I’m going to share some details of what my circumstances are and I realize that this might increase feelings of despair, anxiety, and worse in some people so please read this with that caution in mind, and please, be kind to yourself. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of harming themself, please reach out and talk to someone by calling 9-8-8 (available in the US 24/7).
For those who don’t want to/can’t read that story, I will put the question up top as to why I’m sharing my story: how do you stave off despair? What coping mechanisms help you? I’m already in therapy.
I am like many of my generation: I was told the way to secure a future for myself was to go to college. I grew up in an ultraconservative household and went to an extremely conservative charter school for most of my high school years. That meant that on top of the bog standard advice of, “you need a college degree to succeed these days, plan what you’re going to study;” I also had the moralizing about, “don’t spend the rest of your life flipping burgers. Go to college.” I was always told that while it sucks to have to take out loans, the money I’d make with a college education would mean that it wouldn’t matter. Moreover, they told me that it would be great for building credit because it was such an easy thing to manage and you’d basically be guaranteed to come out on the other side living the American Dream. It didn’t even matter what I went to college for, according to them, because the secret to a comfortable life was the degree. In hindsight, it was truly awful. There was no reason to be demonizing people who make the burgers that I enjoy. And you know what? The person who flips burgers should be able to have all their basic necessities: housing, food, and healthcare too. No one should suffer because their hours are crap, the wages are crap, they can’t find work, they can’t work, or whatever.
By the time I was graduating from undergrad, it was becoming clear that it did in fact matter what kind of degree you had. Jobs were drying up and people just a few years younger than me were taking unpaid internships, working paid jobs, and going to school full-time all at the same time just to make it. I was advised that since my degree was not translatable into a specific job, I needed to go to grad school. I tried to avoid that because I had health complications that made going to school longer than I already had difficult. I spent months applying for jobs in a field I had spent the last four years working in while I was in college. Day after day, 6-8 hours each day, I went to a coffee shop (my apartment at the time didn’t have internet) and applied for jobs. I was living on coffee shop donuts and their bottomless drip coffee. I had a couple of promising interviews that didn’t pan out. The lease on my apartment expired, my roommate was leaving, and I moved back in with my parents. My mental health tanked. I mean, I think if I stayed with them any longer I would have ended my life.
I applied for grad school at places that didn’t require a GRE because studying for the test proved too difficult (I didn’t know at the time that I had ADHD). I got accepted into an online program. I moved to another state, away from family, back to where I had gone to school for undergrad, and took a job as a dog trainer. It sounds nice, but in fact, it was a lot of dog walking (picking up poo, getting bit, regulating my emotions in front of the clients who expected nothing less than a happy trainer ready to take their purebred who cost more than I made in a year on a walk and do some cognitive behavioral training) in any weather every day. The boss was manipulative and abusive to the point where I was posting on social media that if I didn’t make a post after I got home from work I needed them to assume something bad had happened to me and get help. I left that job and was unemployed for a long time. I was on food stamps and state-funded healthcare, but it was rough. The healthcare was the worst possible thing you could imagine: the premium was non-existent and there was no deductible, but it covered basically nothing except basic doctor visits (which I had frequently because I was on a medication that required regular blood work).
The graduate program turned out to be… Well, officially it’s considered a legitimate program, but it was essentially a massive scam. The school was a Christian university and I spent more time listening to preaching and reading moral fairytales than I did on actual materials related to the field I was going into. When I compared the reading lists of my syllabus with grad students at other institutions in my field, I was appalled to learn that somewhere between 40-60% of the texts that others were reading were missing from my own syllabus. I have nothing against that stuff if it’s in addition to what I needed to learn even though I’m not a Christian, but the fact that they were replacing materials others in my field were studying to preach their religious doctrine to me was absurd. I decided to leave the program and get a job, but there were no jobs. Unemployed, I was struggling just to get by. I accepted help with rent from my parents even though I knew it would cost me later on down the line. After six months, I managed to get a job at a restaurant and that covered rent… barely. I dutifully reported to the state that I was now employed, but I still needed food stamps because I wasn’t making enough to buy groceries. They slashed my food stamps from ~$300 to ~$32. Meanwhile, my health complications were in full swing and I couldn’t afford to go to the doctor. I had cavities in my teeth that hurt all the time that I could do nothing about it because dental was not covered by the state insurance.
I’m going to time jump because I got married, moved across the country, got divorced, and moved across the country again. It’s a sad story, but not relevant. There are some sad stories about being poor, coping with divorce, and all that that would make this story significantly longer than you or I have time for.
Now I live in a modest apartment that’s probably some of the cheapest in the area. I work a job that pays me well (but not nearly enough for what I do) and has good health insurance as a benefit. I made it, right? I’m making the kind of money they promised me I would when I was in high school. After all the garbage I went through, it would seem like my life has finally come together. I don’t own a home, a car, or have retirement plans but I’m not suffering anymore… Except there’s that pesky issue of student loans… As it turns out, my loans are so high that even with income-driven repayment I will barely be able to afford them even after rebalancing my budget to cut out a lot of creature comforts. Ok, so it’s bad, but in 10 years of working non-profit, I’ll be able to wipe it out, right? Nope, aside from all the stuff about PSLF being a massive failure, I learned that the bulk of my student loan debt is not in my name, but in my parent’s name because of Parent Plus Loans.
I may hate my parents for all the things they did to me as a child, but I don’t wish poverty on them (or anyone under any circumstances). I learned from one of my siblings that they’re going to be taking money out of their retirement fund early to pay for whatever I can’t. Y’all, the monthly amount for the Parent Plus Loans is more than I make. I can’t even afford half. My parents will likely work themselves into the grave to pay those Parent Plus Loans and I feel awful about it. Unless, Biden cancels all student debt, my parents and I are both going to spend the rest of our lives working to pay those loans off miserable and exhausted.