The Sanest Thing I Ever Did

Sometimes, there’s nothing for it. Sometimes, you try and try and try and then you try some more, but you can’t get past where you are. Sometimes, the struggle takes on a life of its own, colouring everything else around you, making it impossible to have a moment that is free and pure of worry. Sometimes, it turns you into an modern-day Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the hill over and over, only to have it roll down again. Sometimes, you get so lost in the fight that you lose perspective, instead blindly moving through a morass of futility.

Sometimes, you have to surrender to reality.

Six months ago, I was one of the spokespeople for The Health Council of Canada’s report about people who live with chronic illness and their challenges within the healthcare system. My story focused on the cost of chronic illness – the money. Because having a chronic illness is expensive. Add a disability on top of that and it becomes major money.

We don't talk about the money. It's not polite to talk about money and it's certainly not polite to talk about having money trouble. And I struggled a fair bit before I decided to be more open about it. On both the internet and television, no less. As part of the spokesperson experience, I was interviewed by Global News and at the end of that interview when the reporter asked me how I managed, I made a smartass comment about being very grateful to Visa for all their help.

The problem with Visa is that they want their money back. The problem with having a chronic illness and a disability is that the expenses are never-ending and substantial. In the past nine years, I have spent somewhere in the neighbourhood of $65,000 on the medications and equipment (wheelchair, automatic door opener, etc) that I need to live. Even with having a part-time job for the past four years, that's a lot more money going out than coming in.

Three years ago, I looked into declaring bankruptcy. Ultimately, I decided against it because I couldn't afford to not have my credit cards. Credit was the only reason I could afford my meds, random wheelchair repairs and the like. I took a look at my debt and I took a look at the fact that I had a job and was convinced I could deal with it, sure I could get ahead somehow.

I was completely deluded. I couldn't deal with it, I couldn't get ahead of it. As the medication costs continued, as my grocery bill grew because my body became less cooperative in terms of what food it would tolerate and as my wheelchair continued to be a lemon that needs a ridiculous amount of repairs, the costs kept rising and so did my debt load.

For a long time now, I have become nauseated every time I pay my bills. For long time, I have managed to only pay the minimum payment on my debt every month, essentially just the interest. And for a long time, I have run out of money around the 18th of every month and needed to use credit to buy groceries.

This is not a recipe for paying off your debt. All this does is increase it, gradually, inexorably, nauseatingly.

There is a saying attributed to a variety of people (including Freud and Einstein) that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Recently, I took a long, hard look at my life and realized I needed to face facts: to continue on this road came awfully close to meeting that definition.

And then I wrestled with the shame. Because you're supposed to honour your debt. It's how I've been raised and it's a deeply held value not only within myself, but in our society. How do you get to the point where you can admit to yourself - and others - that you need help?

A couple of years when I first looked into bankruptcy, I talked to a wonderful bankruptcy trustee who did much to take away the feelings of shame. I also have a good friend or two who's going through it and seeing them get back on top of their financial situation, meet their obligations and thrive made it easier to see the purpose of it. But still, it took months to get there. Intellectually, I could see the necessity, but emotionally, I still had trouble.

I tried talking to my creditors about lowering the interest rate so I'd be able to pay off some of the principal every month, instead of just the interest, but they came back with a half of a percentage point. Which would do nothing. And then I finally talked to a trustee and discovered there were options. I could declare bankruptcy or I could do a consumer proposal. In the latter, you set out a budget and based on the numbers, propose to pay off a certain amount of your debt over five years. So I took a realistic look at my budget, crossed my fingers that I would have a job for that time and sent it in.

On Friday, I got the news that my proposal has been accepted.

For the next five years, I will give a certain amount of money to my trustee every month.  And I will be able to afford my groceries not just in the first week of the month, but the last one, too.

And it turns out that there is no shame in it at all. There is only relief and the knowledge that this is the beginning of getting back in control. The start of freedom.


My boyfriend had to do that, too, he's only 26. He opened a few credit cards in college, got completely overloaded in debt, and (is still) unable to find a job post-grad school. (After two years.) So he consolidated and makes a payment every month and it's cut way down on his anxiety level. (The job thing we're still working out.) But there's definitely no shame. Taking control is much better.
Oh, Lene, I am so relieved for you. You know, when our generation was taught about honoring our debts, and how there was never and excuse for doing otherwise and if we did, it was cause for shame, those who taught us did so without the foggiest idea of the kind of monumental expense we'd one day be faced with. I'm so glad that you've discovered a way to address this awful problem--which has hit you through no fault of your own--in a way that preserves your sense of dignity and worth. Bravo! And bravo to a financial system that allows people to do so.
Chrissy said…
I had to do that. I started the process 6 months before I got ill. In the end it took 10 years to pay off the debt accrued from setting up home on my own twice in four years on a small paycheque. It was horrible paying a big chunk of money each month but it felt AMAZING when I finally paid it all off a few months ago. By the way you shouldn't feel shame for having problems paying for costs incurred by being ill. Society should feel shame for making you shoulder those costs that you can't afford.
Anonymous said…
((Gentle Hugs)) No shame whatsoever. It's not your fault you're in this situation, the crazy system put you there. This is yet another reason I will never bitch about my beloved NHS, wrinkles and all. At least we have it...for now.
Carrie Beth said…
Awesome article and so glad you found some relief. I, too, have had to look into options in the past to take care of bills. With my husband being out of work (laid off) for over a year now and me being on disability, the money just isn't there to pay all our regular bills and our medical bills. We've resorted to $10 per month for doctors/hospitals (they will negotiate with you) and credit cards for Rxs which we hope we can get back under control when my husband has a job. We spent over $11k in medical costs last year. It's ridiculous how expensive it is to be sick even when you HAVE insurance!
k said…
I am so glad. I have always worried about you, and I'm glad you have it under control.
Diana Troldahl said…
Last year when Oscar lost his job, we had to file bankruptcy. It turns out we would have been advised (by the gov't agency no less) to file bankruptcy even BEFORE he lost his job.
It has been a rough year. It took Oscar more than a year to find a job. But he found a wonderful fulfilling job and has been working happily for just over a month. And Sunday we will sign a lease for a 100% accessible apartment. We couldn't be in the wonderful place we are now without having faced facts and done what had to be done.
People have no idea how EXPENSIVE being disabled is. Soon my savings (I worked with MS 40+ hrs/week for 18years and saved all I could) will run out...keeps me awake at night. Good for you!
AlisonH said…
Thank you thank you thank you for speaking the truth that so many live. I'm remembering my late friend Lynda, who worked full time and would have forever--but the polio she'd had as a kid came roaring back as postpolio syndrome and she ended up in subsidized housing, the power chair, the financial problems. I watched her live the life you're describing, helped bring her meals, helped take her to the doctor. Grieved when she died--because someone in the hospital didn't know they couldn't put her on a bed without her respirator going.

I am so glad they heard you and worked with you. I'm so sorry you were stuck having to call uncle in the first place.
Unknown said…
Smart move Lene. I never knew that was an option. And, I am glad to hear you will be eating all month!
That's great, and the structure of it will allow you to save and have more freedom it sounds like. I am glad they took the proposal and this is working out - thank you for explaining it - our Canada tax refund was taken by BC, who expects me to keep paying BC medical each month, simply because Linda made money for 5 months of the year, but not enough to cover the medical costs - I fear for those on the $706 monthly that BC gives to those with disabilities for housing, food, and all medical costs (and wonder if BC then takes the $90 a month from them for BC medical also).

I hope that others can use your detailed article to find solutions themselves. Thanks for opening yourself up like that.
kitten said…
Good for you. That's twice in a week someone has written about doing just that and what a blessing it was.
Anonymous said…
I declared bankruptcy more than two decades ago. Lots of debt - no income - no choice.
It's great that you're going to get your debt under control, and without the stigma of bankruptcy.
I remember you telling me about your debts a few years ago, and everytime your wheelchair had problems, I'd wonder how much higher your debt had gone.
Allan Morais said…
I understand why you feel there might be shame in filing for bankruptcy; it would definitely be hard for anyone to admit that they have run out of money. I’m glad that you found a bankruptcy trustee, who helped assail your fears and trepidations about it. But I’m gladder that you were able to find a way around your financial problems. Good luck for the future!
Alana Elderkin said…
Filling for bankruptcy is nothing to be ashamed of because there is always a way to change the course of your life and turn it around. It’s good that you found a good bankruptcy trustee that can help you deal with the problem. So how are you doing now? Just look at your friends who have come back from bankruptcy as an inspiration. If they can do it, so can you!
Jaden Allred said…
I really felt your positive energy in your last statement. You should really let go of that shame. This is one of the major reasons why people who go through bankruptcy find it hard to recover -- they feel hopeless and ashamed. There’s no reason for you to hold to that feeling. Do your best to make your financial situation better.
Cade Culpepper said…
“There is only relief and the knowledge that this is the beginning of getting back in control.” – Exactly, Lene! All the lessons you’ve learned from your recent mistakes can be applied to your new investment and make it better and obtainable.
Chrissy said…
I had to do something similar except it took nearly 10 years to pay mine off using the Consumer Proposal. I hated it, but the relief when the final payment was made was incredible! It's so hard being disabled, and healthy folk don't realise that they can budget so much more easily than we can. They can walk or cycle instead of getting a taxi, they can visit several shops to get the cheapest deals. They can buy cheap basic ingredients and cook big batches of food from scratch and freeze it all. They can lug their washing to the laundrette when the washing machine gives up the ghost, and so on. Financially it's devastating to be disabled and ill, no matter where in the world you live. At least in the UK, I get a lot of help with prescriptions and I got my basic wheelchair from the NHS.All the other gadgets I've had to pay for, but I get some payments from the Government towards those, but they really don't come anywhere to close to meeting everyone's needs.

You've done the right thing to help you get back into control, it will feel amazing!
Unknown said…
It is so nice, Lene, to read this and realise I am not alone in this struggle! Disability, medical expenses and a divorce have kicked me to the curb, so to speak. I am struggling to get back up, get it together and get it all in order. We are all survivors and we can do this. Upward and onward!

Popular posts from this blog

Weight Gain and Biologics: The Battle of the Pudge

10 Things about What It Is Like To Be On a Ventilator

Real RA: It's Not Just About the Jar