Financial PTSD: Facing your money vulnerabilities (again)

Wednesday, I had told more than a few people who'd asked, would be the day, or thereabouts: the one when my biggest and most regular freelance check would arrive in my bank account. I needed to pay my mortgage payment (just past the grace period, again); my gas bill, my student loans, the cost of a dozen pounds of butter through a friend's buying club (I bake nearly all of my family's breakfasts and treats). I told my husband he could pay his great-uncle back for some money he'd borrowed; I told my son I'd buy him the full version of an iPod skater game (if he did his chores, of course). I had a list in my head: diapers, a big bag of flour, a new pair of shoes for the youngest.

Wednesday, a call was announced, to discuss this month's check. "No bad news," the email said. Perhaps we don't all have the same opinions about the nature of news; on the call, I learned an accounting change meant we wouldn't be getting this check for two more weeks (and the next month's, and the next: no catch-up, no take-backs). Past the 30-day late date for my mortgage; I'd now have to come up with two payments at once, a near-impossibility. Past the cancellation date for our health insurance. Past a lot of things.

Five minutes later, I hung up the phone, not sure if the call was over because I was no longer listening, shaking and in tears. For an hour, my voice quivered, my heart raced. "I'm in shock," I murmured. I knew this feeling: it was much like the terrible adrenaline rush I get every time an aggressive dog barks too close to me and my young boys, sending me back to the day a German Shepherd high on meth jumped at my one-year-old son, in my arms (he was fine, but my sister went to the hospital after defending him, a bite on her arm struck bone). The feeling just after another car hits yours, the briefest second of spinning, screeching, shock. No one's dead or dismembered, but the fear of what could have been has you burnt to the core with fatality's charred possibility.

Could I be suffering financial PTSD? I wondered. I'd never heard of it, but this feeling was unmistakable. We wouldn't lose the house, of course, I wasn't yet behind on the mortgage. A friend had offered to loan me enough to prevent the health insurance from cancellation. Great-uncle-in-law could dip into his savings until we were paid; maybe I could sell something to fund the diapers and my oldest son's monthly medicine; I had plenty of canned goodies from the garden and farmer's market; I had paid upfront this month for milk. Why did I feel so vulnerable?

I looked it up -- after I'd had a night to mourn my relative financial security, that is. According to Charles Figley, author of a textbook on its definition and effects, trauma is "an emotional state of discomfort and stress resulting from memories of an extraordinary, catastrophic experience which shattered the survivor's sense of invulnerability to harm." At first that seems wrong -- is this extraordinary and catastrophic? not quite -- but I realize, yes, I have had those moments, memories this situation forced back to the surface. Job losses, crises that had us fearing we'd lose the house, medical problems while we were without insurance, collections letters so dreadful they were delivered by hand. This news -- two weeks of no money when my bank account's balance stood at $4.38 and most of my bills were already a week late -- brought all that stunning vulnerability to the surface.

It turns out that I'm not the first person to have theorized about financial PTSD. I find Dr. Mark Goulston, who writes a blog for the Huffington Post. He has seen many patients who have suffered from PTSD far worse than mine, and I find comfort in my relative ability to cope.

"Nervous breakdowns come in twos," he writes. "A first trauma causes the first one and leads you to feel utterly defenseless ... When you're in such a state of feeling exposed and at risk, you live with the constant fear of being re-traumatized. You think that if the first trauma caused a severe crack in the porcelain of your well-being (that you turn away from your public face, lest others see), a second one will shatter you completely and you will never recover."

Fears are like that: irrational. Even though I know intellectually that I'll be able to recover from this, there's a fear that this is the health insurance provider of last resort (well, that IS true), that we've already borrowed all the money our family can lend, that the mortgage company will purse its lips and cross its arms and say, "sorry. Please ensure that you always have sufficient funds to pay us! Thanks!"

I don't expect I'll be claiming Social Security benefits for this disorder, nor will I be asking for medication to help me cope with it (I can't afford it, anyway). But it's useful to be able to see financial trauma in the light of my fears and my vulnerability -- to not having enough money to take my kids to the doctor, to homelessness, to hunger -- and to recognize that, for now, those worst results won't happen. And to spend money in the future with a remembrance of that fear; to pass up on the latte, to turn down the heat, to bake bread instead of buy it.
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