The 5 Stupidest Habits You Develop Growing Up Poor (Part 2)
Escaping poverty is like walking on a trail and plowing face first into a spider web. Once you cross its threshold, you're in the clear, but you spend the next hour pulling the very fabric of nightmares out of your hair. For the rest of the walk, you are on a DEFCON 2 level of alertness, scanning every inch of your surroundings to make sure you never end up with a face full of terror again.
It's been two and a half years since I've written on the subject, and I'm still finding little strands of devil's silk in my hair -- old, obsolete habits that still hang around and taint my current life. If you've ever lived in poverty, you'll understand the insane habits you pick up, like ...
You Only Go to the Doctor if It's an Emergency
When You're Poor ...
When you're below a certain income, a social benefit kicks in to make sure you and your kids aren't riddled with disease and then spreading it through public Twister competitions. It's a medical card, and in the most basic terms, it provides free or discount medical treatment. I grew up with that benefit, which means that I went to the doctor so often that I could shoot vitamin lasers out of my eyes. At one point, they were using my sweat to cure hepatitis.
Just kidding -- I only went to the doctor when I broke a bone or needed stitches. Sometimes not even then. See, there's a problem with having a medical card that borders on paradox: In order to get one, you have to be poor, and the poverty-stricken people who do have them often don't have a means to actually get to the doctor in the first place. Growing up in impoverished neighborhoods, half the people I knew didn't have a car. Or they had a car, but it needed repairs so badly, it could only be used in an emergency. Or they had a working car, but they never had money to buy gas. Or they had gas, but their car had long since been converted into a meth lab.
Well, there's your problem.
When my mom did have a job, it was usually a shitty-paying part-time position that pushed her over the line of eligibility. Lots of people run into this. Since it's part time, the employer doesn't have to offer benefits, which means that employee is responsible for 100 percent of her medical bills. If she doesn't have cash on hand, that takes clinics completely out of the equation. The only medical facility that's required to treat you is a hospital, and even then only enough to stabilize you, stuff you into a catapult, and launch you the hell out of their building.
Because of all that, the only time you can realistically get treatment is when the injury or illness is so bad, it requires a trip to the emergency room. You become trained at a very early age to recognize the difference between a sprain and a fracture. You know on sight if a cut is bad enough to require stitches or if it can be taken care of with alcohol, iodine, and a butterfly bandage. Even broken fingers can be fixed with a Popsicle-stick splint and some tape to hold it on. Meanwhile, all the medical treatment you need is right there on that card, completely useless, because the doctor's office could be located on the moon, and it would be exactly as easy to get there.
Hey, if anybody's heading that way later, I could use a lift.
Once You Escape ...
When you've grown up thinking that the doctor's office is the absolute last resort, it takes years to break that mindset. I've had a wisdom tooth steadily decaying away for the last six months. Right now, it's just a black stub, barely peeking over my gumline, and I only made the appointment to get it removed after it started hurting a few days ago. Now they have to cut it right out of my stupid skullface because not enough is sticking out to clamp onto. Here's the kicker: I have dental insurance and the money to make up the difference ... but that's just not how I was raised. It's embedded in my head that if it's not hurting, it's fine, pussy.
When I was a kid, you went to the dentist when a tooth broke or a cavity was causing so much pain that it made you throw up. Cleanings weren't even an option. That was something only pretentious assholes did. Braces were tooth jewelry for rich kids. Checkups were for insane, overprotective parents and weirdos with fetishes for people in rubber gloves making them breathe deep and let it out real slow, baby.
"Yeah, that's it. Now lower. Lower. Loooowwer."
It takes a lot of self-reminding to remember that I have the means to get basic medical care now. Especially since I have children of my own. I can't be passing along the idea that doctors are an emergency-only resource, because they're a vital part of catching illnesses before they get severe enough to be life-threatening or a third arm grows out of our necks. And on a lighter note, it's a huge part of making our lives more comfortable by helping out with everyday ailments. Sounds like a "Yeah, no shit" statement, right? Not for people who grew up in poverty. It's a completely alien idea to many of us.
Your Entertainment Comes in Short Bursts
When You're Poor ...
I think that when the middle and upper class hear the word "entertainment," they picture things like concerts or vacations. Maybe a night out at a nice restaurant, followed by taking in a play. A weekend on a deserted island, hunting live humans that they abducted from their diamond mines. For the poor, simply having cable TV or renting a movie can be a rare luxury. When I was little, my dad used to take us to the city dump to find things we could recycle for cash. That's not a joke. We'd literally walk down into a giant pit of trash and root through it for hours, and that was considered our "family outing." That reminds me, I should write an article on insanity at some point.
Since entertainment isn't a necessity, it often gets put on the back burner until a windfall check comes in, like a tax refund or finding an antique in the trash pit. It happens in cycles or bursts -- let's take cable TV for an example, since I've already mentioned it. You've had cable before, but you had to let it lapse because you couldn't afford the monthly bills. Since you didn't fulfill the company's contract, you now owe your last bill plus a reconnection fee. No problem. Your tax return will take care of that pretty easily. Three months later, that windfall is gone, and you can no longer afford the service, so you let it lapse again, where it will remain off until your next windfall. Rinse and repeat.
"Turn the pretend channel. This one pretend sucks."
You end up developing a pecking order for which bills you'll allow to lapse, with entertainment dominating the top spots, followed by "necessary, but not depended upon for survival." For instance, ours was cable, then the Internet, then the phone. Doing it any other way would have meant robbing from our survival to feed our amusement, and there's just no reasonable way to explain to your landlord that you can't pay the rent because you splurged on a box of giraffe-shaped dildos.
Once You Escape ...
You've spent most of your life thinking of entertainment as a frivolous expense. You've gotten used to the pattern of being able to let loose in late February because that's when the money comes. It's an ingrained behavior now. Doing something fun at any other time would be like opening Christmas presents in mid-August. Yeah, you could do it, but it feels kind of wrong and wasteful, like it would cheapen Christmas and ruin the excitement when the actual time rolled around. Plus, the last time you put on a Santa costume was because your spouse had a weird fantasy that left you feeling dirty and confused.
So dark were the months that followed.
The hardest thing to learn when I escaped poverty was that entertainment is not only perfectly fine, but necessary to keep you de-stressed and sane. The idea is so foreign, it would be like a middle-class person trying to convince himself that a submarine is a perfectly logical, necessary vehicle for him to buy. I'm positive that there are some poor people reading this right now and thinking, "Bullshit. When I escape this shithole, I'm saving every last penny I earn so I never have to live through this again." But I'm telling you that when you finally crawl out of it and find your stride in a good career, you have to give yourself some fun time or you'll find yourself standing on your roof with a T-shirt cannon, firing fish at passing cars.
But it takes a really long time before you realize, "Wait, I can totally do fun things now. Why the hell are we still sitting around here? Kids, get showered and put on nice clothes. We're going to the strip club to see your grandma perform!"
"Gentlemen, welcome to the stage Granny Twerkhammer!"
You Dread the Summer Months
When You're Poor ...
When you're young, summer is initially awesome for pretty obvious reasons. No homework. You can stay up late and sleep in. You don't have to worry about teachers pantsing you in front of your classmates and then laughing at your odd-shaped genitalia. But after a couple of weeks, you notice that everyone close to you is getting agitated, and you don't exactly know why. Is it something you did?
It must be. Parents are quicker tempered, and they seem a lot more stressed out than usual. They're not taking you out to do things like they do during the school year. If you ask to sleep over at a friend's house, they're jumping at the chance to get you the hell out of the house. When you are together, it seems like it's becoming a whole lot easier for arguments to break out or for them to jump your ass for insignificant things like painting the dog's fur green.
Wait, where are you going? We have a project to complete!
By the time summer winds down, you're totally ready to get back to school, even if you hate it. You just want to get back to your regular routine. Something familiar and less stressful. Fuck summer and everyone who ruined it for you.
Once You Escape ...
It's not until you're older and have kids of your own that you understand the reason for all that lingering stress. When the kids are in school, the parents can sign them up for free or reduced lunches, which relieves a massive financial weight, especially if they have more than one child. During the summer, the food budget can easily double or triple. In my case, it quintupled, because I just have one long meal that starts when I wake up and ends when I black out from a pizza roll-induced coma.
I have no idea why I was on the highway. Sometimes I eatwalk.
School also acts as a pretty reliable babysitter. During the summer, if the kids aren't of an age where they can stay home alone, the parents have to pay someone to watch them. The catch is that if they're working a low-paying, low-hours job, they can actually lose money by staying employed. This is especially true for single parents. Then you add in the fact that while the kids are home during the summer, all of the bills go up from increased daily use. And God help you if you live in one of the Midwestern or Southern states where the temperatures shoot up to heatstroke levels, because turning on the air conditioning is akin to keeping warm in the winter by setting your paycheck on fire.
Summer is a flat-out financial catastrophe for parents living in poverty, and the whole thing ends up becoming Pavlovian. If you're given an electric shock every time a bell rings, eventually you're going to flinch every hour when those annoying goddamn church bells go off. When you grow up feeling that stress and dread during the summer months, it carries over to your adult life, even when you've gotten past the financial drain.
"I don't know why I'm crying, Timmy. I just know that you caused it."
You Become Hyper Aware of Fashion and Brand Names
When You're Poor ...
When I was a kid, Rustler was the bottom-of-the-barrel jeans all the poor kids wore. They were as cheap as a necrophiliac date and virtually fell apart after a couple of weeks. Shoes were worse. You could spot a pair of generic Walmart shoes from down the block, and if you wore that shit to school, you were made fun of. Even if it was indirectly -- overhearing people making jokes about buying some clothes at Walmart and going to the Halloween party as a welfare mom.
Since clothes shopping only happened after a tax refund, you made the most of it and learned to find the knockoff brands that most closely resembled the real thing. It was never a case of being a slave to the latest fad. It was a means of protecting yourself from that soul-piercing shame asshole school kids love to dish out.
"Here's your lunch, you Rustler-wearing bitch!"
If you ever go to my Twitter and see me reminiscing about the grunge era, that's why. I was never happier than when I found out that my entire wardrobe was suddenly 10 times cooler than anything the rich kids were wearing.
Once You Escape ...
Even if the frequency of clothes shopping stays the same (that is to say, rare), you jump at the chance to buy cool stuff. Cheap, shitty clothes stick out like a flashing neon sign that says "ASSHOLE," and you avoid that shit like the plague. I have three kids, and when I take them shopping, I have to remember to not impose those old habits on them. Because I remember being made fun of and feeling that constant shame, the parent part of me wants to protect them from that and buy them nothing but expensive name-brand stuff.
"I hate you. So very much."
When they find a shirt or something that they really like, if it happens to be cheap, I have to force myself to buy it, despite the alarms going off in my head that make me scream "Noooooooooo" like Darth Vader and run away, kicking over bins of Rustlers in a rampage.
I guess the middle ground that's so hard to find when you have this hang-up is remembering that it's best for the kids to dress how they want to dress -- not how they're forced to dress. I just have to do it while teaching them the difference between quality and crap along the way.
You Develop an Irrational Hatred of Rich People
When You're Poor ...
Let me say right off that this has little to do with jealousy. Yes, jealousy can play a big part in irrational things like hatred, but that's not the interesting part to me. When you grow up poor, you start seeing nice clothes, expensive cars, and big houses as public displays of bragging. Little trophies that say, "I'm better than you, and here's physical proof. So suck it, poor people."
One of the first things your mind jumps to is a financial comparison. You think about how little money you're surviving on and then stamp rich people with the label of frivolous, greedy assholes who buy things they don't need for way too much money just to rub it in other people's faces.
"Oh, dear, your Rustlers are just to die for!"
It's not that you necessarily want what they have ... it's that you resent them for having it.
Once You Escape ...
As you make more money, you find that you require more things in order to live comfortably. For instance, I work from home, so I need a bigger house that supports an office. I have a computer chair that cost more than my first car, not because I'm a computer chair snob, but because I'm 6' 3", I sit in a computer chair for up to 20 hours a day, and I have chronic back problems. I needed one that wouldn't leave me a hunched-over mess when I stood up.
You realize that more-expensive shoes generally last a lot longer than the cheap knockoffs, so it makes more sense to pay more for longer use. You get tired of shitty cars that break down one year after buying them, so you spend more for one that doesn't have a sock as a gas cap. You get a better understanding of why some rich people have what they have, but that underlying bigotry still lingers around.
For instance, I can't stand red carpet events. And when I say "can't stand," I mean I actually get angry when I see that huge line of limos dropping off people who are wearing outfits that cost more than my house. It makes me want to punch them all in the crotch until their children smell like knuckles. I fly into a shaking rage when I hear reporters ask stupid fucking questions like "Who are you wearing tonight?"
I wish I didn't feel that way because I know it's not rational, and I have no business even giving a shit. But it still lingers around like a broccoli fart stuck in a couch cushion, and every time I sit down ... I apologize for where that analogy was going.
I fucking said I'm sorry! Let it go!
I guess the point is that all of these things are learned behaviors, and with some practice and devotion, they can be unlearned. And unless you've lived it, I'm sure it sounds like borderline insanity. Maybe it is, but I know there's a lot more people than just me who have gone through it, and we wouldn't relive it if you threatened to pierce our nipples with a crossbow.