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WHEN DEBT GETS DEADLY
I recently read an article from USA Today about a couple in Washington State who were so overwhelmed by their debt that they left a note behind and subsequently died in an apparent murder-suicide. I was devastated to hear that this is happening and it led me to do some research about how this happens. I know I've definitely been there: the burden of debt can be so stifling on its own, but when you add in aggressive debt collectors who call multiple times a day and have surely been treated so horribly all day (that's got to be a rough job) that by the time they've auto-dialed your number, they're humorless, sometimes sound judgemental, and altogether lack sympathy, and you're simply adding insult to injury.
In the UK, this nightmare has been increasing over the years to the point that, according to the Guardian, 100,000 people a year are trying to take their own lives because of their debt. In the US, it tends to be student loan debt that is driving people to the ultimate decision.
I can relate. It has been six years since I graduated with a Masters Degree in English from the University of Idaho. Over the course of my seven years of schooling, I had two kids and went to school more than full-time. I worked crazy-low paying on-campus jobs to help boost our income but ultimately had only my husband to support us. But he did, and happily so, because the entire world told us that a degree would change my life, and by extension my family's life, for the better. I'd be able to be more competitive in the job market, make exponentially more money than I would without a degree, and I'd be able to do something in my field that I love.
In reality, a career as a college adjunct professor meant that I wouldn't be able to pick up insurance--or even a stable job, as these are almost always classified as part-time, one-year contracts. My mountain of student loan debt was now a burden instead of a benefit. I fell into deep depressions, many of them. I'd just as soon come out of a depression as we'd find ourselves floundering again to pay the bills, and what was the result?
I became bitter. Why did I go to college in the first place? To prove that I could, to prove to myself that I was smarter than everyone gave me credit for, and to try to succeed in life in ways that the people in my family have never been able to. I wanted to break the chains of poverty which has pretty much poisoned the entirety of my family tree. But now, I had catapulted my family into much deeper debt, was getting jobs that required Bachelor's Degrees--in any field--and was still making less than half of my high school-educated husband's annual income.
How selfish of me!
How stupid of me!
I am nobody special--and ultimately, that is a lesson we all need to learn: nobody is as special as they think they are. I felt that I was born into a situation that no amount of hard work or sacrifice could release me from, despite the fact that the country tells us otherwise under the guise of some phony "American Dream."
I found myself being hounded by hospitals and collections companies. Even though the jobs I have worked came equipped with medical insurance, the deductibles were almost, but never quite, met. A series of desperate circumstances led to a string of poor financial decisions and my husband and I were sunk. I can't count how many times I'd eagerly look forward to payday only to find that our money didn't stretch far enough to cover all of the bills. Rob Peter to pay Paul. Rob Paul to feed the kids. Nobody, and I mean not emergency cash funds, welfare, food stamps, has ever been available to help us because of our annual income, despite the fact that for a quarter of the year my husband draws unemployment, cutting his income by two-thirds.
The sense of helplessness, hopelessness, and despair at a debt that grows every day left me suicidal and despondent: minimum payments do nothing in the face of predatory interest rates. My husband, who is and has always been my best friend, felt that he was a failure despite going to work every day to a job that is as physically demanding as it is dangerous. Both of us felt and still feel that we have been rejected by, cast out from, and fooled by the American Dream.
So it's in this way that the American Dream has become an American Nightmare. People are feeling as though they have no way out aside from an overdose of prescription medication, a quick gunshot to the brain, a dive off of a cliff. The government bails out the wealthy, the banks, and the oil and gas industry, but where the hell is the bailout for my family who has done nothing except bust our asses to get ahead in life, only to be left with nothing?
How do we fix this horrific situation so that the people who are feeling that there is no way out can breathe for a moment? How do we give those people hope? How do I not hate myself for accumulating student loans and medical debt I'll never be able to pay off? The country is crying out for help...who is going to help us?
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