By Joshua Dudley
In hindsight, I should have seen it coming. But, most of us never do. Big awful events in life seem to sneak up on us – a break up, getting fired, emergency surgery, bankruptcy. Afterwards we try to rationalize it and say “oh I should have done this, then '“x'” would have happened”. Or, we tell our friends that we should have seen it coming; that we could have prevented it. These events change us; they send us tumbling backwards like a wave catching a surfer at the wrong moment. They leave a permanent mark on us – an imprint that never fully goes away. We can forever look back on that mark as something to be afraid of, as something to try to ignore and forget about. Or, we can embrace it as a hard won lesson, something that will never again defeat us in the same way because we have learned to take a fuller measure of ourselves.
I didn’t see my bankruptcy coming until it was staring me right in the face and I had no choice but to acknowledge it. This was in August of last year, 2014. I had $500 in my checking account. My share of the rent in my 3 bedroom Brooklyn apartment in Bushwick was $720 and coming up soon. Earlier in the year I had experienced a massive flare up of Chrohn’s disease which nearly killed me and, consequently left my finances in tatters. I was unable to work for days at a time. All the while, I was losing weight and continuously getting weaker and my credit card limit was inching closer and closer to maximum after years and years of other unfortunate events. I still didn’t see it coming.
I was an eternal optimist that refused to take a hard look at reality. Then finally, the last domino fell and the blinders came off. I got a Citibank credit card statement in the mail and the minimum payment on the $7000 balance had tripled from $100 to $300 a month, the interest rate having gone up after a yearly offer.
I almost laughed at the absurdity of it – paying $300 out of my available 500 when 720 in rent was due soon and I knew that I was likely to only receive a few hundred dollars in checks over the next few weeks.
Suddenly, I knew what I had to do and I did laugh. I laughed at the credit card debt that I had accumulated in a short period of time during my early years in New York. I laughed at the Chrohn’s disease that greatly hastened my economic peril. I laughed at the dreams that had been stolen from me. I was going to declare bankruptcy.
I excitedly explained the math to my roommate, surmising that even if the credit card companies agreed to work with me it would still take me nearly five years to pay off the $20,000 I owed. Or, I could declare bankruptcy, owe no one anything, and have that same amount of money in the bank instead!
This was something that used to be unspeakable to me. The very thought of it was foreign even years earlier when I racked up $27,000 in credit card debt in just two short years in New York. Bankruptcy meant giving up; conceding that you had failed. I moved to New York to be an actor and left myself no exit plan. Leaving New York meant leaving in a body bag. All the weight that had accumulated after years of failure and depression began to slide off and I resolved to go after my dreams again. I began doing stand-up comedy for the first time in years even though it scared me to the point of near panic. I began to tell stories about my Chrohn’s disease and my bankruptcy and laugh about them because they had no more power over me. I casually dismissed them with a smile and introduced those most painful of topics with a straight face. The audience loved these jokes because they were personal.
“Bankruptcy is such a touchy word you know. It makes people uncomfortable. What’s a nicer way to say you screwed it all up?”
“I have Chrohn’s disease and I never know when to bring that up on the first date. When’s the best time to tell a girl you have a terminal disease and could die at any moment?”
Once I’d resolved to declare bankruptcy, it became pointless to keep paying my numerous credit cards and after the first month the bill collectors started calling. It was like those cheesy lawyer commercials where people are scratching their heads and looking at their bills and wondering how they’re going to pay them.
Due to the prohibitive cost of hiring a bankruptcy lawyer, not only did I stop paying my credit cards, I had to stop paying for my health insurance as well, which meant I was taking a risk that my Chrohn’s disease would come back.
Eventually, I met with a lawyer and he told me that I had to give him $700 in cash before he would talk to me further. Even after that, it was little more than an accounting of how I needed to pay him $1100 more.
It took almost four months of struggles to pay the final total but it was a feeling of sweet relief to go into that office with over a thousand dollars of cash in an envelope, knowing I was on the road to washing away years of heartache. This was in December, a few weeks before Christmas and by this time I was physically and emotionally spent. One friend had advised me to leave New York after my bankruptcy and start over someplace else. I had even penned one of those heart wrenching “I’m Leaving New York and Here’s Why” kind of things. My Chrohn’s disease was starting to come back and I had very little will left in me to stay in Brooklyn, and wait another month until my bankruptcy hearing. So I went home to my parents. I got fed comfort food. I took my vitamins. I tried not to argue or complain too much, and I started writing again for the first time in several years. I penned this comedy piece about my bankruptcy. I felt I had been given a second chance and I wanted to share this great news with everyone. I wanted to help people heal through laughter and maybe give them a sign that this is something that’s okay. It’s going to be okay.
I didn’t get as much feedback as I wanted from the article. I think that even though I had broached the topic in an inviting and unthreatening way people still felt stigmatized about it. Maybe they thought that I should be ashamed of it. “It’s almost like you’re telling people you’re proud of it” a friend told me at church “But not in a bad way” he assured me. I guess I wanted people to relate more to my struggle to see that even though I was telling jokes about it, bankruptcy was a very hard thing emotionally to wrap my head around. Getting across the concept that you could be proud of something that to nearly everyone represented a personal and moral failing was going to be a challenge. But, I was proud of it; I escaped the clutches of a life chained to debt. Millions of Americans are enslaved to a predatory lending system that engorges itself on those who don’t know how to make proper use of credit and have never been taught the importance of staying clear of unnecessary debt. I should have never been allowed to have a credit limit totaling the amount of money I might make in a year. I shouldn’t have gotten a credit card my first year in college because I didn’t know how to use it sensibly. The free slinky I got for signing up didn’t last as long as the interest payments I soon found myself swamped with. If there was a moral failing, it was from the lending institutions themselves.
Then just a month later I paid off my car! Somehow through a tax return, some forgotten checks, and helping my dad run a construction company I had more than enough to pay off the $3200 balance remaining on that loan. Two months ago, I could only scrape together a little over half of that amount for a lawyer. Now, here I was proudly taking a selfie (see above) in a credit union to mark the occasion of actually paying off a car for the first time as opposed to crashing it or trading it in. If I needed more validation that bankruptcy was a good thing, this was it! Everywhere I went I told people the good news that I declared bankruptcy and paid off my car. I was a bankruptcy evangelist spreading the gospel of freedom! I think it freaked a lot of people out who’d been offering casual greetings without really wanting to know the details. When cashiers ask someone how they are doing while ringing up a Slurpee they probably don’t expect to hear “I just declared bankruptcy and paid off my car. I’m doing great!” Not really knowing how to respond I would usually get something like this “oh ok. um. great. Here’s your change.”
Even for the people who were excited for me, full conversion was difficult. I related my good news to an old friend at church. He was overjoyed for me and began telling me how he had a mortgage, a car payment, a wife and kids, and was choking in credit card debt. I immediately began to sell him on the idea of declaring bankruptcy and wanted to sit down with him to show him how it could be a reality. Unfortunately this meeting never materialized and I could never figure out why exactly. I told my sister about it and how it didn’t make sense to me because he seemed more than qualified. He already had a house and a car so a dip in his credit rating wouldn’t really affect him. I realized that some people might be embarrassed about it, but she gave me a different slant. “Maybe he feels a moral obligation to pay back his debts” she said “I mean what happens to that money that he owes? It doesn’t just go away. The banks that he borrowed it from ultimately end up paying for it.”
We internalize a lot of problems and finances are at the top of that list. If I had been open and honest with myself and talked about it with friends and other people, I would have declared bankruptcy a long time ago. Maybe, it wouldn’t have gotten to the point where I stopped telling my dad about how bad it was getting financially because I didn’t want him to worry. Perhaps I would have never been in debt at all. Most families, mine included, don’t tell each other about the things that are really important to them because they’re worried about being judged. I think as a society there’s an implicit agreement that we should handle our own affairs and that by sharing our fears and problems we are being a burden on others. We all carry permanent marks from disappointments and defeats and shattered dreams. But when we don’t share those losses with people that we trust; when we don’t allow ourselves to become vulnerable, scar tissue begins to build up around that mark. We start to become hard, and bitter and the comfort zone that we venture out of becomes smaller and smaller. We need to learn how to reach out outside of ourselves so we can finally let go of the burdens that some of us have been carrying for a long time, some of us our whole lives.
In the end, despite my sheer joy at talking about it, my family did end up judging me because of my bankruptcy. One of them opined that I could “live within my means now” and I got the general idea that they hoped I had learned my lesson. In a way it was my fault for not having the courage to include them in my troubles. Because of these things they probably thought that I had been spending money wildly and foolishly in New York on frivolous things instead of fighting hard just to keep my head above water. But like I said, I don’t really blame them. In fact, I understand. They probably think I should have seen it coming.
Joshua Dudley has been writing forever but somewhere along the way he got overwhelmed by debt, depression, and Chrohn's Disease. Looking back on it he realizes that it just gave him more to write about. Now debt free and with a renewed lease on life he feels he is beginning a creative revival. This is his first published essay. He has a treasure trove of weird and sometimes hilarious things that he never knew what to do with at joshdudley.tripod.com. He is currently a regular contributor to The Elizabethian and can be found here. Reach out to him at facebook.com/joshuadudley.969 and on Twitter and Instagram at @dudleyjoshua.