So financial poverty really does make you stupid. Who knew? And more odd bits of recovered personal history.
It’s really not my imagination. According to this article: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2013/08/how-poverty-taxes-brain/6716/
FTA: “In a series of experiments run by researchers at Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Warwick, low-income people who were primed to think about financial problems performed poorly on a series of cognition tests, saddled with a mental load that was the equivalent of losing an entire night’s sleep. Put another way, the condition of poverty imposed a mental burden akin to losing 13 IQ points, or comparable to the cognitive difference that’s been observed between chronic alcoholics and normal adults.”
As much as I would love to soundtrack this post with Albert King’s “Born Under A Bad Sign”, I’ll stick to Panache pieces, so listen while you read to “(The Tragedy and Crime of) America”. This VERY rough scratch recording is of one of the several new pieces Chi composed in spring of 2013. “America” may find its way onto the “Victory Speech” album once it is developed and recorded at broadcast quality.
Late August 2013
I grew up “lower middle class” by virtue of my parents’ level of education and field of employment (teachers) rather than our household income level (my mother quit working after my brother and I were adopted), which would otherwise have put us in the “upper lower class”. My parents owned our decent home in a decent lower middle class neighbourhood that my father was able to purchase under the GI bill, we went to decent public schools, and never felt “poor”, or “impoverished”. I thought my parents were just choosing to be spartan in refusing to buy me expensive designer clothes like other girls at school wore, especially after I transferred to a performing arts magnet school for part of middle school and high school that was attended by a clique of rich kids. It never occurred to me that they couldn’t afford to.
After several years of academic penury when I went to university and got an unpleasant taste of what poverty feels like (for me that meant living on the leftovers of my violin teacher’s and boss at my part-time student job’s lunches, sleeping with dirty laundry piled on top of my sleeping bag since my housemates and I couldn’t afford to heat our crappy apartment; and looking on with envy at the nice clothes my best friend was able to buy since her parents paid her rent and sent her extra pocket money to supplement what she earned at her part-time minimum-wage student job, her drug-dealing academic lifer boyfriend regularly taking her out to eat at fancy restaurants, and her nice, cute, respectable car while I got around alternately by bus and in an embarrassing old beater once I managed to scratch together a few hundred dollars to buy a second-hand vehicle), and after a protracted academic career, I finally graduated with three degrees into a really bad recession (1995-96).
I was nevertheless able to land a part-time temp job working at one of those “financial service companies” that’s made up of a bunch of people who earn their living mostly by selling life insurance and retirement plans to people where one of the agents hired me to do word processing, which provided a irregular trickle of “regular” income to (sort of) sustain me between performing gigs. Although I was somewhat gainfully employed and working under somewhat reasonable conditions with decent people, I ended up having to move back in with my parents. Well…there’s quite a backstory to that, but it’s beyond the scope of this post.
At any rate, none of this was economically viable even without the burden of household overhead, as about all I could manage was to pay the interest on my student loans, which were relatively large for that era due to having been an exchange student in two different countries and completing three university degrees, and the minimum balance due each month on the numerous credit cards I had at the time and buy gas to get around, so I certainly could not afford a housing situation that would allow me the space and peace I needed to be able to get my head together and improve my lot in life. Whoa! While digging back through the charred, smoking rubble of my misspent youth in constructing this piece, I just remembered a key event that may well have been one major trigger that sent my life careening down the shit-skids! It was such a traumatic experience that I had almost entirely blocked it out of my memory!
Due more to pressing financial need than any desire to do so, I reluctantly agreed to go to work at a micro business owned by a married couple of friends of mine who I didn’t realize at the time were in the process of getting divorced. While they apparently had big plans for using me to help stabilize and grow their foundering, insolvent business, which unfortunately did not include actually paying me, at least not on any regular basis at a market-competitive rate, having just graduated university with three degrees in music performance, international business and Japanese, I had other plans. Nevertheless, I let them con me into it.
What came next was a truly hellish few months where I’d drive to work every morning with my stomach in knots, praying fervently (hint: this alludes to a major element of this story that I am intentionally leaving out) for a natural disaster or some cataclysmic fuck-up that would shut down the entire road network between where I lived and that wretched place (this was before terrorist attacks came into vogue in the US, so it never occurred to me to pray for one), get there late and get chewed out for it (WTF?!!! These people aren’t even PAYING me properly (or at all sometimes), and they think I’m still supposed to get there on time all eager to get to work at a shitty job I absolutely HATE??!).
I would then have to sit there all morning in a cramped, dark, airless back room watching the clock tick off the minutes excruciatingly slowly while I forced myself to make cold calls and do whatever other bullshit work I was given, or just sit there listening to that asshole yammer at me about whatever-the-fuck while trying to stay out of reach of him groping me and perving at me until the time of day arrived that heralded my liberation from that torture prison, at least until the next day of torment, wondering whether I was going to get raped or murdered, or just subjected to another miserable ordeal in Gehenna. So that was why they had always been so solicitous toward me: they were planning on abducting me as soon as I walked through graduation ceremonies and extorting me into working for their company!
That was another thing: that man was a particularly offensive specimen. (After training me, the woman had left her abusive now-ex-husband and fled to the Bay Area, so was no longer around.) In addition to his foul breath and eating with his mouth open and peeing with the bathroom door open and other extremely disgusting mannerisms, whenever a reasonably attractive female entered his field of view, he would stop dead in his tracks, do a conspicuous double-take ogling her up and down, boggle-eyes coming to rest fixedly on her breasts, start almost visibly drooling and make some creepy sexual remark at her. I cannot think of a specific example of what he would say since I was always so disgusted and embarrassed by that caricaturish behaviour that it was difficult to focus on anything else.
When I tried to quit one day, I was subjected to a traumatising response of physical and emotional aggression, topped off with a guilt trip of how his wife had got into a car accident on her way up to the bay area and I owed her a phone call to explain myself, yada-yada. When I got home from the second part-time job of the day (the word processing gig with the financial planner), for some inexplicable reason I complied with the guilt trip and made the disastrous mistake of actually calling her, where she proceeded to harangue me for the next three hours (on my dime, of course — this was before “all-in” phone plans came into common use) with the Mother of All Guilt Trips.
That was when I finally started to put it together that those people are not ‘friends’ at all, but sociopathic predators that I needed to get away from and rid my life of. Nevertheless, I let them manipulate and emotionally blackmail me into going back to work for them (the woman actually thought that she could con me into taking her place in the “romantic” relationship with her husband as well as with the business so she could just wash her hands of the whole thing and walk away from it!) until I successfully fabricated an elaborate escape plot about getting some sort of performing gig in L.A. and I’d be moving there by a such-and-such date at which point I would be released from that stint of indentured slavery. Once I managed to extricate myself from that waking nightmare, I got another temp job working mornings doing more word processing and bullshit admin work at a construction site project office for the general contractor. I actually enjoyed that job even though the work was stultifyingly menial because they were very nice, fun people, and I happen to find construction projects fascinating.
Not long after that, my boyfriend at the time thought it would be cute to move me out of my parents house (he was entirely correct in that it was not doing my mental state any good to be living there, especially since my brother had also recently moved back home after quitting his job at a record label due to a mental breakdown resulting from extreme harassment from an artist he wouldn’t sign, and he was driving everyone in the house crazy going on and on about his anxiety symptoms) and install me in a place I could not afford in Encinitas. Shortly after that, the financial planner I was working for went on vacation for a couple weeks and another one in the same office snapped me up to draft correspondence for a legal proceeding he and his wife were involved in, and then he also went on vacation for a long time, leaving me at loose ends with an unprecedented scale of overhead to have to support.
One day when I happened to get called in to do some work for another agent in that office, a different agent from a different company (same industry) in a different office in the same building’s emissary stole me from the agent who was on vacation and implored me to take his job since they had heard about what a superb word processor I was, and he was going to be moving to the east coast. He and his boss assured me that although I would be doing additional work, they’d pay me more and I shouldn’t have any problem with it, and they wanted me to start immediately. Not thinking it through or asking any questions, I accepted the job out of sheer financial desperation, and then came hell. Again.
I suddenly found myself doing work I had no background or interest in, and that in fact required specialized education and state licensing, in addition to the word processing and menial office drudge work I had expected to be doing. I also had to call people to set appointments for financial planning consultations. Did I mention that I HATE dealing with people and making phone calls, and while merely setting appointments is pretty benign, it still drained me. What really sucked the life out of me though was being routinely criticized and ridiculed for not understanding and making mistakes with the work I was doing that I had absolutely no training or credentials for.
I was still struggling financially and that guy eventually hired me full-time (no doubt laughing his ass off all the way to the bank at getting someone to do specialized work at the garden variety word processor/ office drudge rate — the guy I’d been hired to replace was probably making at least twice what he was paying me), and that created a situation where I was stuck in a hellishly stressful, hostile, toxic environment all day long with no relief at all. At the construction site temp job the people were nice even though the commute sucked after I moved to Encinitas, so at least I had half a day of decent working conditions.
It quickly reached the point where at the end of the day I’d be pacing in circles with tears in my eyes and my neck hurting like hell from sitting in a contorted position working at a credenza with no place to put my knees (I have long legs!), so I had to twist them around to the side since I didn’t even have a proper desk (!) waiting for the elevator, and on Fridays I’d leave at exactly 5:00 no matter how long I’d have to slog through hideous commuter traffic at the I-5-805 merge to get home to the north coast since that would still be better than spending one minute longer than I absolutely had to in that miserable hell-hole. I vividly remember the feeling of profound relief that would wash over me as I approached the turnoff from San Elijo Avenue onto the Pacific Coast Highway and would see the moon rising over the palm trees reflected in the sparkling dark ocean, which meant that I was home and safe from abuse and toxic stress for at least the next few hours.
At that time, even though I was consistently bringing in just about enough money to cover basic month-to-month overhead (and precious little else), I was totally destroyed by the end of every day and could barely go through the motions of fixing something for dinner before collapsing into bed exhausted. I seldom had the energy or desire to do anything on the weekends either, which did not particularly endear me to my boyfriend, who wanted me to help him do restoration work on his yacht and construction projects/ vehicle repairs/ modifications at his place and stuff like that. For the bonus point, while slaving away in that little shop of horrors I found out how it happens that people get stuck in shitty, wretched jobs they hate: because they simply do not have the time, energy or wherewithal to get out of them!
My deliverance from that god-awful flog came one evening when I arrived home in tears after a particularly miserable day to a phone call from someone I actually didn’t even remember having met a few years earlier although he certainly remembered me, offering me a musical theatre gig playing in the pit orchestra for a show he was music directing that was scheduled to run for several months. That coincided with my best friend getting into a big mess in which her father had to drive out to San Diego to buy her out of an oppressive relationship disaster and move her back home to Arizona, and she begged me to take over teaching a few violin and piano students of hers. Even though I had absolutely no background or interest in teaching, that is what practically all professional musicians do to earn more or less steady income between gigs or to supplement income from low-paid orchestra jobs, so I agreed.
While the theatre gig got me sort of solvent for a couple months, once my income base reverted back to only chasing nickels and dimes from teaching and the occasional one-off gig (weddings, recording dates, stuff like that), I was back to barely scraping by each month. Even though I was living in a beautiful place and doing work that was relatively non-toxic and relevant to my interests at that time, the stress and duress of the chronic poverty was taking a heavy toll. I was almost always late with the rent and had creditors hounding me day and night for money I didn’t have, plus my boyfriend piling on by shaming and upbraiding me every chance he got for never being able to afford to do anything (like eat out) or pay him back for the money he had spent moving me into the unaffordable housing situation (I hadn’t asked him to do that. He came up with that completely on his own, probably to save on gas so he wouldn’t have to drive all the way from Carlsbad down to east county San Diego to fetch me for dates). I distinctly remember how depressed that made me. I just felt like shit all the time and had no energy or mental clarity to do anything to fix it. Being run ragged from having to drive all over hell through traffic all day/evening for the widely dispersed freelance work I was doing wasn’t helping matters either.
Just preparing and sending a resume was a big ordeal in that era. Even though I had a whole spare room with a nice big desk in it (fashioned from a salvaged wooden door painted black supported on “legs” made of stacked-up concrete blocks), I had no money to buy a computer and printer, so I had to go to the library or to a more wealthy friend’s house to borrow theirs to type and print my resume and then go mail it at the post office.
This is all a really long and roundabout way of getting to the point that being an impecunious musician living well beyond my means, never knowing when/whether my next nickels were coming from, the shame of being in my mid- to late 20’s and still having to make that dreaded phone call to my father as the end of the month approached and I was yet again going to be considerably short of what I needed to pay the rent, and then I’d feel so guilty about having to ask for another end-of-month bailout that I would ask for less than I actually needed in order to get through the overhead in excess of rent, causing more late fees, disruption of critical household services, reconnection fees, extra deposits, having to scramble around hunting for loose change to buy gas to put in my car so I could get to my next gig, and the incessant chaos and worry of it all constantly occupying my consciousness had me functioning in a badly impaired state.
I will fast-forward through moving back to Japan, getting a decent “real” job that was actually related to my “Plan B” education (Int’l Business, French/Japanese language) and enjoying a few years of relative peace, prosperity and stability, to meeting and marrying Chi and moving back to California, and right back into hellish poverty compounded by an abusive, fucked up marriage.
After 18 months of not being able to find any worthwhile employment for either of us (I literally got laughed out of several interviews for day jobs because I was so ridiculously overqualified for the low-paid, menial jobs being proffered to the public for insultingly pathetic amounts of money in San Diego at that time, ca. 2005-06), Chi succeeded in browbeating and coercing me into yet another legendarily excremental, abusive temp job. This one involved having to spend every day that I reported for work over nine suicidally wretched months sitting in an office at another colossally fucked up micro business with practically nothing to do and more often than not, no available workstation even if there was something for me to do, getting degraded and insulted and shat on and forced to listen to the abject ass-fuck that hired me for that very purpose spout his privileged white trash Christopathic breeder politics at me all day long. That idiot finally reached the conclusion that it wasn’t cost-effective to pay someone nearly $40K/year just to be a whipping boy and laid me off, so we then fled as economic refugees to L.A. — again at the behest of Chi — where we unwittingly moved into the Mother of All Ghettoes. One desperation-driven bad decision after another.
Once we landed in the aforementioned Mother of All Ghettoes, we got some firsthand experience with *real* poverty and what it really means to be “disadvantaged”. I have never experienced anything like this before or since. It was truly difficult to fathom. After a couple months I started to believe that any time I was on the phone with some customer service rep for some fucked up thing or other, as soon as the “90018” zip code popped up on their screen, it was followed by a prompt saying something along the lines of “Turn on shit hose full blast!” I was similarly nonplussed at the ridiculous shit the banks would pull, like tampering with the times that items were presented for payment in order to make stuff bounce and then loot our accounts for overdraft fees, etc. I went down to my bank with notes from conversations with their customer service line and raised hell and they panicked. Apparently they aren’t used to people like me emerging from that zip code.
That was another thing: having to pay the rent each month with a cashier’s check for no other reason than the *special privilege* of living in the 90018 zip code and that’s how things are done there. Nothing to do with my employment status or predictable monthly income. One more humiliating, time consuming hoop to have to jump through each and every month — just to pay the fucking rent — because I happened to move into a zip code synonymous with entrenched poverty. Oh, and our car insurance premium skyrocketed when we moved there, even from a part of downtown San Diego informally known as “crack alley”, due to the (perceived) heightened risk of theft/vandalism/loss/damage! I also had quite a few nice, expensive things I’d brought back from when I lived in Asia destroyed due to the decrepit, vermin-infested condition of our apartment.
There was also the behaviour of the police. I observed this a few times, but on one occasion it was particularly extreme: a cop on a motorcycle appeared to be harassing motorists, probably most on their way to work, by cutting in front of them and then slowing down, making them get caught at the red light just as the signal changed while he went sailing on through it. It sure looked to me as if the cops were actually trying to foment a(nother) ghetto uprising.This was during 2007-2008 when the “Great Recession” hit and the global economy tanked, with the worst of it being felt the most keenly by those least in a position to withstand it.
It was clear that we had to get the hell out of that neighbourhood. Chi was correct in one sense — not his hysterical fear of the ghetto erupting into mass violence due to the worsening economic climate (which it does from time to time), but to eliminate that source of gratuitous poverty-perpetuating postal code-inflicted financial harassment and all the endlessly time-consuming, tiresome bullshit it gives rise to, even though I would be faced with the loss of all the money/ time/ energy/ etc. I had spent trying to make that place livable while burdening me with having to go through the same thing all over again with a new place since most typical apartments and houses are not designed in a way that suits me.
At any rate, to finally get back to the article referenced at the beginning that inspired this post, while the commentary in the linked article fell considerably short of what I would have preferred, it made me wonder if there has been a similar study of the effect that the constant, harrowing stress of being in a toxic, abusive relationship has on one’s cognitive function. I have more than a sneaking suspicion that it is similar to the impact of financial poverty.
I would be interested to know whether this study had been controlled for people who in addition to being poor, were also stuck in abusive, toxic live-in relationships they could not afford to get out of due to their fiscal constraints, and what percentage of the cognitive load that variable imposed. I’ve had it both ways: being financially poor but free from an oppressive relationship and/or toxic job, being (relatively) financially well-off while being involved with a toxic, abusive partner, and being financially poor AND stuck in an abusive, toxic live-in relationship that I could not afford to get out of. That last one was the worst by orders of magnitude. I suppose it’s gilding the turd blossom to reiterate that during part of that time I was also bullied (by said toxic, abusive partner) into the shittiest, most abusive, degrading job I’ve ever had in my life, so for nine suicidal months I was trapped in a hideously miserable, toxic, abusive environment that I could never get away from!
I am also reminded of so many mornings when I lived in Tokyo that I’d go stumbling arse-over-teakettle out the door racing to get to work late as usual, berating myself, wondering how in the hell it had become such an impossibly complicated matter to simply get to my office and start my day at the time I needed to in order to have any control over how the rest of it would play out, and I eventually came up with a painfully obvious answer: there was another person MAKING it impossible for me! Needless to say, this caused all kinds of problems on the job for me, and in that era I even had a challenging, interesting, decently-compensated “real” professional job (at least until that company “restructured” and everything went to shit). The shit really hit the fan for me when Chi moved into my minuscule flat and his toxic M.O. began to permeate and control my entire existence.
No wonder I made the astonishingly idiotic decision to marry Chi and bring him all the way here to California to continue destroying my life when the writing was on the wall under a glaring spotlight that that would be a really fucking devastatingly terrible idea: my cognitive function was so critically impaired from the duress and drain of all that I had endured for the previous decade or so that I could neither perceive nor heed the bleeding obvious!
What I have been living with is well beyond simple economic poverty/scarcity and sleep deprivation, and now I’m stuck in another menial, low-paid day job that barely covers monthly overhead. The effect of that job and its title that apparently carries the universal assumption that I am some loser “professional secretary” that lacks the required intelligence, education and qualifications to do anything else on my self worth has been just as deleterious as the financial poverty has on my balance sheet and apparently also, my cognitive functioning. This is further compounded by the stultifying effect that chronic extreme boredom and ennui can impose on one’s mentality.
I routinely let all kinds of shit go that I really must not simply because I am too fatigued and overwhelmed and stuck in a condition of “learned helplessness” to force myself to deal with it, and that perpetuates and amplifies the poverty, scarcity, deprivation and sense of general enslavement that I am mired in. I also frequently make shockingly stupid mistakes and mind-bogglingly bad decisions. Well, DUH! It’s small wonder that over 10 years of trying to survive living with an abusive, mentally disturbed, drug-addicted parasite and the degrading poverty it has driven me into has left me so depleted and tapped out from the inconceivably massive drain on my cognitive bandwidth and vital energy that I can barely hold it together, never mind find my way out of this fucking mess!
The evidence is in and can no longer be ignored:
He. Has. To. Go.