To get out of the projects, my parents moved us into a partially condemned apartment building with faulty electricity and no running hot water. It was a relief and discomfort at the same time; you a lose a network, a sense of rank and familiarity when you go someplace new. I could anticipate the violence of a typical day and knew what to look forward to, who or what to watch out for. Now we were in a mixed neighborhood and fears of comparisons showed up. There were other houses that were better than ours and I didn’t know if people would like us or if we’d fit in. Fast forward and I found myself on a college campus with two trash bags where I’d encounter a whole new set of comparisons and opportunities to feel fantastically out of place. I’d be the first in my family to graduate college. Four years later with no option of going home, I’d head to graduate school on the recommendation of a professor and pursue a degree in mental health. For the first 10 years of my career I specialized in early childhood trauma, treating women and children living in the same crisis I’d just come through. I continue to find it easier to relate to the people I serve more so than my professional peers.
While studying at Lesley I took a class with a Harvard professor who taught an intensive semester on something called resilience. Using a longitudinal documentary about a family from the Cabrini Green project in Chicago I’d encounter answers to questions I previously didn’t know how to ask. Why am I still alive? Am I going to die? What kind of success am I supposed to have? Is my ‘poor’ showing? Am I supposed to figure this all out buy a big house and let my family live with me? What if I hate resilience? What if I give up? What if I don’t?
In a recent article from The Atlantic, Derek Thompson compiles some theories about why poor people die young, specifically targeting public health campaigns on obesity prevention, anti-smoking, exercise promotion and all those shaming charts showing you how much sugar is in the only thing that makes your day suck less. My take-away from the article is habits are contagious and if we build affordable housing next to all the rich people, poor people will start jogging, stop drinking soda, living ‘right’ and eating fruit.
You can read the article here:
Despite my initial aversion to his theory, he might be on to something. My step father was a sober parent to come to who has a touch of OCD. He’s also an accomplished fritter maker and music lover. While we were at school and my mother was at one of her 5 jobs (I’m exaggerating but she is a workaholic) he called in to a favorite radio station, guessed the correct answer to a music trivia question and won two ferry tickets to the Vineyard. He told us when we got home from school. I’d just started 8th grade and was more concerned with hairspray than grapes. I don’t think the Vineyard registered as a place I understood. He and my mom planned to go for the day and come back. But instead got stuck for a night. A storm rolled in and the steamship cancelled all the boats. Contrary to what we’d later tell tourists who picked us up hitch-hiking, there is no bridge to the mainland. Apparently, while eating dinner, my mother started talking about what a great and safe place the Vineyard was and wondered out loud what it would take to move there. At the time we were living in a duplex at the end of a dead end street playing in embankments where homeless people camped. Despite the fact that we were close to St. Pat’s, Central Falls was creeping into our end of town bringing murder, prostitution and drugs to our bus stop. A woman in the next booth overheard my mother’s daydream, gave her an interview with a home health agency and two weeks later we moved from a dead end, next door to the former Mrs. Kennedy.
Cleaning houses for rich people is different from having a disposable income but you do learn a few things. I became obsessed with good fabric, the texture of nice furniture and real clothes. Rich houses smell amazing; like quince, pear, gardenias and lime zest, oaky hardwood and clean laundry. I liked those things; the brightness, self-efficacy, ease, spaciousness, beauty, safety, choices, and comfort which I saw then, as the prizes of wealth.
At 13 I took a second job in downtown Edgartown at a fine goods and leather boutique. I learned the art of high-end retail and that wealthy people were pretty convinced they could buy anything they wanted; including me. While selling a bomber jacket to a very important man, he invited me to look out the shop window and pointed to his family yacht in the harbor. He then proposed that for a large sum of money I might ‘have dinner’ with his eligible son. My boss encouraged me to close the sale before turning down the indecent proposal. I was 15 by then. I followed my boss’s instructions, then gently turned the man down, which later required a little more convincing from my boss and soon after, gave my notice. I decided I wasn’t a fan of this so-called upper class or anything associated with having money. I’d seen the dark side of all that space and control and how empty, unhappy and cruel it made some people. I was reacting to my own experiences from a chipped lens made up in part of my own insecurities. I’d continue to wrestle with the ills of class at both ends of the spectrum.
You end up stuck between cultures when you find resilience or it finds you. I’ve heard many clients over the years describe investment in their illness as a true form of safety, avoidance and self-preservation. Setting boundaries often takes effort or energy we honestly lack at times. Compliance is familiar despite whatever compromise or pain it sustains. I had this hideous blue, paisley dress I’d bought at T.J Maxx for $20 and ended up wearing it for all my important graduate school functions, including the interview and a class brunch at The Hasty Pudding. I felt tragically out of place and worried through the entire meal that I was either going to be asked to leave for looking so heinous, or I wasn’t going to have enough money to pay my bill. I still have a picture of me in the dress and it makes me want to crawl out of my own life. No one showed me how to dress for a professional life, outside of the one boss from the fancy boutique store and I couldn’t have afforded Eileen Fisher on my own. I’m still not sure I can justify spending $200 on one pair of pants. Plus, it feels like wearing someone else’s skin. I knew I didn’t want to look like people from parts of my past, but I couldn’t identify with the ‘other’. Resilient people don’t get a template. Later I’d understand this to be one of the many gifts, but for years it felt like a second puberty. In truth, it’s ongoing.
A rich businessman had a failed suicide attempt following a bad deal in which he lost most of his estate. He ended up sitting alongside adults with chronic and acute mental illness at a day treatment program. The van would pick him up each day and other group members got to see the gated estate he was preparing for foreclosure. His work in the program was grief-work; mourning the loss of a lifestyle he’d driven himself so hard to achieve, while trying to envision something new and unknown for himself and his wife, and forgiving himself for taking the kinds of risks he’d taken throughout his career which had always paid off. The contrast of the way he’d lived to that of the other group members offered profound lessons; money cannot prevent pain, going up and down the socioeconomic spectrum is equally fraught with the discomfort and unfamiliarity of change and compassion is free. Some of our homeless group members brought this man bags of clothes and other items they thought he might find helpful in his transition. He accepted them graciously. Other group members also oriented him to program life, serving him coffee and sharing tips on what was best to order for lunch. On his last day in program he shared reflections on what he’d gained from his time with the group. Some heartbreaks are life changing; this was among them.
Becoming someone different from what your family of origin prescribes and celebrating that new identity takes a willingness, time, effort, courage, humility, curiosity, help, acceptance and faith. In my family I was simultaneously pushed off the cliff and mocked for who I was becoming; a @#%ing psychologist, miss perfect, you’ve always been the princess, I hated you when we were growing up, go live your perfect life!, you didn’t even try, stop trying so hard, where are your balls, are you still on that-oh get over it! why haven’t you done X yet? One of my parents visited one of my apartments and declared jealousy for my education and prospects. I couldn’t blame them for their feelings but it was hard to call myself successful in that moment. There had been a party for my college graduation but no one from my family could come. I opted not to add the additional $6,000 (plus interest) it would’ve cost to attend the graduate commencement ceremony so my master’s degree came in the mail.
Jamie Johnson’s documentary on the burden of growing up an heir to a massive fortune paints a similar picture of identity questioning. He talks about the great expectations placed on heir-children, growing up with every privilege and good experience imaginable and how this robs you of the opportunity to create meaningful goals, the limited dating pool, the difficulty in learning to moderate what you possess because you have access to everything and how lost many of his peers felt during their early twenties. Some of his friends end up expressing shame and anxiety about being part of the film for fear of ridicule or exposing their families and losing connections, resources and belonging. Yes. In spite of whatever is in or not in our parents’ bank accounts, at the end of the day aren’t we all motivated by our desire to be loved and accepted?
My mother clings to her rose-colored belief that there is a great nobility in poverty; likely a combination of rejecting her parents aspirations for her and something of preached Catholic values. I say preached because we had to get dressed up to go to Catholic mass, and they have some of the largest, most ornate cathedrals ever built. We get into trouble when we have ego about our rank. It’s fine to be skinny or fat, rich or poor, but it turns ugly when we form a rigid attachment and assign value to either way. I’m guilty of remaining attached to my identity in poverty, pain and pant size sometimes. I’m afraid of becoming something or someone I don’t like or don’t know as a result of letting these parts of me change. I continue to evolve. You’re welcome to join me.
Right living may have nothing to do with our net worth. If we stop creating judgments and assumptions rooted in fear and prejudice we might learn beautiful lessons from each other.