This is the hardest post I’ve ever had to write, about my deepest source of shame and guilt. A quarter of a century ago I borrowed an astronomical amount of money to go to law school, and I will quite probably die owing enough money to buy a small island.
When I read this, I was so sickened by the idea that people were killing themselves over student loan debt that I decided to “come out” about my own situation. I understand the desperation that comes from having no visible means of escaping a terrible situation, and the added intensity of knowing that you brought it on yourself by making a bad decision. No one, though, should ever think that their life is worthless because of a debt. Even a crippling one.
My story may or may not be typical, but it does prove how easily someone can get where I am today with a little lack of planning, a few unforeseen events and a tough economy. After graduating from college, I had no idea what to do, and I applied to law school. I was an unhappy, insecure person and I had a notion that practicing law was a “real” thing to do as opposed to getting a doctorate in English or trying to make it as a writer. My parents thought law school was a terrible waste of my actual talents, and my friends thought it was a terrible idea based on my temperament. Undaunted, I took the LSAT, got into several schools, and picked the most expensive school, in the most expensive city. There were loans available, and I borrowed the maximum amount for my first year – it just covered tuition, rent, food, books and a subway pass.
What was I thinking? How could I not have understood that I was taking on major debt, and that I would be able to pay it back only if I got a lucrative law job? The answer is that I was pretty sure that there were lots of jobs, and that whatever it was that lawyers did, I would do it for the rest of my life. I could not imagine myself ever getting married or having children; I saw myself working full tilt until I retired, or dropped dead. I’d live simply, and after a few years of repayment I’d be done.
For three years I kept borrowing money. I hated law school more and more, and I was pretty sure I was making a huge mistake, but I didn’t think I could get out of it. If I didn’t finish and pass the bar, I couldn’t get the job to pay back the loans. By the time I was welcomed to the Massachusetts Bar in 1990, I was a clueless, patently ambivalent candidate competing for jobs against people with more passion and the desperate edge that comes from having a family or a lifestyle to support. One interviewer was kind enough to tell me that I needed to be more confident in interviews or I would never get a law job
I did the right thing. I cut my losses. I moved back to Michigan, opened a solo practice, and made all my loan payments. Then I got married, got pregnant, and had to be on hospital bed rest for 2 months. With no law partner, I had to give away my case load to other firms. Within a year I couldn’t afford to keep the office open. My husband was earning good money and we decided that I could work part time from home, and mostly be a mom for as long as possible. Although it was not his debt, but he felt strongly that we should honor my obligation, and we kept paying on my loans.
Then his job changed dramatically and we had to make do on about half of our previous income with consumer debt and a mortgage based on the “old,” income. He took another job that showed great promise, but which has been severely affected by the economy. We scaled back. We stopped taking vacations, we rarely eat out, and he drives a car without air conditioning or a front bumper.
We have enough. We have a roof over our heads, enough to eat, health insurance, and cars that run, for which we are immensely grateful. What we don’t have is more than we absolutely need. It’s been years since I could afford to pay the $1,000.00+ each month owed to my student loan creditors. I defer, I forebear, I default, I “rehabilitate,” and the amount billows into an ever-larger and more terrifying obstacle.
The Reasonably Prudent Person would say, at this point in the story “that’s all very common, and life is tough, but why don’t you just get a full time job and make up the difference?” The reason is that around the time it became clear that our income wasn’t just going to “bounce back,” my parents both developed serious and chronic health problems, and I gradually became a caretaker and advocate. I still work part time, I always have, but a great deal of my time is spent taking care of my parents.
The RPP would also say this: “If you worked full time, you could pay your debt. You made a promise to pay, and the way to do that was by making sure that you were earning enough to keep that promise. It would be nice if we could all just decide not to honor contracts because ‘something came up,’ but that’s a slippery slope that would lead to financial instability and which would be totally unfair to the millions of people who do what they are supposed to do.” Even if you are not a law and order/business type, you are probably thinking that many women have to work terrible hours at terrible jobs to feed their families, and that there is no way for them to stay home with their kids, or take care of elderly relatives. To both I say, “true,” and “amen.”
I also say this: no matter how wretched and guilty I feel about my debt, and how deep my shame and despair, I have only one life, and I’ve made a choice. Every day I am sure, once again, that having the time to care for my parents is more important to me than working full time solely for the purpose of repaying my debt. We might make other arrangements. We might find someone else to do the things I do, but I can’t imagine handing them off. They are ill, they are often exhausted and demoralized, and I love them and want to take care of them.
That is a controversial choice. I get that.
I have never hidden from my creditors, or lied to them. I have been berated by collection agents, had my tax return taken, and my bank account emptied, all of which I accept as the consequence of a really bad decision. I will certainly resume making payments the minute I can; I always have. The thing is, even if I were willing to take a full time job starting tomorrow morning I would have to find something paying upwards of $50,000.00 a year to cover job-related expenses, pay people to do the things I do now, and pay enough on my loans to make a dent. In this state, in this economy, there aren’t many such opportunities for me. (And I’ve looked). Even if I found such a job, many employers now run credit checks on prospective hires, and my credit rating speaks of dishonor, irresponsibility and bad character.
I would, frankly, be better off if I had accidentally struck and killed someone while driving. I could have done my time, made profuse apologies, moved far away and started over. There is a societal cap on the amount of punishment appropriate for that kind of mistake. It ends. There is no such cap on student loan indebtedness.
The truth is that we live in a society that values money and banks over people. We also place no collective value on taking care of those in need, even if it would lead to long term social and economic benefits. Every time I intervene to make sure my parents take their meds, understand discharge orders or get to their appointments, I save Medicare the cost of ER visits and hospitalizations. If student loan debt could be meaningfully reduced for folks taking care of chronically ill family members the long-term savings would be great. (And by “meaningfully,” I do not mean the current system in which a loan can be deferred with a heavy wallop of accrued interest and an exponentially bloating balance).
We also live in a country that values consumerism over education, which is why I could discharge my considerable debt in bankruptcy if I had spent the money on shoes, travel and restaurant meals. Because I spent the money on an education, it is not dischargeable. As I said, there is no cap, and no end.
I guess I’m a deadbeat. I’m also a wife, a mother, a daughter, a neighbor, a friend, deeply flawed and totally human. I made a big mistake for which I will pay, literally and figuratively, until I die. Every day, I will balance the deep satisfaction and moments of grace that come from caring for my parents against the knowledge that I am not earning enough to pay my debt. I will certainly not commit suicide, but I will suffer deeply because of the mistakes I made half a lifetime ago.
There are few situations in our society in which a youthful mistake mandates a life sentence as an indentured servant with no way out. If we can show compassion towards people convicted of actual crimes, and believe that they are capable of rehabilitation, we would do well to show the same compassion to people whose worst mistake was being foolish about money at age 18, 20 or 25.
Nothing is going to change for me, but if there were reforms that kept even one person from shame, despair or suicide over debt, it would make this public confession worthwhile. I won’t see such a change in my lifetime, but I can hope that student loan programs might someday be restructured to allow for the entirely foreseeable exigencies of life from a “down” economy to a chronically ill family member, and that schools and lending institutions would be discouraged from lending more than a borrower can easily repay in a lifetime.
Money is never more important than human life.