Thursday, May 20, 2010

Dealing With Financial Loss

A few weeks ago, I got a call from  friend, talented musician and heck of a nice guy David Holt. He needed the contact information for a mutual friend who had tragically lost his son a few months before. Having lost a daughter himself, David wanted to pass on some of the helpful techniques he discovered when he was overwhelmed with grief.

David compiled his advice in an article titled "Getting Through The Grief". David thoughtfully sent me a copy, too. I read it, thinking it might be of interest to me. After all, I was dealing with my own grief thanks to the loss of a marriage, my house, my nest egg, and much of the business that made me feel like a valuable, productive human being.

Granted, there's no way my level of grief comes anywhere close to how a parent must feel when they lose their own child. I had merely lost some material possessions and a little bit of pride. Nonetheless, as I had hoped, I found that David's article contained valuable information that helped me a great deal.

Here's some highlights:

Healing is not linear, but moves in a spiral. I was very sad and angry when I lost my house. I blamed the banksters. I blamed myself for falling prey to them. But a few months after settling into my new home, I was able to start focusing on the good things I still had, and thought less and less about the loss of the house. Still, there are occasions when something re-triggers those feelings of loss, and they come rushing back. When that happens, it can seem discouraging, as if I had regressed and would have to re-experience the entire mess again. I was grateful to have David remind me that this pattern was perfectly natural. Just knowing that eased the sting quite a bit. And it helps to know that when the grief wells up again, it's not as intense, nor does it last as long as it did originally.

You have two choices: moving on and working steadily towards recovery, or exacerbating your loss by heaping on worry, anxiety, blame, guilt and bitterness. David wrote that you actually need to make the conscious decision which way you want to go. I choose the former. But that does not mean that feelings of defeat and loss won't still percolate up from time to time. It means that you still deal with your feelings when they arise, but you don't let them consume you. And then, as the song goes: You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.

You can't handle it by yourself. There is still far too much shame associated with financial loss. That shame can prevent people from asking for help at the very time they need it the most. When you ask for help, you're allowing the people in your life to shine - and most of the time, that's exactly what they do. When you ask for help, vulnerable and scary as it may feel, you often end up discovering how much you are supported and loved!

My fiancee is more patient and understanding than I could ever have hoped - I am truly blessed. Still, I occasionally catch myself withholding my financial struggles because I fear sharing them will put a strain on our relationship. Actually, it's the opposite. Holding back is what puts a strain on the relationship. When I talk things out, I get the angst out of my system. Afterwards, everything looks rosier. My fiancee also feels better because she was able to help (which makes her feel good), and because talking about it results in having a more relaxed man around the house.

Anger is a natural by-product of grief. It's important to find healthy ways to relieve the pressure-cooker. One day, I heard a news report about the record profits my ex-mortgage bank was enjoying - the same bank that had practically forced me into bankruptcy. At the time, I wanted to put the bank's logo on a pillow and punch it until I was blue in the face. Instead, I held back. Later that day, a woman stole my parking space at the grocery store. I went ballistic, yelling at her at the top of my lungs. It scared my daughter, annoyed my fiancee and left me frazzled for hours afterward. I should have punched that pillow!

Walk - Observe nature. David emphasizes, "I didn't say exercise, I said walk!" Even if getting outside is a struggle and merely feels like you're going through the motions, it's important to do. Get out and smell the breeze, feel the warmth of the sun, listen to the birds.

Last year at this time, money was especially tight and business was especially slow. Staring at my balance sheet was making me queasy. I felt like I needed to park myself next to the computer and wait for the phone to ring, but that made me even more miserable. So I picked up my camera, went outside and took close-up pictures of every plant that was blooming. I became overwhelmed with the abundance of life around me, and the knot in my stomach dissipated.

Relieve stress. When I worry about finances, my business, etc., the tension goes straight into my shoulders. It's gotten so bad recently that I started to feel pain and numbness from my shoulder all the way to my hand - the same hand I need to push a computer mouse around to make a living - or relax myself by playing fiddle. A few months ago, I started taking a yoga class. It's amazing how much yoga has helped me relieve tension, improve my posture and feel better in general. After yoga, I feel better equipped to deal with work and financial issues.

Last year, a well-intentioned doctor recommended anti-depressants to combat the uncomfortable feelings brought on by financial loss. Luckily, I chose meditation instead. It's done wonders for my mood, and has absolutely no side effects.

No matter what mode works for you, if you're dealing with loss, find some way to move your body and quiet your mind - and do it daily.

Get plenty of rest - eat the right foods. Funny, that's the same advice you get when you're fighting a case of the flu - and rightly so. If you're struggling financially, you are in combat with a stressful situation that will eventually make you sick if you don't stay healthy and try to relax as often as possible.

Things will get better. When I moved out of the house I had lost, I felt pretty despondent. The tiny house I moved into with my fiancee and her daughter initially gave me claustrophobia. It felt like the mother of all downgrades. Slowly, the house has grown on me - we've been adding a little more garden each year, and the more labor I put into the place, the more it feels like I belong. Though it is still the same size, our home actually feels more spacious to me than it did a year ago. Things do get better!

Many thanks to David Holt for sharing his "Grief Road Map". If you want to read the entire article, you can download it here in PDF format. Also check out David Holt's website - and you might enjoy David's TED Talk.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Why Future Prosperity Depends on More Socializing - an article by Bill McKibben

Why Future Prosperity Depends on More Socializing
Access to cheap energy made us rich, wrecked our climate and left us lonely, explains Bill McKibben.

Excerpted from the book EAARTH: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

I'm Not Down, So Don't Count Me Out!

Today, an article appeared in Asheville's local free paper titled "Down And Out in Asheville". I was a bit disappointed in the tone of the article – especially since I am one of the people featured in it.

I am anything but "Down And Out"! And I'd hate for my interview to be construed as a whine-fest about my personal challenges.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I was torn about doing the interview. There's so much shame involved when people are faced with financial problems. I inherited a lot of that shame from my family, who to this day think the topic of money is their biggest taboo.

I did the interview because I strongly believe that if everyone refuses to talk about financial problems, those suffering from them will be in greater despair because they'll feel like they're the only ones in trouble. But if we have the courage to come out of the shadows and share our stories, we can better help each other find hope – as well as solutions.

I think in general, the article is helpful because it challenges the media claims that the economy is turning around (maybe the economy has rebounded for the richest among us, but not for the common American). And the article offers a little piece of hope at the end, including a cursory listing of some of the social services available in Wester North Carolina.

My hope is that the Mountain XPress follows up with future articles that offer additional tools and resources for people in economic need.

It's important to realize that people need much more than financial assistance:

People need to feel like they are still valuable members of society. It's tough to feel valuable when you're having trouble finding employment - and not just any employment, but employment suited to their talents and abilities. If you have a masters degree and you're serving macchiatos at the local coffee shack, you're not going to feel very fulfilled.

People need emotional assistance. When you've lost a home, a job, a lifestyle, it's difficult to be grateful for what you have. But that's exactly what we need to do: live in the moment and notice the people and things around us that bring us joy. After I lost my home and much of my business, it was easy to pace around the house and fret. At first, I had to force myself to go outside and sit in a chair, even if just for 10 minutes. After listening to the birds, feeling the sun warm my face, I felt better. It's now part of my daily practice, and I find that I worry a lot less these days.

People need to figure out how to adapt. As I mentioned in the the Mountain XPress article, I have a lot of spare time on my hands. Part of my challenge has been to enjoy the spare time without wasting it by fretting - and also to use some of that time wisely to find new ways to put my talent to use.

I am lucky that I can still call myself a graphic designer. I still have loyal clients who value what I do. However, the digital age is forcing me to change the kind of work I do. I may not need to find a completely different career, but I need to make some drastic changes in the way I work. That means transitioning from expert back to novice, and learning new technologies. Taking such a retrograde step sometimes feels like a disappointment. So when I feel daunted, I have to remind myself that my value comes not from my expertise, but from ability to adapt and learn new tricks when required.

So even though the Mountain XPress article focused more on the negative aspects of my town's financial challenges than I would have liked, I think it's a good first step. I hope it leads to more conversations that help lead us out of the selfish, consumerist fog we've lived in for decades, and back to a greater sense of community and toward a new paradigm for prosperity.