such that they had access to col­lege. They both have degrees. And that edu­ca­tion allowed them to access the income and sta­bil­i­ty required to reach and remain mid­dle-class. Of course, it wasn’t with­out a lot of hard work. They strug­gled to find work ear­ly in their mar­riage, and there were fright­en­ing times along the way. They lived in pover­ty until I reached school-age, when Mom went back to work after tak­ing 5 years to take care of my broth­er and me.

With their com­bined income that they were able to pro­cure through their edu­ca­tion and deter­mi­na­tion, I grew up solid­ly mid­dle-class. I nev­er went with­out.

I always had a roof over my head, in a house in which only we lived.

I always had food, with access to fresh fruits and veg­eta­bles.

I went to the doc­tor and den­tist reg­u­lar­ly.

I attend­ed a pri­vate school, which required quite a sub­stan­tial tuition and there­fore ensured that most of my peers were also mid­dle- to upper-class.

My par­ents gift­ed a car to me, one that had already been paid in full so I didn’t inher­it a car pay­ment.

They paid for my asso­ciates degree in graph­ic design and my web devel­op­ment and mul­ti­me­dia author­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. They cosigned the loan that I took out to attend Bob Jones Uni­ver­si­ty.

Their sta­tus gave me access to my col­lege edu­ca­tion and the nec­es­sary tools for suc­ceed­ing. This, in turn, gave me access to a net­work who have helped me find work through­out my entire adult life.

How­ev­er.

The winds of change.

I entered the work­force full-time in 2009, right after the Reces­sion. Wages and sta­bil­i­ty of work haven’t been the same since then.

My hus­band at the time and I were just bare­ly able to afford to live in North­ern Vir­ginia. Our loca­tion afford­ed us access to peo­ple who also could afford to live there, who had many con­tacts that could pro­vide us with ref­er­ences and work.

My par­ents have helped me finan­cial­ly through­out my adult­hood, as my ex-hus­band was fired from four jobs, leav­ing me as our only income for four-and-a-half years of our six years togeth­er.

They helped us pay the secu­ri­ty deposit need­ed to move into the duplex where I lived for six years.

Until last March.

A series of unfortunate events.

Typeset logo in small caps reading "A Series of Unfortunate Events."

Maybe I’m an unwit­ting cast mem­ber in Lemo­ny Snicket’s woe­ful tale.

My whole adult life has been spent with the loom­ing pos­si­bil­i­ty of just one emer­gency tak­ing every­thing away. Which is how the past three years’ hap­pen­ings have cul­mi­nat­ed to where I am now.

  • Jan­u­ary 2016. I broke up with my ex-hus­band, removed all finan­cial sup­port, and facil­i­tat­ed his move across the coun­try. I admit­ted to myself that he real­ly was abu­sive.
  • Feb­ru­ary 2016. I was still reel­ing with the grief and weight of sev­en years of emo­tion­al (and at times, phys­i­cal) abuse. Under­stand­ably, this seri­ous­ly affect­ed my work.
  • March 2016. I “dat­ed” a man for a week, who raped me mul­ti­ple times through­out that week, gen­er­al­ly with some lev­el of phys­i­cal vio­lence (beyond the vio­lence of the rapes them­selves). Already crushed under the bur­den of impend­ing divorce from an abuser, being raped sent me into a fren­zied des­per­ate exis­tence for months on end. I lost a very dear friend dur­ing that time — my fran­tic need for sup­port was too much to ask of her while she had her own men­tal health to attend to. I attempt­ed sui­cide.
  • August 2016. I was laid off from my job. Work had been slow, and I was the most recent­ly hired design­er, even though I’d been there five years. Anoth­er fac­tor that most cer­tain­ly played a role in this was my declined per­for­mance as I dealt with PTSD.
  • Novem­ber 2016. A man I’d been dat­ing broke up with me, the day after I real­ized I was in love with him. He pro­ceed­ed to play with my heart for the next six months.
  • Jan­u­ary 2017. I tack­led teach­ing for the very first time, thanks to a for­mer teacher who is now my super­vi­sor. My con­tract work almost dou­bled as I was kept on retain­er for my client. But. A friend killed her­self that month. I was already crushed under the weight of the one-year anniver­sary of kick­ing my hus­band out. All of these things piled togeth­er, mak­ing me increas­ing­ly depressed and ago­ra­pho­bic.
  • July 2017. Sum­mer break, I was wor­ried about bills since I wasn’t teach­ing those months. My girl­friend broke up with me, under­stand­ably but very painful­ly. I stopped try­ing to give polyamory a chance for the time being. My Giant had prac­ti­cal­ly been liv­ing with me for most of the sum­mer, so we made it offi­cial. His income com­bined with mine gave us sta­bil­i­ty, until…
  • Octo­ber 2017. My Giant, a care­giv­er by trade, lost his client and began a long, dif­fi­cult search for a new client. In the mean­time, he took on any odd-job he could through his expe­ri­ence with secu­ri­ty work.
  • Jan­u­ary 2018. My con­tract with my client came to end. They gave me a new contract…in which I was no longer on retain­er. There­fore, I was paid by the hour as need­ed. This seems to have been their way of say­ing, “Thanks for cre­at­ing all of our col­lat­er­al mate­ri­als and cre­at­ing tem­plates for every­thing. We don’t need you any­more.” That threw me hope­less­ly behind on bills. Teach­ing was lit­tle help since the pay sched­ule for adjunct fac­ul­ty is bizarre.
  • Feb­ru­ary 2018. Our land­lord request­ed we move out by the end of the month. My car was flagged for repos­ses­sion, though I was able to make the final pay­ment.
  • March 2018. My Giant and I moved in with a friend of his who gra­cious­ly offered us a room and bath­room in her house. My anx­i­ety and depres­sion reached heights in which I became reg­u­lar­ly sui­ci­dal once again. I’ve remained sui­ci­dal since.
  • June 2018. The wife of the man I’d fall­en in love with the pre­vi­ous year died by sui­cide. She and I had remained friends, though drift­ed apart. Signs had point­ed to us com­ing back togeth­er as friends again, I’d thought. But now…I’ll nev­er see her again.
  • July 2018. My Giant and I got mar­ried and secured a pri­vate busi­ness loan to start Fat Girl Media.
  • Sep­tem­ber 2018. We threw our­selves head-first into vend­ing at con­ven­tions. As a start-up, we strug­gled more than we hoped for. My par­ents told me that I am a “mor­tal wound” to their hearts and they no longer want­ed to know what was going on in my life since my “lifestyle” and “choic­es” were stress­ing them out and killing my father faster. My Giant’s grand­fa­ther died. Unre­lat­ed­ly, cus­tody of his chil­dren was thrown up in the air where it has remained ever since.
  • Novem­ber 2018. The woman we were liv­ing with became sud­den­ly and fright­en­ing­ly unsta­ble, giv­ing us 30 days to move out. She assault­ed me as we were mov­ing out. Anoth­er friend, whose lease would be up by the end of the year, told us we could stay with her until then.
  • Decem­ber 2018. We were unable to find some­where we could afford to live. Two days before Christ­mas, I asked my par­ents if we could stay with them until we could get on our feet. They reit­er­at­ed that my “choic­es” are killing my dad, told me that my life is full of dra­ma and they don’t want that under their roof, said that I refuse to work and expect to live off of the work of oth­ers, and sug­gest­ed we look into home­less shel­ters.

A perfect storm.

Things have been — clear­ly — almost com­i­cal­ly ter­ri­ble. Our joint income is spo­radic at best, both of us work­ing what­ev­er jobs we can find while we now have to spend much of our life on the road between where we work and where we have to sleep. Both of us suf­fer phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties, as do most of our friends, which deeply inhibits our abil­i­ty to pick up and move any­where.

There have been some ups. Meet­ing and falling in love with My Giant has been one of the best deci­sions of my life. Through him, I’ve been able to build a new friend-group who love me as I am. The love and sup­port from him and this net­work of friends has enabled me to make art a more promi­nent part of my per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al life.

And yet.

I can’t help but think about this atmos­phere of uncer­tain­ty and fear. One thing going wrong can mean some­one will lose every­thing.

All of these priv­i­leges I have, the access those priv­i­leges have afford­ed me, and I’m still in this posi­tion.

Unequal footing.

Still of Andre the Giant as Fezzik from The Princess Bride. He is wearing a loose sort of peasant's shirt and smiling, holding a large rock in his right hand, poised as if about to throw it.

What hap­pens to peo­ple who didn’t have access to edu­ca­tion? Whose fam­i­ly isn’t finan­cial­ly able to help, whose friends are in the same cycle of pover­ty in which they find them­selves? What hap­pens to those who are unable to work due to dis­abil­i­ty, and yet haven’t “qual­i­fied” for gov­ern­ment assis­tance?

Let’s also not for­get how we’re only a few gen­er­a­tions past when peo­ple of col­or weren’t per­mit­ted to own land, which made them far less like­ly to be able to accu­mu­late wealth or sta­bil­i­ty. That absolute­ly affects the places we all find our­selves today.

Our soci­ety is built in such a way that one emer­gency can seal the fate of peo­ple who are now impov­er­ished. One emer­gency can make a fam­i­ly home­less. One emer­gency can take away someone’s only trans­porta­tion to work. One ill­ness or injury can drown some­one in debt.

Then, once you find your­self stripped of the things our cul­ture expects you to have in order to be a par­tic­i­pat­ing mem­ber, insult is added to injury — it’s near­ly impos­si­ble to climb your way out again.

I don’t have a solu­tion. I don’t have an answer. I have so much help at my fin­ger­tips, and I still risk los­ing so much. For all my priv­i­lege, I’m still in this mess. And so many peo­ple are in the same boat. They were born on the boat, and the boat is sink­ing, and our gov­ern­ment and cul­ture at large shrugs their shoul­ders and say we should just swim our way to shore, through eel-infest­ed waters.

Maybe Fezzik will show up and take down the whole Brute Squad.

I have to joke. Or I’ll become par­a­lyzed with fear.

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