How to Be Broke and Sober

How to Be Broke and Sober

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This post was originally published on May 25, 2015.

I worked (and drank) in liberal politics long enough to nurture a healthy hatred of big banks. The truth is, I never treated my banks with much respect as a customer either. The day I moved to Orlando in 2010, I cried to my financial counselor about not having enough money to pay them back after overdrawing on my account (several times over). When I got sober, I contacted similar financial institutions I borrowed from over the years to tell them I would pay them back—eventually. I sent them each a check for one dollar as a good faith gesture (and a slight “fuck you” for predatory lending). Everybody wins.

I have never had a savings account. I do not regularly balance my checkbook. I do, however, always find a way to afford scraping by with just enough. I’ve kept in the back of my mind the Alcoholics Anonymous tradition that states that groups and members “ought to be fully self-supporting.” Here is what that looks like for me: sitting outside of my former apartment complex with my friend Monty counting nickels, dimes and pennies on the floor. Like the good plebeians we are, we squeezed $7 out of our change for American Spirits. I hate change, but God was I happy to see that I had the exact amount of money I needed to get my fix. I have a habit of spending with my emotions when the chips are stacked against me. I buy cigarettes instead of dinner, a tattoo rather than a tiny payment on a huge loan. I would have been one of those passengers on the Titanic who whipped out her violin to play as the ship sank to its murky depths. This is how I do business.

I was dumbfounded when I got word that I would not be awarded unemployment insurance after I parted ways with my job in October. The Promises in AA tell us that “fear of economic insecurity will leave us…” and I call bullshit. After my car accident a week before my six months of sobriety, my financial insecurity metastasized. The insidious debt I’d accumulated while following each one of my dozens of dreams finally caught up with me. I found myself in the reality of constant scraping to cover basic needs. I went from survival fight or flight while drinking to actual fears realized in sobriety. Notably, I had a good friend take me to acupuncture and cupping for my whiplash after the accident. She quietly saw to it that I got the best treatment on the cheap at a local Korean acupuncture school. In spite of the brief calm in healing, I panicked. I read and re read the denial notifications as I felt the ground turn into quicksand beneath me. What the fuck was I going to do? At the time of my accident, I hadn’t even made my first payment on the vehicle I financed.

Then there were the food stamps. I waited at the Los Angeles Department of Social Services for five hours, reading the Charles Bukowski novel Hollywood. I figured that guy must have spent some time in a few places like this, though he might have used his last nickels and dimes on alcohol. No judgement, Mr. Bukowski, I’ve been there. The paperwork was tedious, the setting is scary; DPSS sits across from MacArthur Park, one of the most notoriously dangerous parks in La La Land. With this quaint visit, my Higher Power gently shoved me into the system. My list of character defects happily does not include entitlement; otherwise I’d be fucked.

In sobriety, I’ve observed that complaining and solution are mutually exclusive. I have also observed my own disillusionment with what I thought money would do for me. A few weeks ago, I came across news of an experiment about Gwyneth Paltrow taking a stab at living as the poor folk do on her blog Goop. I wonder how she would have felt sitting there with her $200 organic lip gloss filling out paperwork, admitting to herself and the entire world that she does not have her shit together. It was rough. All I kept thinking was, “I am no different than anyone here. I am a little white girl in a rough area but that doesn’t matter. Not a single one of us has our shit together.” That made me smile. I kept my eyes averted and held my paperwork close to my chest. Rest assured, I did not wear lip gloss more expensive than the sum of all that I own.

Here enters Monty again. Many thanks to my Higher Power for giving me a sassy friend to show me how unscary it is to be broke. He was the first and only person while I was in my darkest drinking days that called me an alcoholic to my face. Therefore, I trust him. He taught me what to buy on a $20 a week budget. He showed me how to “make chicken salad from chicken shit,” as my mother likes to say. We cooked quesadillas on the Goop/Food Stamp diet, drinking $1 coffees and riding the bus through the greater Los Angeles area for $1.75 each way. He gave me tips on all the trendy thrift stores to frequent (St. Vincent’s is a great one). Monty was my saving grace in many ways. He is also the man who once released a gaseous emission so noxious that a woman maced him while in the confined quarters of a San Francisco bus. She rioted, screaming that what he did was so much worse than what she had. Monty is not for the faint of heart.

Nor is being broke. I am now infinitely more grateful to my Higher Power than I ever thought I could be. I suspect that my brokenness in sobriety is currently transforming itself into emotional capital. I have been taught that I can’t be happy or stay sober unless I give more than I receive. When I’m in a situation like this, it is imperative for me to keep this adage at the top of my mind. I can buy my friends a cup of coffee or I can call them to listen to how their days are going; I can rally to wash dishes for whomever I am staying with or leave a quick note to tell someone I love them. Like gratitude, the list of reasons to be generous grows exponentially.

I promised myself when I got sober that I would put my program before ambitions or financial gratification. With that knowledge, the universe has extreme-humbled me from the day my accident happened. When I had my salaried job, I used to scowl as I walked by thrift stores in LA, cursing the times my sister and I had to shop there instead of at the fancy stores like our friends did. Now I walk around with my friends like a rich bitch, flaunting what would be a $300 Marc Jacobs leather jacket that only cost me $55 at a consignment shop. My tattooed and leather-clad friends are broke, too, so at least we can bond over that. One thing is for sure: I don’t expect any of us will be doing much shopping on Goop.

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6 Comments

  1. Sevasti Iyama on

    Wonderful writing! Oh my goodness, I totally related! I felt the same way about the promises, because for me, when i got sober in Nov. 2011, the fear of financial insecurity intensified…when I was drinking, it didn’t seem to bother me because I was drunk and the next day I was too hungover to care.
    Now when things get tough, a little voice inside my head, says, “you will be ok” and like you wrote, “the universe has our backs.”

    Thanks for this!

  2. Barbara Banfield on

    Poverty sucks! Thinking about how far you can drive each week because you don’t have the money to put gas in your car sucks. A healthy green juice becomes a luxury. When you don’t have money, your mind is cluttered by survival thoughts. It’s downright exhausting. Getting through each day can feel like a major challenge.

    Having said that, you will become a very resourceful person. Somewhere I heard “you may be in poverty, but don’t let the poverty get in you.” If you can work with your mind, you will always attract what you need. The Universe has our backs. In recovery I have made very good money and I have been homeless. Things have always worked out for me.

    The other thing I learned not having much money is how to find the joy in me. When you don’t have money, you can’t buy happiness. I like living with less “stuff.” And, a simple life doesn’t have to be boring.

    • Thank you, ladies! We always get what we need. Your experiences in recovery fuel me to see others go through the same trials sober.

  3. Tracy Chabala on

    Lucy! This is great Great writing!!. I’ll tell you this: abject poverty was the best thing that every happened to me, although it SUCKED at the time. I did the food stamps AND GR and then had to work in grocery stores and restaurant kitchens! it ended up shaping who i am today and giving me a killer eye for finding deals, lol. i never thought i’d dig myself out of it, but somehow i have and now i’m even going to europe. hang in there, girl. good things are coming to you. nothing else helps round out the soul like good ‘ole poverty. one of the greatest gifts is once you do get back to the middle you’ll have an extra store of compassion for those going through hard times.

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Lucy is a writer, recovering politico and sober alcoholic following her bliss by writing in Los Angeles.