Trigger warning: This post contains descriptions of suicidal ideation.
Six years ago, on a freezing cold morning in Seoul, I made two major decisions. The first was that I wasn’t going to kill myself. And, since I figured I wouldn’t be dying any time soon, I thought I might also try to get myself out of the $25,000 in credit card debt I had amassed.
For roughly two years prior, I was mired in a stagnant, unrelenting depression. My friends and family back home assumed I was fine; I was working abroad, having new and exciting experiences, living with my first boyfriend, enjoying my life by all outward appearances. In reality, I rarely left my apartment. I had some part-time work, but often made excuses and didn’t show up. On the rare occasions I tried to be social, I’d end up feeling lonelier than when I was holed up in my dark bedroom. My only tether to the world was my boyfriend, who I both relied on heavily and deeply resented for allowing me to exist.
I also had credit cards.
Day after day, I’d follow the same routine. I’d wake up, brew a strong pot of coffee, open my laptop, and shop online. I’d spend hours browsing for different things to buy; clothes I’d never wear, household items I didn’t need, gifts for absolutely no one in particular.
Once my purchases were made and those confirmation emails landed in my inbox, I compulsively tracked my orders. When boxes arrived at the house, I actually felt something—happiness? Satisfaction? Pride for a job well done? Whatever it was, it was a welcome change from the emotional rigor mortis I felt the other 99 percent of the time. I was addicted to that feeling. Eventually, I didn’t even pause long enough to open the boxes I’d received before rushing back to my computer to make another purchase, nothingness nipping at my heels.
Being stuck in an infinite loop of sadness that is only briefly assuaged by consumption is—and I can’t stress this enough—fucking expensive.
When one credit card maxed out, I’d apply for another. When that one maxed out, I’d do it again. In total, I was able to take out 13 lines of credit. When the bills started to add up, I didn’t sweat it; I figured that eventually I’d either get the balls to kill myself, or I’d be so distracted by my own thoughts, a bus would hit me and do the job instead. Actually having to face my debt didn’t seem like it would be a problem.
Luckily for me (at least the me now, who actually enjoys being alive), things changed. You’d think the day I decided not to kill myself would be a joyous one, but when the fog lifted, it all hit me: I was $25,000 in credit card debt, a hollowed out carcass standing in a room full of vintage Japanese dresses, various types of coffee pots and random Etsy art. I wasn’t going to die; I’d be paying bills instead.
I had no idea how to tackle paying off the kind of debt I’d incurred, so I decided to Google it. “How to pay off credit card debt,” I typed, sure that I’d find some sort of solace in the strategies presented to me.
The first result was the website of a tough-talking financial expert and multi-millionaire with a special section on how to get out of credit card debt.
“To get out of debt,” the site reads, “You’ve got to change your habits.”
I considered the 500+ days I’d spent mainlining French press coffee and buying luxury socks while envisioning my body careening off the Banpo Bridge. Yes, I thought to myself. I suppose my habits do need to change.
“Create margin and earn extra income,” the site read. Is it possible to do either of these things when you’re basically unemployed and still mostly terrified to leave the house?
“Live on rice and beans.” Why now, when food is only just beginning to taste good again?
“With all those payments going out each month, there’s nothing left for you.” Oh. Guess I’ll just die instead????????
I looked around for other debt resolution advice, but found more of the same. It was always some version of “Wow, you really fucked yourself. Here’s how to deal with this massive personal failure.” The implication is always that you’ve made a series of choices that were reckless and impulsive. Once you recognize how badly you’ve messed up, you’re presented with a solution: Restructure your life into a series of budget lines and atone for your stupidity, lest you be stuck in financial hell forever.
The problem doesn’t lie in the strategy—I don’t doubt on a technical level, many debt resolution tactics actually do work. However, I found the overall tone, approach, and attitude towards credit card debt exceedingly unhelpful—in fact, reading debt resolution advice from financial experts mostly made me feel exponentially worse. How was I supposed to “take a hard look at my choices” and “pull myself up by my bootstraps” when I’d just now decided that being alive could actually be kind of chill? How was I to take “swift action” to resolve my debt when I’d only recently decided to take a regular shower? And how was I supposed to “confront my debt head on” when, two weeks previous, I couldn’t even confront the basic concept of allowing sunlight to wash over me?
Most of all, though, I felt embarrassed to owe that kind of money with so little to show for it. Everyone loves to commiserate over student loan debt—it’s fair game for conversation at dinner parties. We’re taught that student debt is virtuous; we take it on because we’re “investing in ourselves” and building human capital. Credit card debt, on the other hand, is shameful—we take it on because we can’t live within our means or control ourselves. If you have credit card debt, you’ve made “bad” or “unnecessary” choices.
Coincidentally, feeling ashamed of your credit card debt is similar to the shame you feel for being depressed and unable to function: It’s all your fault, and unless you start “making the choice” to do things differently, it’s never going to get better. I punished myself for years about my identity, my trauma, my inability to cope. Then I punished myself for buying that Danish cookware, too.
It’s been six years, and most of the things I bought during that time have been given away, donated, or sold. I’ve also made a dent in my credit card debt—a small one, but a dent nonetheless. I’ve curbed my spending, started making payments, and try not to absorb any of the shame. I’ve started approaching my debt as I would any other part of the healing process: unless I’m talking about it, it’s not actually going to get better. When I go to pay my bills, I think about the pain I experienced for years—pain that I never thought would dissipate. Now, mostly, it’s gone. One day, my debt will be too. I don’t blame myself for carrying either of them, for however long they’re with me.
Definitely should have kept the Danish cookware, though.
Amanda Richards is a New York City-based writer and the editorial director at Universal Standard. Follow her @amandakater.
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