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  • erinlmahone

The Only Way Out is Through


Photo Credit: Dean Whitbeck

Recently, my car stopped working as I turned into a parking lot. It just cut off. The vast sea of possibilities opened before me and I dove right into the familiar pond of terror and uncertainty. I’ve only had the car for a year. I have a 60-month loan. I can’t afford to buy another car right now. I’m in school, building a movement, raising three kids…I just have to get through school. Just another year and then financial stuff can happen….WAIT…Universe please forget I said that!


There I was all alone in the middle of a parking lot, blocking other cars from coming in and out, standing outside waving people around me. They were confused, annoyed, and distracted. I was embarrassed and frustrated. Buying this car had been a big deal for me on numerous levels. I love it. It’s just a vehicle, but for me it represents self-sufficiency, progress, growth, and security.


See, it wasn’t just the concerns of the moment that flooded my consciousness – but a lifetime of perceived failures that were threatening to topple what can at times be a tenuous confidence. In that moment, and in all times of great vulnerability, my early failures came flooding back. I was immediately reduced to that young woman who was run-over by a car because she was reckless and impulsive, who failed at college the first (second, and third) time around, who had faced years of untreated depression and anxiety who constantly made terrible decisions. Just a girl in deep and confusing pain who did not know how to get through. That afternoon in the Starbuck’s parking lot in the summer of 2019 at 41 years old, I felt that doubt begin to creep in. That girl is always in there somewhere.


Over the course of several years in my mid-late twenties, I started to figure things out. I began to feel like maybe I wasn’t what I had always imagined – a person unworthy of success, or happiness. I worked hard to complete my bachelor’s degree, began a unique career path of creative and meaningful work, married my best friend, bought a home, and began building the family that I had always dreamed of. None of it happened in that order as we got engaged, got pregnant, bought a house, got married, had a baby, and then I went back to school, had another baby, we bought another house, etc. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression that I ever do anything in the “right” order. Nevertheless, it was all happening and now all these years later the order of it all seems to matter less and less. One day at a time, turned into years, then nearly a decade of beginning to prove my inner voice wrong. I did have what it took. I could be healthy and worthy.


Then the recession of 2008 hit. My husband lost his job, right before our third child was born. Like a slow-motion car accident everything began to unravel and we had no idea how to stop it. The constant fear of bills going unpaid, maxing credit cards just to get by, more than once I had to walk out of a grocery store with a baby on my hip, leaving a basket full of groceries behind because my cards were declined, the gas station required me to pay inside because there wasn’t enough money in the account to ensure I wouldn’t over pump and speed away, a year without health insurance for the kids, a foreclosure, a bankruptcy, beginning again with nothing to show for our incredible fortitude except the fear and shame of financial failure. The worst part is the shame. Even worse than the fear because fear is reasonable in those moments. The shame is consuming. It never fully goes away. It changed me forever.


I just put my head down and worked. Worked. Worked. Worked. As much as I could, in as many different ways as I could. I carried the fear and the shame but never accepted defeat because I had to keep this family afloat. It was essential for me to make sure that they were ok. We budgeted, we sold things, we did what had to be done to take care of our family. We were like the walking dead for a few years. I didn’t realize that until much later. Our children never knew how bad things were. Thank goodness. But my relationship with money was forever changed. It had never been all that great to begin with. My innate fear and sense of imbalance in the world was triggered and never turned off.


It’s funny to realize that nothing was guaranteed whether I was the “screw-up” version of myself or the version who was working so hard to be “good” at life. I learned that I was not entitled to security or fairness anymore in one space than the other – and I didn’t get it in either. Things can fall apart at anytime to anyone. This is the great equalizer. It is the most humbling realization and one that powers all the work I do. It is what motivated me to speak this story now. I don’t know what people’s perceptions of me are, but I imagine there are many of us who have lived through the trauma of financial ruin and so many who would rather die than admit the shame. When I look in the mirror I see all those past versions of me and the one now who shows-up everyday with a heart open to whatever the world has to offer. If I accept the good, I must also make space for the difficulty. It's time to give voice to this part of myself, to heal, to move on. It is long-past time.


What has become so clear to me over these many years of loss, rebuilding, humbling, and post traumatic growth is that we were always ok. Just ok, in many cases. Not great, but deeply fortunate to have some force around us that let us continue to love one another and our people. My husband and I are still married – almost 17 years of marriage. We were fed, clothed, housed, somehow. We made our family work, kept one another safe, and never allowed our children to know our fear. In financial ruin, I learned how to work. Hard.


Even as a 16-year-old girl trapped under a car with a broken pelvis nearly unconscious being strangled by my sweater tangled around my neck – I was ok. There were people who showed-up to help me. I lost virtually every friend I had but gained others. I learned how to be alone. i learned that shit can fall apart and not to let that keep me from having hope or from making scary choices.


What I have struggled to learn in all this living is that no matter how bad things may have gotten at any point in my life, I have always been ok. I will always be ok. I have no right to expect more than ok. It feels wrong to say that, but somehow, I know it is true. Being American I’ve been socialized to believe that happiness, fulfillment, and enormous success is something we are all entitled to, and it is earned by sacrifice and hard work. I have learned over and over that this simply is not true. The hardest workers I have ever met often have the least permanent or physical security to show for their work. Does this make them less valuable as humans? No. It just proves that hard work is not necessarily the only key to success.


We all deserve to be ok. That I get behind. EVERYONE deserves basic human requirements of housing, medical care, food, clothing, and education but no one is owed happiness. That is something we must find for ourselves. The only way to truly achieve happiness is by remembering that you are always ok – even when you are crumpled and broken on the ground being strangled by the outcomes of your own terrible decisions. Even when you do things the “right” way and things end up collapsing anyway. There is always a light.


I learned early in my life that one cannot count on things being safe, comfortable, or predictable. I have done so much work to rid myself of this core belief. I have made so much progress. Except when things get worrisome, like when my car broke down in the parking lot that day not too long ago. In my growth, I am now met with a choice. Once upon a time there was no choice, I simply allowed myself to be led down the deep, dark hole of all the mistakes and misfortunes that proved my worthlessness and the untrustworthiness of the world.


Now, I notice the fear and mistrust beginning to swirl. I hurt from my past, that will never change. But I no longer believe the lies that fear told me for so many years. Now, I remind myself of what is actually true 1) I am human like the billions of others on the planet and none of us is infallible 2) I have ALWAYS been ok. 3) There is nothing that I am not capable of facing and no fire I cannot walk through.


How do I know? Because I’ve done it over and over and over.


The problem with my car cost $22 to fix. Everything was ok.




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Financial trauma is a real and under reported issue faced by millions of people around the world. I am beginning the process of healing my financial trauma, facing my fears, and realigning my energy around money, success, and worthiness. I will continue to explore the emotional toll of failure, trauma, and my own experiences with post-traumatic growth. Over the next month, I will be posting daily on my progress, and with more information about where help can be found. Please share your own experiences and connect with me on this journey.

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