Right now, I’m about two hundred and forty thousand dollars in debt. Fifty thousand of that is credit card debt. Actually, for that, let’s say twenty. Can’t be more than twenty-five. It’s because of the road trip that we took. It’s more like fifteen, if you think about it. I’m definitely going to pay it off with the next check. I only have two credit cards that I really use. The one that has close to $20,000 on it isn’t really a credit card. Okay, I have four. But one is a business expansion loan that looks like a credit card. The APR is 0% for the first six months. I can’t have opened it more than six months ago. Is April 2017 more than six months ago? I definitely don’t have something like $50,000 in credit card debt. Unless, temporarily, of course, I do.
I’d give you a straight answer about what the number is, but to do that I’d have to look straight at it. And I don’t know if I’m ready to do that, or if I ever really will be.
A few years ago, a friend of mine and I started talking about money. We’d been trading personal updates for a year or so, emailing each other as often as we could the answers to a series of personal questions about our days. I was honest with him when we were talking about my intense ambition, my ambivalence about my then-relationship, my attraction to a writing workshop classmate, the near-constant foghorn of shame I felt at the beginning and end of every day, my (I thought, extraordinary) insecurity, my fear of my graduate school professors, my intense desire to be loved and my belief that I was somehow an inappropriate and unqualified candidate for human intimacy, my sexual problems, my familial challenges, my thesis, my qualifying exams, my scheduled and then experienced brain surgery, my scheduled (and then experienced) heart surgery. I had no problem outlining, in near-vicious detail, how I had been cruel or selfish that day. It felt easy for me to recount where I had gone wrong and where I had gone right. Where I could have done better. What I could have done instead.
Adding a financial inventory felt like the next logical step, and also, I thought my financial behavior needed improving. I’d learned when I stopped drinking to pay attention to the people who had what I wanted: an ease, an unselfconsciousness, a clarity of mind that, when I was looking for solace in the bottom of complicated cocktails and vials of increasingly shitty drugs, I’d never been able to find. And I’d noticed that whenever my friend spent money, he pulled out his phone and recorded it in an app, whether it was a $2 coffee or a $17 grain bowl at Café Gratitude, a frustratingly intimate restaurant in our then-mutual home city of Berkeley. He didn’t seem to feel the same constant running chyron of financial fear that I did, and I thought perhaps those two observations were related.
I didn’t want the constant app-updating, necessarily, but I wanted to get out of the cycle that I was in: of having no idea of how much money I actually had at any given moment, and of feeling totally unable to ever give anyone a straight financial answer. I asked him if we could start tracking money with each other. I thought practicing honesty with him might help me start practicing honesty with myself.
I looked at the line in my bank statement. I tried to type the same numbers into the email. But I couldn’t. Not quite.
The format was simple: We would each send a couple of lines indicating money we had invoiced, money coming in, money spent, money in savings, existing debts, etc. His snapshots were remarkable to me. He had over $100,000 saved in an IRA, a car loan that was more than my graduate school teaching income (that’s a critique of graduate school labor practices, not his choice of car), and thousands of invoiced dollars on their way to him. He was precise down to the cent with what he had in his checking account.
Meanwhile, I did my best. And I realized, doing this exercise, that my best was still riddled with tiny dishonesties. Because no matter how much I tried to force myself to tell the truth to this person who had, so far, absorbed every single shameful fact about my life with nothing but compassion and love, I could not. I looked at the line in my bank statement. I tried to type the same numbers into the email. But I couldn’t. Not quite.
A credit card balance that read $1,900 became $500. My student loans, forever abstract to me, became $40,000 (the number now is closer to $200,000). I applied potential incoming payments in two different places, both as cash on hand and as payment to a credit card. That’s how the $1,900 became $500. I told myself I was just spinning a lot of plates. That numbers don’t necessarily constitute facts. That what matters is how I feel, not what the balance sheet says.
After a few months, we stopped sharing our financial information. I told myself it was because I was too busy. Working on other things. Sometimes, I told myself it was because I didn’t need help anymore. After I started consulting on the side, my income rocketed. I had enough to cover all my debts. I didn’t need to track things anymore. All I needed to do was move money around. It’s over a year later and I’m still in debt, but never mind that. I was fine then. I am fine now. It’s probably going to be fine. What’s the worst that could happen?
A few years ago, I almost died. An unknown cyst in my brain ruptured, hemorrhaging blood and protein into the center of my skull. I couldn’t work. I could barely read. I wasn’t in the hospital for more than a week, but before the era of medical cost-cutting, I probably would have been. Too sick to produce anything, I took out more student loans. I put delivered meals on my credit card. Six weeks after a brain biopsy to rule out the possibility that the cyst was malignant (a possibility that wouldn’t be fully ruled out for a few more years, giving me ever more time to treat myself), I went to J. Crew and bought myself a white and navy polka dot blazer, for my, you know, work meetings. (Reminder: I could barely read.) To pay for it, I opened a J. Crew credit card. I was given a $4,000 limit. I bought three sweaters too. And then a pair of pants. And then a shirt. And then another pair of pants.
I honestly didn’t think I’d ever have to pay any of it back.
“You want to DIE with DEBT,” my uncle said once, explaining his propensity for flipping houses and being in a constant sea of floating ethereal access to money without ever actually having actual cash. “You want to get as much shit as you can while you’re alive,” he’d said, standing in his 5,000-square-foot house, while my father and I, more inclined toward caution (him) and being evasive about the state of your finances (me), laughed and nodded. I felt relieved that I wasn’t the only person planning to just die before I’d actually have to pay anything back.
But I didn’t die. I’m still here. And I’m still in debt. I can’t tell the truth about what I owe, I think now, because I believe that if I look at it straight on, I will lose everything. Talking to a trusted friend the other day, I told her about my feeling about money: that it has to glance off of me, like a hard rubber squash ball hitting a back wall. I cannot absorb money, cannot keep it, cannot look clearly at it.
I can’t tell the truth about what I owe, I think now, because I believe that if I look at it straight on, I will lose everything.
When my income increased dramatically a year ago, the first thing I did was spread it around. I hired an employee, and then another one. I insisted on paying a lawyer friend for even the consultations she said were free. Recently, I hired some college friends to do the interior design for my new apartment. My husband, a voice of financial reason, asked me direct questions. “Can we afford this?” “Is it okay for us to spend this?” I answered vaguely. “We’ll be fine.” “Let me move some money around.”
I need to lie about money because lying and secrecy and vagueness used to be the bread and butter of my everyday constitution. And now, I don’t have anything else left to lie about.
I used to lie about whom I was sleeping with and whom I was living with. I used to lie about whom I was texting and how I felt about people. Recently, I was in Miami, where I hadn’t been since I cheated on a live-in boyfriend with a guy I met on a press trip. My now-husband was texting me instead of calling, and it reminded me of how I refused to call my then-boyfriend until I felt that I could compartmentalize what had happened, could somehow effectively lie to him by omitting, from my own memory bank, the infraction I’d committed. I communicated with him only through Gchat, keeping my voice out of his ear so that he wouldn’t pick up on how different I was, now that I’d crossed this line. Eventually, I admitted to what I’d done. He wanted to stay together. I couldn’t stand the intimacy of repair, and so I left, disappearing into myself, my body, a sickness that I realized later was a true sickness, one that would almost kill me.
In the years since then, I’ve learned how to be close to people. I made a friend, Allison, who loved me so completely and so unconditionally that it reframed my entire relationship to myself, to others. When the intractable loneliness comes, as it inevitably does, I try to hear her voice. She tells me it doesn’t have to be so hard. Not to take things so seriously. She died a few years ago, and maybe that’s why I’ve been looking for ways to remind myself that I’m alone. But I don’t want to lose my husband, so I don’t fuck around with people, and I don’t want to lose the life I’ve built, so I don’t drink anymore and I don’t do drugs anymore, and so what I have left to keep secrets about is money.
I don’t know if we can afford the furniture we just bought. I tell my husband that there’s nothing to worry about, and then I go and call a student loan officer to talk about how best to maximize my payoff potential while minimizing the actual amount that I’m paying off. I tell myself I’m saving money to put into my IRA, but really I just use it to pay off a credit card, a debt, I tell myself, whose origins are somehow reasonable. I tell myself that I don’t know why I agreed to pay our designers an amount that, totally absent any kind of spreadsheet or planning, “felt okay.” But actually, I do. It’s because in the in-between, the slipperiness, the vagueness, I can treat my loneliness with isolation. It’s because lying lets me disappear, on my own terms.
I’m no longer on the brink of death. I’m no longer all that sick. I can’t hide in hospitals and MRI machines anymore; I can’t separate myself by going through something extraordinary and life-threatening at 31, by being the person out on the edges of it all. And so, instead, I return to what has always given me a moment of relief, which is the secrecy. The idea that I am still unknowable. The belief that I can still be alone. Because if no one knows how much money I owe, or how much I have, then they don’t know me. And if they don’t know me, then I’m safe. Even safer than if I didn’t owe a total of $240,000. Which, of course, I don’t. ●
Eva Hagberg Fisher is the author of How to Be Loved: A Memoir of Lifesaving Friendship, out Feb 5, 2019.
This story is part of a series about debts of all kinds.