Thursday, August 27, 2015

Under the Poverty Line

       Gabriel and I are poor

       I’m not complaining—we just literally live below the poverty line. I used to complain about being a ‘poor college kid’ while going out to eat with friends, buying copious amounts of wine and brand new books. I now envy those days. I thought I was poor then, but now Gabriel and I know what it really feels like to be in need. And we are poor in the most privileged country in the world. I can’t imagine the desperation of those in poverty in third world countries.

       We have been on food stamps for over a year. We benefit from WIC. Theodore and Gabriel have Medicaid insurance. Luckily, I can still be on my dad’s insurance until the ripe old age of 26—which is swiftly approaching.

       I know the shame of pulling out my EBT card at a grocery and the clerk staring puzzled at their screen and then exclaiming, “Oh! It’s food stamps.” They punch in a special code that allows me to buy groceries. It’s even more humiliating if I incorrectly calculate the remaining balance on our food stamp card and it is declined. I’ve never felt like more of a failure and an idiot than when a cashier looks down their nose and informs me that there doesn’t seem to be enough money on the card. Baby on my hip and cheeks burning red, I mumble, “Oh really? Shoot. I must have counted wrong. Can you subtract those bananas?” Deducting food items I can’t afford, quickly prioritizing while attempting to recreate meals in my head with the remaining items—while the line of impatient shoppers grows behind me—is demoralizing.

       In the past two years many people have told Gabriel and I, “You are exactly the type of person who should benefit from these services.” I never know how I should respond.

       “Thank you?”

        I want to ask them what they mean. Do we deserve aid more because we are young? Because we have experienced hardship, therefore our poverty is not entirely ‘our fault’? Because we probably won’t need aid forever?

       I often think how blessed I really am. I am not the first 20-year-old college student to get pregnant. But not many women who have only been dating a guy for four months can rely so heavily on them, like I did. Not every guy will stick around. Not every woman in my situation has family that will support her financially, emotionally, physically and spiritually. In fact, most women who are young and pregnant can expect to face the hardships ahead of her—alone. I can’t even imagine being pregnant, working full time, finding an apartment, preparing for the birth—and then going through a traumatic birth experience like I did—without the help of my family. I wouldn’t have made it.  And that’s all before you leave the hospital and you are entirely responsible for a fragile little human.

       I have come to realize just how difficult and painful raising a child can be when you’re poor. Standing in line to apply for food stamps was a breathtakingly raw and vulnerable experience. I cried that whole night after I put Theodore to bed. We are currently struggling with the reapplication process for food stamps. The office of Family Services lost our identification information so we had to fax new ones over. But my purse was stolen with Theo and my social security cards in it. (I know it was dumb to have them in my purse.) We faxed over what information we had; and then they lost that information. There was a complication because I’m a student. Then there was another complication because Gabriel just started a new job. It has been over a month and we still don’t have food aid.

       We have borrowed hundreds of dollars from nearly every member of our family. Without their support we wouldn’t have made rent, paid our utilities on time, or fed ourselves. Our families have bought us diapers, meals and new jeans when our old ones were too big. (Gabriel and I both lose weight when we’re stressed.) Most people in our situation don’t have the support we do. They get evicted, go hungry, their credit is destroyed, and obtaining the government aid they are entitled to—is sometimes nearly impossible.

       I don’t know what people mean when they say we ‘deserve’ this more than other people. The people who deserve government aid are the people who qualify. Period. I think it’s safe to assume that everyone who lives life below the poverty line is struggling, even drowning. I don’t know the story of everyone standing in that line for food stamps. Maybe it’s their first time applying, or their 30th time reapplying; but no one there was smiling. No one wanted to be there. Everyone had to be there. That is how they survive. There is no story more deserving than another; and who are we to make that judgment call, anyway?

       Living poor in this country is demeaning, frustrating and draining at best. At worst—it is impossible. I have a friend who works in the Columbus public school system. He told me the story of a second grader crying on the last day of school because he knew he was going to be hungry all summer. During the school year he knew he would get at least two meals a day.

       Gabriel and I do not plan to stay on food assistance forever. Affording our own groceries and having a small date-night fund is the ultimate dream. And I have faith that someday we will get there. But only because we have dozens of people helping us move forward. Most people do not have the resources we do. They can only dream of survival.


Monday, August 10, 2015

A Cruel Anniversary

The two year anniversary approached like a dark, thick fog. 

Gabriel and I were hanging out with friends and one of them casually mentioned their plans to attend a nephew's birthday party.
“It’s on the 8th, I think. Yeah, July 8th.”
My throat tightened. My face felt hot. Gabriel met my eyes across the room and we shared a moment of falling together. Hearing that date is like walking down stairs in the dark. There is one more stair than you accounted for. My stomach drops and my brain burns like static on the radio. 

One simple date wields so much power. It’s infuriating. 

The morning of July 8, 2015, Gabriel and I woke up quietly next to one another in the grey, impersonal morning light. I looked at the clock. It was 5 am. The exact time I was being raped two years earlier. I rolled closer to Gabriel until we were face-to-face.

“I don’t want to do today,” I whispered as tears trickled onto my pillow.
“I know,” he whispered back. I lay on his chest, crying and allowing myself to be rocked by his breath until Theo woke up. 

My limbs felt awkward all day like I should be doing something other than cutting up a banana or making oatmeal or pouring a cup of tea. The air was simultaneously thick with meaning and mundane. As I sat down to breakfast my eyes darted to the clock. 6 a.m. Two years ago I was shaking and sobbing—alone in a hospital bed. 6:30 a.m. I was being examined by doctors and nurses. 7:00 am. CT scan to be sure no serious damage was done to my head when he slammed it against a metal pole. I had to wear two protective vests, because at this point I knew I was pregnant. Remembering that day feels like a horrible CSI episode I’ve stepped into. I can feel it in my body. My head is throbbing and heavy. My hands shake and I try to take up as little space as possible—trying to disappear. 

The last thing I want to do is be alone. The next to the last thing I want to do is talk about it. 

My sister Becca and her friend Angela appeared at my door at 8 that morning. They brought me coloring books, colored pencils, a poem about four leaf clovers, a homemade probiotic drink...and they prayed for me. Becca invited me to her house for the day until I had summer school. I accepted with relief. Gabriel had to work, and I did not want to be alone. 

All of my family texted encouraging words throughout the day. Sometimes just a simple “I love you.” These small moments—being remembered—redeemed even this cruel anniversary. I wasn’t sludging through the hated day alone. People knew my pain. The whole world was flying past me while I had nightmares of July, but my people remembered me. My God remembers me. 

Becca and her friend Marie offered to drop me off and pick me up from school so I could avoid the dreaded solo walk from my car to campus. I’m not good at asking for what I need, but my sister Becca is getting very good at guessing—and offering it. I sat through my Planet Earth lab, wondering how everyone could sit there so normally, as if July 8 was a normal Wednesday, solely comprised of a boring lab and a dull lecture.

As I fought to remain focused on the less than fascinating formation story of metamorphic rocks, it began to rain. My mind jumped back two years. As I left the hospital, the world was grey and wet. An unusually cold rain fell from heavy clouds and I thought, “God is crying too.” Earlier when they had taken me for a CT scan, I discovered one of my earrings had been ripped out. Now I pictured the rain washing the gold leaf earring down the dirty Chicago sidewalk and flushing it into a sewer, as if it had never been the causality of July 8. 

This anniversary forced me into serious introspection and processing. I didn’t have any proactive coping mechanisms planned or any personal growth to reflect proudly upon. I woke up, fumbled slowly through the day with the support of family and friends and went to bed as early as possible, so I could wake up to July 9th and feel normal again. 

Sometimes on a “normal day” I suddenly realize that everyday is some woman’s July 8th. Everyday there are women waking up and wishing they could fast forward through their awful day of flashbacks, awkwardness, and triggers. When I recognize this awful truth, I try to smile at women I see looking distracted, sad, scared or distant. Maybe it’s their July 8th. Maybe they don’t have people in their life to carry them through like I do. 

I survived July 8, 2015 without a panic attack. Minimal tears were shed. I felt numb, sad, small and weak. But I felt loved.