College debt is destroying my life

My grad-school loans forced me into this awful hospital discharge job

Published July 3, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

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

Dear Cary:

As I write, my finance teacher is in blissful vacation heaven while I am tormented in working hell.

I am a sensitive, submissive person by nature, and I was coaxed/forced by my mother into getting a master's degree in social work. Previously she had been blushing with embarrassment that I was "only" an administrative assistant at a pharmaceutical company. That was not a respectable job for the daughter of a high-achieving immigrant family. I am now in a gigantic pile of life-destroying student loan debt that my family will not help me pay off (on principle, you see). I have an unusually well-paying job for a social worker, but hospital social work is mostly devoted to a miserable task known as discharge planning. I look after the needs of dozens of whiny, needy adult babies: ordering transport, finding nursing home beds, setting up dialysis appointments, basically acting as a glorified clerk. In return I get called a "useless bitch" by patients and their demanding families.

I hate my chosen career, but that gigantic pile of life-destroying debt keeps me chained to it. It would be impossible to go into anything else and at 29, I feel it is too late anyway. My fiancé is the only person who keeps me from ending it all. I can't believe my good fortune in finding someone who loves me so much, more than my critical family ever did or could. But even he makes occasional remarks about my "damned debt," and that makes me worry that I may lose him over it. Then I would have nothing. Even now I find myself eyeing windows, just in case I have to jump out of one quickly. I know I should seek help, but I don't want a black mark on my medical record, or to make some other mental health professional as miserable as I am by making her deal with my problems.

Should I just give up now? Until it once again becomes possible to discharge student loans through bankruptcy, I think I can consider my life pretty much destroyed.


Dear Drowning,

Many people being discharged from the hospital have recently been cut open at the belly or in the chest or groin or leg or neck or head, and they have had organs removed, sometimes diseased organs, and their bodies have had to close up around those wounds and adjust to the absence of those organs. They have been sweating and vomiting. They have been dizzy and disoriented and sleepless and in pain. They have been given medicines that change their thinking and feeling. They have been fed by spoon and by syringe; they have been eliminating into basins and wiped by nurses; they have lost blood. They are weak and frightened.

They come out in those cute little wheelchairs wearing hospital pajamas and hospital slippers and they don't know what kind of new life they face. They don't know how they're going to pay or how they will work and resume their roles in the family. They don't know when they will again experience joy.

And so, yes, they may be whining. And their families may be rude and demanding.

I like you. I like your dark sense of humor. When you say that you think about throwing yourself out the window but don't get help because it might leave a black mark on your record, I think, this person is tough and resilient and funny and has a dark sense of humor. So I would like to help you.

I think you can handle this situation better if you reframe how you talk about it. Instead of saying that student loans have pretty much destroyed your life, try saying that you have a graduate degree, a well-paying job and, like many of your generation, a significant college loan.

Try to use language that is more neutral, not freighted with catastrophe. Try saying that you have X amount of salary every month and X amount of expenses, including housing, etc., and X amount of loan payment. Try looking at the loan payments as part of your monthly expenses.

You may think of your debt as "crushing," and when you think of your debt in that way, you may indeed have the feeling in your chest of being crushed. But debt is not something that literally crushes you. Debt is something you pay off month by month. It is an obligation you fulfill. It is a contract between you and other people. It is something to be worked out. It may be that it will be worked out eventually through policy changes. Let's hope so. The policy that has resulted in so many students having such high debt may indeed be a terrible policy. Meanwhile, you took on an obligation as an adult and are paying it off. You are showing your strength and resilience and you are getting through it.

Your job doesn't have to make you feel terrible. It actually offers you the chance to feel good about yourself, if you will take that chance. You can help people and that will make you feel better. You can treat people with compassion and humor and feel some of that compassion and humor flowing back toward you. If you are of service to these whiny adult babies, you will find that in spite of their whining, some gratitude will flow toward you. They may occasionally be rude. But if you make contact with them, emotionally, you will be doing them a great service and that will enrich your moment-to-moment experience of the day.

Plus, it will take your mind off the other crap.

I, personally, would appreciate it if you would do that. For I do not like the idea of a cranky discharge planner who feels like throwing herself out the window.

I've been discharged from a hospital. I know what it's like. I think your job is very important and I want to see you do it well.

Think about the lives you have in your hands. We need your help. We need somebody with a level head and a knowledge of medicine to know that once we get home, we're going to need catheters or a commode or a wheelchair or a cane, or nutritional advice, or wound care, or psychiatric evaluation.

You can help us. It's not a silly job -- not to those of us coming out of the hospital. We don't consider it silly at all. We think it's just about the most important thing a person could spend her day doing. We are at your mercy. We didn't ask to be sick and in wheelchairs. We didn't ask to be reduced to that state. We are helpless. Don't make fun of us. Forgive us if we are rude or upset. We're not in our right minds or our right bodies.

Help us. This is what it means to be sick. This is who we are. Take pity on us. Help us.

By Cary Tennis

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Discharge Planning Doctors Hospital Hospitals Medical Ethics Medical Professionals Medicine Since You Asked