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The Connection Between My Mental Health and My Debt

Originally published on The $76K Project on 12/16/2017

Among a few other mental health conditions that I've been diagnosed with over the years, major depression is something I grapple with on a regular, long-term basis. I can pinpoint the exact month and year it showed up. I was 12. It was February. One day I was happy and stable; the next, I was not. Depression latched on, its grip relentless, and it hasn't let up since.

I knew something was wrong (the suicidal thoughts and obsessive need to plan my own funeral clued me in), but it wasn't until I was 31 years old - a couple of years after my son was born - that I finally saw a therapist and a psychiatrist, got a diagnosis, and figured out how to ride out depressive episodes in a relatively healthy-ish way.

This means that I spent almost 20 years of my life wrestling with mental illness pretty much on my own. If that sounds like a terrible idea, you're right, but I did everything in my power to hide my condition. I chose coping mechanisms that largely masked the chaos in my brain rather than calling attention to it. No drugs, alcohol, or reckless behavior for me: I grew up in a super-conservative household and was too afraid of an unsavory afterlife to engage in anything that risky. 

Instead, my coping mechanisms included the following strategies:
  • Pushing myself to achieve perfection at school. I made A's throughout high school and graduated summa cum laude from college, not because I cared that much about the subject matter (don't ask me to recall anything from Physics II or Differential Equations), but because I just wanted to get everything right.
  • Pushing myself to be the perfect Christian teenager. This went out the window in college, but in high school, my squeaky clean image was everything to me.
  • Sleeping (all the time, especially during bad depressive episodes)
  • Eating (any time I wasn't sleeping)
  • Traveling. A lot. And here's where the debt part comes in...
Traveling has always been one of my favorite things to do, and for various reasons. Before starting therapy, I used travel as a means of escape. Oddly, only when I was completely out of my element in an unfamiliar place did I feel stable, competent, and happy. Thus, I did whatever I could to travel whenever I could. 

As a teenager, I was strategic and savvy about how I organized these escapes. My M.O. was something like this: I would sign up for a church-based missions trip, ask people in my congregation to contribute to said trip, and then head off on what was essentially a fully-funded excursion. (Disclaimer: This now seems awfully sneaky, but I wasn't really aware of why I was doing what I was doing while I was doing it, and I definitely gave my all to the mission of each expedition.) The trips didn't cure me of my mental highs and lows, but they would temporarily bring my emotional rollercoaster to a blessed halt.

Maybe it was the distraction of new surroundings. Maybe it was being away from triggers at home.  Maybe it was the high of not knowing what to expect. 

Whatever the reason, it worked.

By the time I graduated from high school, I'd been to Europe, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, and Venezuela, all on the church's dime. Most of these trips were anything but easy. In Haiti, I encountered poverty the likes of which I've never experienced before or since. In Mexico, on a Habitat for Humanity trip, I got food poisoning and spent the better part of a week huddled in an outhouse. During the first few days of my foreign exchange trip to Jamaica, I wound up trapped in a tiny shack in the Blue Mountains with an elderly couple who didn't speak English and who refused to let me leave (long story; ask me later). While none of these experiences were in any way comfortable, they somehow felt more tolerable than the emotions I lived with when I was home in my safe, suburban American neighborhood.

My mental health didn't improve much after high school, so despite my persistently limited income, I continued to seek escape through (non-budget) travel. Without the generous donations of churchgoers to see me through, I used the magic of credit cards to pay for several trips in the 13-year timespan between graduation and therapy:
  • The romantic getaway to a posh resort in St. Lucia 
  • The month-long hiking trip across the Alps 
  • The tall ship sailing expedition between England and the Canary Islands
  • The babymoon trip to Hawaii
  • The many, many mini-getaways to places within the continental U.S.
  • The cruise to the Bahamas
  • The trip to Europe
  • Wow, this list keeps getting longer...
  • Etc.
When I went back to graduate school, I chose a subject that would allow me to travel frequently. I added Montreal, Montserrat, Brazil, and Italy (twice) to my travel repertoire. During this time, my flight and hotel expenses were largely covered by grants, but these trips inevitably incurred multiple smaller expenses that coalesced as higher and higher balances on my credit card, which I had trouble paying off on a grad student salary.

In short: when I look at my debt, my gut reaction is to think, "I messed up." But on second glance, I see a long history of trying to cope. I see a survival strategy. That's why I am not shaming myself for any of this. I mean, I survived two decades of depression with no help. As long as that's the bottom line, does it matter what that entails? In debt or dead: I'll take the former.

I still struggle with depression. Some days are better than others, but although I have better coping mechanisms now, and great friends, and a supportive family, and manageable goals, and a blog that stokes my creativity, some days are still excruciating. I just do my best. I try to keep my credit card far, far away from Expedia and TripAdvisor.

If you're living with a mental illness, and if that illness is reflected in the way you spend money or the balance on your credit card, I just want to say that I get it. You did the best you could, given that you're living with a condition that is brutal, isolating, and relentless. You're doing it (or did it) so that you survive, and I give you massive, massive props for that.

And if, like me, you've made it out of the abyss with a boatload of debt, just know that there's still time to sort it out. The main thing is that you're here! Awesome, unmatchable you! Yes, money is important. Yes, saving is important. Yes, reducing debt is important. But you are more important. 

There is nothing more important than your life.

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