A trip down memory hell

I had a horrible flashback today.

It’s minor, really. It’s just odd what triggers you and how absolutely nuts the most seemingly insignificant moments can make you.

A friend of mine asked to borrow a quarter for the vending machine tonight. She seemed so sheepish, just really embarrassed that she’d underbudgeted for the soda machine. I laughed and pulled a coin out of my desk and told her there is no “borrowing” — I don’t want to hear of this moment again.

And then the vein in my head started to throb.

I remembered when I first started at the job, how it was the middle of the month and I had $33 to my name with no income of any sort coming in anytime soon save for the good graces of the company who would pay me in real time on the 31st of that month. If not for my family scrimping even more and for a handful of true-blue friends who donated money and meals during those days when I wasn’t able to fend for myself, I wouldn’t have made it THAT far.

And recall, this was when I was using a tank and a half of gas a week. I had filled up my tank when I started and all I had was that lousy $33 to take care of the car for the rest of the month.

It’s like the Biblical story of how the tiny bit of oil burned for 40 days. To this day, I’m not sure how I got through the Dark Ages — financially, psychologically, even physically. And the slightest twinge of being short on money (see: student loans seized my tax refund for the second year in a row even though I am paying heavily to dig my ass out of default) sends me into mental convulsions. I never, ever want to be that destitute again. I might not put down the nice little blade the next time around.

I used to welcome upheaval because it meant a clean slate and more change than the normal person could ever handle. Now it terrorizes me at random moments because what if the next moment of my life is a thousand times worse than the already-worst one?

Ahem. See? Nuts.

Anyway, I remembered trying to get through that first half-month. Life had been about ramen noodles for months, and if I managed to eat once a day, that was it. Whoopty doo. I remembered wishing I could afford a lousy buck for a freaking Diet Coke and wondering if I could even get brave enough to ask someone to lend me a dollar and I’d pay them back on payday, but my pride wouldn’t let me. I hadn’t had anything to drink other than coffee in half a year unless someone had treated me to something else. It was depressing.

But what I remembered wasn’t even so much that feeling of not even being able to pay someone back what to me now seems like the tiniest bit of change. What I remembered was walking in someone’s office and seeing a bag full of fast food. But it wasn’t the food — I didn’t care about that. I had seen some $3 and change lying next to it. And I wanted to die, just die right there on the spot, that someone had tossed that money so casually aside when I was ripping apart couch cushions and emptying pockets of old jeans and purses just to afford enough food for my cats to eat.

I am lucky I don’t have to speak this entry aloud, as the lump in my throat as I think back to that cold January day is proof that those memories are still so much to bear.

I remember telling my mom that — wow — with three bucks I could have bought 30 packs of ramen noodles! Or 10 packs and a Diet Coke and maybe even a pack of gum, too!

To this day I cannot look at ramen noodles. It’s like my friend Angie, who grew up poor as well and whose mom fed her so many variations on chicken and rice that she will throw up if she sees the two on a plate together. She understands that her mom had to scrape to feed three kids on her salary, but that doesn’t mean that she would ever voluntarily eat that meal — it makes her feel sad and desperate, all these years later.

And that’s what happened to me today. That flashback to such a desperate time rocked me pretty hard, even if only for a few moments. And I think that feeling explains why Angie and I love to shop. I mean, it’s an addiction for us to always be bringing home something new. Even if it is never going to fit or go with anything in our closets, then we have an excuse to buy something else new! To go with it! Or to replace it!

And I know that I need to try to start building up an emergency fund again. The last one I built up was supposed to help me move but ended up being used to pay off the student loans. My tax refund was supposed to help build it up and maybe even partly pay for a fucking couch because I couldn’t bring my old one and I’m over sitting on the floor. But then again, please don’t think I am whining because I have had WAY worse problems and I know it.

Don’t ever accuse me of not counting my blessings. Sometimes I count them 10 or 15 times over, just so I feel like I have more. Because even though I didn’t have much to lose when I lost it all not so long ago, it was all I had. I’ve never wanted or needed all that much. Although I’d always had high expectations and goals and whatnot, I always figured they’d come in due time although sure, I wanted due time to arrive way faster than it did/has.

But maybe due time had strife in store for me to teach me to appreciate what I had and to make me work faster for more. I don’t know. But for as much as flashbacks like today serve to stick a dagger through my heart and trigger a 30-second panic attack before I remind myself that everything’s all better, it also reminds me that I need to check myself from time to time and make sure I’m not too self-deprecating. I’ve rebounded pretty far — hell, I’m even better than I was before. Just a little less sure of my judgment, and a little less confident in the universe’s ability to take care of me sometimes, but all in all, in a good place.

I will only go as far as I let myself — in either direction. I stopped caring about a lot of things in the past few years. Or maybe I only wanted to give the illusion that I never cared at all, but in reality I could think of little else.

I think that’s why people like me are addicted to shows like “American Idol.” (It happens to be on right now.) We see people who never dreamed that they’d come this far not losing their steam — they’re belting out tunes and dancing and entertaining and shining. They’re working with icons and getting better and better at their games. And it’s up to them after all the glory of the TV show is over to carry on the magic throughout their careers, but they have one hell of a running start. I guess I wish that for everybody — those moments of glory that will make those days of scraping together pennies a thing of the past.

And maybe that’s why we have these flashbacks — to ensure that we never go back to where we hated being. To the person who we hated being. To have the ability to metaphorically bury that person and that past and become stronger and smarter to handle more important things, make better choices, achieve more amazing things. We waste so much time worrying and convalescing and recalling what’s better left forgotten.

But I’ve got to tell you, returning to reality after such a fucked-up flashback is the most precious feeling in the world. And THAT’S a blessing I would count a thousand times over.

4 Responses to A trip down memory hell

  1. Sabre :

    I still hate grape jelly. And please don’t ask me about powdered milk. Poverty sucks, and I think that’s what has had me so tweaked this last month… the irrational fear that I will be homeless and forced to eat crap again. I know it won’t happen, but it doesn’t help when the rent check is most likely going to bounce because someone went spend crazy and seems to have forgotten their obligations to the loans they took out and leases they signed. Grrr.

    Flashbacks bite, but you are indeed blessed with the ability to return to the here and now 🙂

  2. trouble :

    i feel ya. the first year I was married to my ex, he had 4 jobs. I wasn’t making alot, I think my take-home was like $1000 a month after taxes and all, because I’d changed fields and was starting over from scratch. And rent was like $600 and car payment was like $150 and insurance was another $150, and when he wasn’t working, we would be left with like $50 a month to live on, for gas and food.

    the chef couldn’t understand why I had a panic attack this week after he overspent on buying me dinner one night and is now broke for the rest of the month (but not broke because his bills are paid and he eats where he works and will make more money throughout the month from being tipped out, etc.)…It wasn’t about him, but for a second, I flashed back to being PREGNANT, married to an irresponsible jerk, and penniless. And it was the worst, most desolate feeling. I almost broke up with him over it, the feeling controlled me that thoroughly.

  3. trouble :

    clarification: he was fired 3 times and unemployed for about 5 months, total. And I was PREGNANT. And we were going to bring a kid into the world, and I COULD NOT IMAGINE how we were going to afford it.

  4. Amy :

    Here’s a big hug. Oh sweetie, I remember how bad that time was for you. Having just come through my own unemployment valley, I can’t tell you how freaking amazing it felt to get a paycheck, a real one, finally. I’ve never felt poor, but I have felt like I was coming way too close for comfort.

    And while things aren’t perfect, they never are, I made myself a promise once I had a real job again … that I’d stop taking things for granted. I also promised myself I’d start helping others out too. It’s that instant karma thing, Dawn. I think your flashback, while painful, was the universe’s way of reminding you that you’re okay now.

    Thank the Goddess for that!

    As for shopping, mama’s gonna buy some new shoes tonight with that fat paycheck!