Where did the money go?

My parents went bankrupt twice. Suddenly I can't go to the college I want. They make good money. I don't understand

Published April 26, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I am 24 years old. Sometimes I get so angry that it is hard to function. Other times I get very anxious and I feel like I am on the verge of a breakdown. I think it stems from my parents. I don't know what to do, and I need your advice.

My father is an engineer for a large oil company, and my mother works in a doctor's office. My father has always been steadily employed (although I have lived in three different states growing up because of his job). However, I feel like my family has always been struggling financially. This has deeply affected me, especially when I graduated from college in a time when jobs were difficult to find. One problem is that I am not sure why it is this way -- they live in a nice house, but definitely not one out of their means. They do not buy nice cars, and we did not go on vacations growing up. They do not eat out very often or buy anything that would be considered luxurious.

However, they have filed for bankruptcy twice.

My mom has worried about the electricity getting turned off because my dad did not pay it for two months, I have had my cellphone turned off multiple times, and there was a period of time where creditors were constantly calling. They have not been able to provide for me in a way where I felt like my basic needs were met (not just financially). The only thing that makes sense is that I am the oldest of four children and my youngest brother is autistic. He is 14, and was diagnosed 10 years ago. He is very bright, and is high-functioning (although it was worse when he was younger, and he would get violent). My mom was obsessed with trying to make him better and paid for expensive therapists of all kinds -- supplements, medicine, you name it. That probably contributed to it significantly, but the first time they filed for bankruptcy, I don't even think he was born.

I feel no sense of security in my life. I feel like I have had to shoulder a lot of responsibility prematurely. My mother was abused growing up, and she was absent from most of my childhood (not literally, but absent as a parent). The only real memories I have of her were of when she would lay in bed all day, and very little else. I was told a lot later in my life that when I was young she went to a treatment facility for a nervous breakdown and once was close to killing herself. Even when I was young, I had to do most things for myself, since my dad worked. I have an OK relationship with her now, but I don't think it's a typical mother-daughter relationship. If I have a problem, she does not offer to help in any way, she merely says, "sorry." She has told me that she has too many problems going on in her life and that she can't hear any of mine.

My mom and dad are still married, but their marriage is dysfunctional, and I have never seen them happy. My dad seems to be harboring a lot of anger and resentment from things that happened many years ago, and he doesn't know how to deal with it. He spent my whole childhood telling me that we were a normal family and I believed it for a long time. I assumed a lot of dysfunctions were OK.

Most people consider me to be smart, and I did well in high school and college, even though it didn't seem to matter that much to anyone else that I did well. When I was 18 and applying for colleges, my dad said he'd pay half if I went to one of the large public universities that was fairly close to home. It was not my first choice, but I went. The day before my new student conference, my mom told me I couldn't go there because they didn't have any money to pay for it and I needed to go to a cheaper school. With school starting in a couple weeks, that wasn't even a viable option. My dad was still in denial about the whole thing, and I was left to fend for myself again. I went there, and I got by the first year without having to take any loans, and I got a few scholarships, but I ended up having to take some private loans after that. I filled out the FAFSA, but my parents made too much for me to qualify for anything other than some meager federal loans and the work-study program. I felt like college was supposed to be this liberating experience where I learned all this great information that challenged me. It was like that in some ways, but it was also extremely stressful because I had no money and did not know how I was going to make it sometimes. I worked through college, but that barely paid for anything. Almost every person I encountered had parents that were well-off. Very rarely did I encounter someone in my situation. I have been struggling financially trying to manage everything, but I feel so overwhelmed. When I get like this, it's like my anger toward my parents gets unleashed, and I can't keep it together. I feel like I could've gone to a much more prestigious school and not been saddled with debt if they had helped me like they were supposed to. I had always wanted to go to law school, but that was something I couldn't even consider because of my undergrad debt. My best friend in college went to an Ivy League for law school, and sometimes I feel like I should've been there too. I am just as smart and capable. With the horror stories I hear about law school though, I am somewhat grateful I didn't go. I wish I had had the opportunity to choose though.

My relationship with my dad is very strained now. We were very close when I was younger, and I am not sure why it changed. My dad has anger problems, and those have scarred a lot of my memories as a teenager.

A couple of years ago, I took my first job out of college and had to relocate for six months for a training program. While I was there, I was raped by a co-worker. My dad didn't even call me to see if I was OK, and my mom said she couldn't visit me because she didn't have enough money for a plane ticket. That was a very low point in my life because I was in a state where I didn't know anyone and the job made me feel completely isolated. I saw a therapist who helped me realize that I had a big drinking problem, but I did not deal with the anger. My whole goal was just to be able to function and get through it so I could move back.

The rape was traumatic, but there are many instances in my life where I feel I have been victimized. I feel like it's because I have always sort of had to fend for myself, and I do not know how to respond or deal with it appropriately. Right now I work with someone who is always yelling, and I feel like I become a little girl again just trying to make the yelling go away. This makes me hate my job, which is already very stressful. I want a new job, but it's not that easy to just get a new one.

The only person who has been supportive is my boyfriend, but he can't solve my problems. He is still in school, which is a sore subject for me. I feel like I have very few friends that I can reach out to. I feel like a loner a lot of the time. I think I have learned to hide a lot of this well, though. I think a lot of people that don't really know me think I am materialistic and somewhat high maintenance. I don't think I am really that way, but it makes me feel better to have people think that than to think I am a very damaged person who can barely keep it together.

I am sorry this is so long and convoluted, but I am trying to make sense of everything and get past my negative emotions. I see a therapist, I took an antidepressant for three years (which I think was not very helpful), I try to exercise regularly, I have stopped drinking. I just feel like without the drinking I have all these emotions that are haunting me, and I have no way of numbing them.

I have tried very hard to deal with them and move on, but I can't. I just get stuck focusing on it. Sometimes I feel like things in my life have gotten better, and then something will happen to me that knocks me on my ass and I am back to facing the same emotions. I have made a lot of progress in the last three years, but I still have so much more to go. Sometimes I feel like there's no point in trying to keep living, because it's just a vicious cycle that never ends. I feel like I only have one person that really cares, but he doesn't know how to make it better.

Don't get me wrong, I felt like I was in hell three years ago. I have made great strides since then. However, all of this makes me feel like one day I'll trip and fall and just not be able to get back up.



Dear Angry,

This advice column runs long letters. People have long stories. We like to hear the whole story. That doesn't mean we can fix everything.

Plumbing can be fixed. But here, there is no little problem to fix. There is instead a life to honor.

You have been hurt by your family. You have been raped by a co-worker and then abandoned by your family when you needed them. You wanted things and thought you would have them and then they were snatched away. Secrets have been kept from you. You feel great anger at your family, and you have drowned that anger in drinking, and now you feel confused and don't know what to do.

So what can you do? I suggest you continue therapy and look into the archetypal, emotional and philosophical roots of your feelings about money -- perhaps by looking into Inner Economics. Also, examine the teachings of Murray Bowen in family systems, which can help you decode the baffling effects of your family life.

Money is treated by many as a problem to be solved analytically, but often we feel too crazy about money to calmly do the problem-solving. We need first to confront our emotional conflicts about what money is and what it means.

This may sound out of the blue, but it is what I want to say: Ask yourself, What is the best part of you? What is the most alive, creative, singing part of you? What part of you really shines? Where is it that you feel most alive, most sure of yourself, in control -- the place where forces greater than you seem to come into play and you work in tandem with them? In what situations do you achieve flow? Concentrate on these things for a while.

Train yourself to take note of your attractions. When you are attracted to something -- clothes, or music, or ideas -- give yourself permission to investigate. I suggest this because when we are dysfunctional about money, when things have been withheld from us, when we have been betrayed, we tend to believe that there is nothing in life we can have; everything is too expensive or beyond our means, or will be snatched away from us. So we impoverish ourselves. There are ways to get the things you truly need, the things that will complete you. This sounds a little mystical, but it need not be at all. It is as simple as saying, Hey, I like to play a round of golf on the weekends. "Normal" people do this all the time. It's just those of us who grew up in strange and mysterious dysfunctional houses who think we can't have any of those things.

You can have the things you want. Allow yourself to feel sad about the things that have happened. Allow yourself to work for the things you want.

Allow yourself.

By Cary Tennis

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