The 12 Steps Lead From Desperation Debting To Daily Gratitude

(Reprinted From The 2nd Quarter 2008 Issue Of Ways & Means)

On considering my long-term solvency, my first thought is how extremely grateful I am for it. It is a more magnificent gift than I ever dreamed it would be. The only other “experience, strength, and hope” I can share about accruing long-term solvency is that I could only do it one day at a time. Daily, I made a commitment not to incur any new unsecured debt “just for today” for the last 23 years and 2 months. I sought my Higher Power’s help in not debting through daily prayer, working DA’s 12 Steps, and “showing up” to the best of my ability. DA was, and still is, a one-day-at-a-time program for me.

With the hope that it may be of some service, I will attempt to explain what I was like before DA recovery, how I got into recovery, and what I am like now.

Before I came to Debtors Anonymous in 1985, I had just applied for the fourth in a series of $15,000 loans so as to complete the last year of a 4-year professional degree program. Prior to those four loans, I had taken four other loans to pay for college and two loans to pay for a graduate program. Additionally, I had incurred several thousand dollars in credit card debt to handle sudden emergencies. I worked full time and went to school at night, yet I was hardly meeting my needs with my salary and certainly did not have funds for school or any extraordinary expenses. In fact, what I thought were “extraordinary” expenses were actually very ordinary expenses, but I lived in a state of deprivation prior to DA, and did not understand what basic needs were. I was certainly not a “spender”, but I was debting to my creditors and to myself.

I was 17 years old when I took out my first college loan; I was completely vague about the loan’s repayment terms and could hardly conceive of the amount that I was borrowing or how difficult it might be to pay it back. I justified taking that loan and subsequent ones because they were for a “good cause”, my education, and I thought that by some sort of alchemy, the degrees that I obtained would translate into financial success. As it states in the chapter on Step 3 on AA’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, I willfully believed, as other addicts have, that “intelligence, backed by willpower, can rightly control our inner lives and guarantee us success in the world.” I did not realize then that I had a disease around money that kept me mired in debt and prevented me from earning a decent living.

I grew up in a large family of limited economic means, where education was not valued, and certainly not for women. Yet, somehow, I seized on the idea that if I could get an education, I might be able to find a legitimate way to escape poverty. Unfortunately, I learned that no amount of knowledge could eradicate my disease of debting. For me, only DA’s spiritual solution enabled me to find relief.

When I finished my professional degree, I got a job that paid less than what I was making at the job I had when I was in school. Why? I was a debtor. Most of the people I graduated with were making five times what I made. My diseased thinking about money told me that I did not deserve an adequate salary. I thought that I could not earn more money than my parents did, or I would be betraying my family in a sense, claiming that I was better than them. Yet, I knew then that I did not earn enough to pay back the money that I would soon owe. I had always feared financial insecurity, but suddenly, facing the prospect of having to repay my creditors a staggering several hundred dollars each month once my student loans came due, created a deep desperation in me.

It was that desperation that led me to the rooms of DA. While I was attending a meeting of another 12-Step fellowship, someone shared about DA. I had been given the gift of 12-Step recovery with regard to another one of my addictions, and upon hearing about DA, I felt instantly that I belonged. I hoped that it would be able to help me.

In my first year of DA I went to one, often two, meetings a day. Although DA was then a relatively small program in New York City, I was graced to have several meetings available to me each day. I did not realize it at the time, but I needed to let the program wash over me and be absorbed by me on physical, mental, and spiritual levels; it took me time to understand that my Higher Power wanted me to stop debting, be able to meet my own needs as well as those of my creditors, and learn to live in abundance. I had a lot of very confused ideas about money, more than I realized when I walked into my first DA meeting. Yet, at that meeting, I was told to not debt one day at a time, go to meetings, and keep records of my numbers. I was desperate, so I did what was suggested.

I still do not completely understand why or how those actions enabled me to stop debting. For me, that is the spiritual element of DA; it worked because I worked it, however imperfectly. I know also that it worked for me because I was working Steps 1, 2, and 3 at that time. At my first meeting, I admitted that my life had become unmanageable due to my debting. By listening to others at meetings, I came to believe that I, too, could be restored to sanity. Then, somehow, I made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of DA, the Higher Power of my understanding at that time.

After about a year in the program, I got up the courage to ask for a Pressure Relief Meeting. I had almost no idea how to ask for things for myself, and thus that was a very significant turning point for me. With the help of my pressure relief team, I developed a Spending Plan, negotiated lower payment rates with my creditors, and began to formally work the Steps. It became evident at my Pressure Relief Meetings that I needed to earn more money if I wished to continue to not debt, as my loan payments were coming due. My determination to stay solvent was strong, and I took a part-time job in the evenings as a cashier while continuing to work my real job by day. That was certainly not the success that I thought my education would bring me.

With the extra part-time work, I was able to not incur any new unsecured debt. During those years, I also worked Steps 4, 5, 6, and 7. Gradually, because I was not debting one day at a time and because I was actively engaged in Step work, I was able to get some clarity that I was hurting others and myself by not securing employment that was commensurate with my abilities and at which I was paid the market rate for my skills. My Pressure Relief Group believed in my ability to earn enough at one job and I committed to them to devote at least 10 hours a week to seeking a better full-time job. I took those actions and after months of searching, I finally landed another job at which I earned $20,000 more per year.

Over my years in DA, I continued to change jobs for better opportunities and better compensation and benefits; I was only able to do so because I was not debting, one day at a time. I was free of the fog of debting and was able to gain enough clarity to begin to acknowledge that I had some value in the workplace. Thus, I began the process of becoming “right-sized.”

I also came to understand that as I had taken money from persons and institutions without knowing how or if I could repay it, likewise I had habitually given away my time and services for compensation that was less than adequate. My PRG supported me in being somewhat more adequately paid for my skills and abilities. I would certainly not have been able to ask for adequate compensation for myself if I had not already been working Steps 8 and 9 by making financial amends to my creditors. While I still had not yet overcome my chronic under earning, I began at that time to be able to save, have a prudent reserve, and allow myself to pursue some of my interests, many of which had been lost amidst all the deprivation with which I had lived for so long.

After 17 years in the program, I paid off my last debt. I followed DA’s advice and paid my debts consistently and at amounts that my creditors and I had agreed upon. As I would make those monthly payments, I would often fantasize about what a jubilant day it would be when I surrendered my last debt. In actuality, that day was much more about deep gratitude. I was so grateful to DA for showing me a way to make my 9th Step financial amends by fulfilling my obligations to all of my creditors. I was grateful also for the opportunity to work Steps 10, 11, and 12 in earnest.

After retiring all of my debt, I began to identify some of my recovery goals or visions. During the first 17 years of DA, my vision was to not incur any new unsecured debt, repay my debts in full, and learn to care for myself adequately. Of course, my first and foremost vision continues to be to stay solvent. One other goal that I did identify was to own a successful business. I attended Business Debtors Anonymous meetings and began to build a client base slowly and steadily. I was blessed to achieve that goal in my 19th year of recovery.

Then, in late 2006, I met with a new challenge, one I am learning to cope with. Of course, I had had  many challenges in my DA recovery. Being in DA has not meant I found a smooth, straight path to prosperity. There have been fits and starts along the way, yet I have always continued to make slow but definite progress. My current challenge is that I developed a chronic illness which has prevented me from working the long, workaholic hours to which I was accustomed. I now have to learn to work sanely, and still feel that I deserve to be adequately compensated. While this has been a very difficult time for me, I have been fortunate to be able to remain solvent due to DA.

Because I work in a very stressful industry, it was suggested to me at a Pressure Relief Meeting many years ago that I purchase disability insurance. I took that suggested action and had the insurance in place for many years when I got sick. That act of planning helped me to be able to remain solvent despite enormous medical costs. I could not have foreseen such an occurrence more than 23 years ago. Yet, not debting one day at a time and learning to care for myself in honest and open ways has resulted in many gifts for which I am most grateful, not the least of which is being able to face serious illness with faith and with less fear of economic insecurity than I had when I came to DA.


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