My last two posts have been about “unexamined and unhealthy stories” that undermine our personal and professional lives. This post is the first in a series I’m calling “Scenes from My Story.” I will attempt to convey as vulnerably as possible the experiences that led me to examine my story and begin a journey toward health—a journey I’m still on. And I hope to flesh out how I experienced the process I wrote about in the second post (How to Move Toward a Healthy Story).
Scene #1: December 2013
As I drove home from meeting with a lawyer friend in 2013, I felt a mixture of relief, shame, and fear. He delivered his advice with empathy, but the mood was sobering: “The best forward for you is to file for chapter 13 bankruptcy.”
In chapter 13, your debts are not canceled; you pay back the principal over a five-year period in a weekly garnishment from your paycheck. No more loans and credit cards. Tighten the belt.
Bankruptcy was a word I associated with irresponsibility and failure. Bankruptcy had strong moral overtones to me. I tried many schemes to avoid getting to this point: home equity loans, additional credit cards, and putting my head in the sand. I suppressed and numbed my anxiety with work by day and alcohol by night.
I feared telling my wife about my friend’s counsel because it meant I had to admit I hid the extent of our debt problem. I had covered it up, which is to say, I lied.
Now that I could no longer hide my financial problems, I knew I would have to admit to my kids and friends that the image of myself I projected was, in fact, phony.
At the time I was on the pastoral staff of a large church. I finally revealed to the head pastor how bad things were. He was gracious and did not fire me.
But though he was willing to keep me on, I chose against it. I’d lived as a poor model of financial responsibility and lived dishonestly. Plus, I wanted to get away from being a public figure with a persona that masked the real me. So, just before my wife and I decided to file for bankruptcy, I resigned from my position.
I had one goal now: getting my financial house in order. Well, I had another goal that was even more important: rebuilding trust with my wife.
There I was, about to turn 55 years old. Rather than moving toward a time when I could celebrate my accomplishments, my life appeared to be a house of cards.
My greatest fear in life was being embarrassed by failing in public. A nightmare come true!
I felt further humiliated when I went to work as a manual laborer under men who were much younger than me. I felt humiliated, not because manual labor is somehow a dishonor, but because of my pride.
So, in a time of exposure and vulnerability, I began to look for a new story that made sense of my life. I was not yet conscious that I sought a story, and I did not use the word story, but I was asking questions.
I was asking, what happened? How did I get here? What will my parents, who are responsible financially, think of me?
I wondered, too, are my beliefs and values faulty?
And most frightening to me, what’s my future? Am I ruined?
I had a strong sense that I had done something unrepairable. The experience was traumatic at times which made it difficult to think clearly.
In my next post, I will share how the nature of the career I left brought additional perplexing questions.
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