Lessons from the bottom of the barrel

This will resonate with a few of you out there who have also hit the bottom of the barrel at some point or another in your lives. In fact, I might even know a few who have revisited the bottom of the barrel more than once! Just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, bam! something lurking around the corner jumps out and changes the rules of the game.

When you’ve grown up like I have, as an only child in a privileged life of luxury, an expat child who had access to the best private schools the company could afford, and was raised on the principle second-hand is for losers and poor people, you end up developing an unrealistic expensive taste and lifestyle that is high maintenance all around. Daddy could afford everything, and if my timing was right, I received everything on the wish list for Christmas or my birthday.

There was no such thing as limited budget, and the concept of an allowance only kicked in for me in college, when I move to a student dorm. Even then, budgeting was still not a reality check because if funds were low, all I had to do was run back to my parents for a refill. When I was 11 I was one of the first to own the Star Wars soundtrack (cassette and Dolby back in the day) and while the neighbourhood children were still dashing around in metal roller skates, I had the fancy sneaker type with plastic wheels brought in from the USA (we were living in Mexico at the time).

Holidays were spent in hotels and resorts with additional fancy trips to amusement parks and museums. Birthday treats involved setting me loose in a toy and bookstore of my choice, either in the USA or Hong Kong, and there was no such thing as “that’s too expensive” for anything on the menu. You get the picture. Daddy was keen gadgets, especially anything related to a sound system or cameras, and inherited his discarded items, or eventually ended up with my own set. He raised me on buy-the-best-and-the-latest, and if need be, get a spare. This is an upbringing that I came to regret and resent later on.

It’s been a long road of high-flying expat life that continued when I got married, and one of the most detrimental turning points in my life was giving me a credit card. For someone who never learned the concept of budgeting and limitations, a credit card was a veritable ticking bomb in my hands. Many years later, when inherited my parents’ medical bills and debts after they passed away, I was overwhelmed by the sheer responsibility and the concept of having to deal with everything. So by the time I moved to Germany I was a complete mess emotionally and psychologically, not to mention financially ruined and about to embark on a divorce proceeding and dive into a lifestyle I had absolutely no experience for. Frugality was never in my vocabulary, and I struggled to understand this concept with my in-laws, resenting it every step of the way.

Needless to say it has been both humiliating and humbling experience these past four years, and my fall from financial grace has been hard. Gone are the days when I could host lavish dinner parties or walk into a shoe shop and not have to worry about the price. Groceries are limited to house brands, red meat is out of the question, and so is over-the-counter-medication. Buying a gift for someone special entails skipping a few meals just to stretch out the supplies a little longer, and second-hand or refurbished are the name of the game for me now. The last laptop I bought was a brand new MacBook in 2015, and when that finally conked out at the beginning of this year, the only thing that was in my horizon was a refurbished unit. I can’t afford plumbers and carpenters, so I learned to do the repair work myself, unlike in the past where a battalion of handymen were at my disposal with a single phone call. I used to send my flower vases each week to the flower shop to be arranged, and this year I cried tears of joy when I received a virtual bouquet for Valentine’s Day.

Clothing? Not in the budget this year. The insurance company cancelled several of my policies, my healthcare has placed me on a different scale, the bills are piling up, and my wallet has more moths than any old closet. Here’s the thing though, I have learned that I have everything I need to get by. The bottom of the barrel has taught me a few hard lessons, one being that eggs, salt, rice, and flour get you a long way. I’m almost done paying back my debts, and though unemployment may be a temporary deterrent, it doesn’t worry me. In fact, nothing worries me anymore because I learned to ask for help, for advice, and to embrace my mistakes as stepping stones. I will still panic when someone suggests we meet for a drink or worse, dinner but thanks to the pandemic this past year this hasn’t been an issue.

It is not easy to write any of this, but I know there are others out there in the same boat who need to know that the bottom of the barrel is not a permanent place. Granted, it is a lonely and scary place because all your demons come out to drive you crazy or over the edge. But it is also the place to regroup your strength and gather your wits in order to climb back up.

These past weeks of job hunting have made me keenly aware of my skills and talents accumulated over the years, and for that I am incredibly grateful. Depression and suicidal tendencies did rear their ugly head back in 2017 but I had angels to rescue my sorry ass. It’s taken me almost four years to write about this journey, but I sure as hell don’t regret any of it. I have everything to live for and a brand new life to look forward to, one step at a time.

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