An 'Unlikely' Debtor Learns To Share His Light In DA

I don’t "look like" a debtor. That was the story of my life. That’s how I got into Debtors Anonymous.

I was the first of five kids of alcoholic parents. I was the first one to go to college. I was the only one in my whole family who had ever gone to college. I was very self-reliant. I could present myself like someone who didn’t have problems. I was a Jewish kid raised Catholic. I was half white,  half Spanish.  I could pass for white;  I could pass for Gentile;  I could pass for rich. 

I got out of professional school in 1975. When I was a kid my dad told me at 8 years old, “You’re a smart little boy, but I don’t have any money and you’re going to have to get yourself to high school and you’ll have to get yourself through college. You’ll have to get a scholarship and you need to be a doctor, dentist, or a lawyer and you won’t have any problems, because they didn’t have any problems during the Depression.”  Those were the choices—a doctor, dentist, or lawyer. My real joy was animals, my real joy was plants, and my real joy was music, but that didn‘t matter.  “That’s fine, son, but you need to be a doctor, dentist, or lawyer.”  As a kid I would always do gardening—I wanted to be a landscape architect.  ‘Nope, doctor, dentist, or lawyer.’ 

I went to professional school. When I got out of school, my dad told me, “You can do anything you want to do; you can do whatever you want.”  While I was in school, I would get student loans. I would sign for those loans as if it was no problem. I knew it would take a long time to pay them off, but I’d think to myself, “Oh, no problem.”  At school, my lab partner told me, “They’ve got this new thing—you can get a $50 credit card—you need to get this and you need to get good credit.“ So I signed up for a credit card.  I also had loans and grants and I started using my loans to go on vacation. I’d go to Hawaii or I’d go San Francisco because I deserved it. I was working hard. By the time I got out of school I didn‘t even know how much money I owed.  I found the paperwork and in 1975 I owed $139,000 in unsecured debt.  In 1975, $139,000 was a LOT of money. 

I started working, and when I got out of school I got my license.  I worked 10 weeks and when I went to the IRS to get tax paperwork, the IRS employee helping me asked, “Now, do you think you’re going to make the same amount of money next year?”  I had no idea what I would make or what I would owe, but, after all, you can’t keep the government’s money.  I had forgotten about taxes.

By the time I discovered the 12 Steps, it was 1975.  I had married an alcoholic and found a support group for people in relationships with alcoholics.  I started going to the meetings—I remember hearing them tell me to try it for 6 months, not six meetings—6 months!  They told me that if I didn’t like what I found there they would gladly refund my misery. By the time I got to those 12 Step meetings I was agoraphobic—I didn’t want to leave the house—and I knew that was pretty bad.  I was a psychology major—I knew that was not good. 

I started working and what was overwhelming to me was that I was living on a thousand dollars.  I was paying $3,000 a month to pay off my loans. I didn’t have a good car. I had a crappy apartment. I was making $48,000 a year, but the income tax on that was another $26,000, so I had to make more than $70,000 a year to live on $1,000 a month. 

I got nice clothes with my credit card because I deserved it. I had a crappy car I parked four blocks away so you’d never see my car. I never brought anyone home to my house—I stayed at their house. I never ever brought anyone home.  In 1978 I found a new support group for people who had been in relationships with alcoholics, and I went to seminars of the people who actually wrote very famous books about this. I was learning a lot about this experience and I could see the patterns that had developed in my life.

I mentioned earlier that I had always been very self reliant. It was true, but I didn‘t get myself to DA on my own. I got to DA in 1982 because someone in this program directed me here. Her name was Lila B., and I will always be grateful to her for her guidance. I’d go to those other meetings and seminars and run into Lila.  She’d ask how I was doing and I’d tell her “God, I never have any money. I’m making money, but I never have any money.”  Lila told me “I’ve I got the program for you.” 

I had heard the Promises of AA before, and every time I heard “Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us” I’d say ’Oh, god, I feel so much pressure.’ So I finally went to the DA meeting and there was no one there. By this point I was divorced and my girlfriend asked, “How was the meeting?”  I told her, “Well, those damned 12-Step people, they’re so irresponsible; there was nobody there at that meeting.. Nobody!”  Later, when I asked Lila what happened, she told me, “Oh, that was not a prosperous place and we needed to have a prosperous place.”

So the next time I went I had to go across town—an hour’s drive—to this beautiful library.  I went, but I could only go every other week and it didn’t work. My experience is that every other week just doesn‘t work. Finally the day got changed to a Wednesday, and I could go every week.  At first, I didn‘t say I was a compulsive debtor—no, no, no, no, no!  It was as if I was going to AA and telling them, “I’m a light beer drinker!   I’m a champagne cocktail drinker!”  In DA I was telling them, “I’m not a debtor, I’m a compulsive shopper. Look—I have nice things.  I can afford nice things.  I can afford to buy nice things.  I’m not a compulsive debtor.”

I shared like that for a year until the founder of DA came from New York and kindly revealed the truth to me. He and others, through sharing their own experience, let me know that I could claim to be a compulsive shopper, but I was in fact a compulsive debtor, and that when I started acknowledging that, my life would change.  I surrendered, and they were right.

I’ve been going to DA for 24 years now and I‘ve heard a lot of different buzzwords over the years. Now I hear “underearner.”  That sounds pretty cool.  I also hear “deprivation addict.”  But I’m a compulsive debtor. When I admit that, my life moves forward.

It took me a year and a half to quit using my credit cards. I had never had a pressure relief group.  The only reason I finally did a pressure relief group was that there were only seven people in DA in Los Angeles, and the other six finally noticed.  Since they were the only members,  they knew they had never done a PRG for me. I did it, finally. It was a little scary—actually, it was really scary—and I didn’t do another one for a couple of years. 

As time went on, what I learned in the program was that it is about the Steps. I paid off my debts in 7 years. I didn’t get an award for that. It wasn’t like someone told me, “Oh, you’re so fabulous, your picture’s in the paper--you just paid off your debt!”  What I learned was that debting was a disease of impatience.  I didn’t want to wait anymore.  I wanted mine right now.  When I put that card down I could get it right now.  I was tired of waiting. So my debt had grown to $180,000 and I had to sell my house—it was really a pretty powerful time.  I didn’t get into DA and really start doing it until I was 32 years old.  I didn’t have a car, I didn‘t have a house, but I had nice clothes. I debted buying beautiful suits and a lot of greeting cards.  I had debted to buy so many suits. I had winter suits and spring suits and East Coast suits and Hawaii suits, and one day someone broke into my apartment and stole all my suits. I guess the thief wanted to look good, too.  He wanted to pass for rich.

So I got to DA, and learned to identify as a compulsive debtor.  I learned to do service.  You know, we started so small, it took forever to get any meetings going.  We found new members in other 12-Step groups and that’s how the program started growing.  The thing is that it just takes a little bit at a time. I saw people come and go--old-timers who didn’t think they needed it anymore, but I always had the example of Lila—she always kept coming.  She told me the story of her and another member. They sat in a room across from each other for a whole year, not really liking each other, but committed to the program and to recovery.  I wondered why they would do that, but now I know they were trusting the process.  They were showing up and showing up and showing up. 

I have had different milestones in my recovery in DA.  I realized what really helped me was getting started having pressure relief groups and doing them every 2 months.  I started looking around the room and saying, “Hey, these people are doing pretty good and I’m just stuck, I’m just stuck” because I wasn’t working the Tools. Over time I learned to work the Steps and the Tools.  I learned to identify as a compulsive debtor—this isn’t a shopping thing.  It is a disease that kills.  It is a disease, it really, really is. 

I’ve learned to be of service in DA. I hear about others who feel alone in recovery, but I don’t feel like that in DA.  I’m a General Service Representative and I sponsor others and I don’t feel alone.  I work the Steps and encourage others to do so.  I’ve learned to do things the DA way   It works to use the Steps and the Tools and it works to keep the focus on the debtor who still suffers. 

I learned from Lila to have a prosperity consciousness. She taught me to dare to have a bigger life and write it down.  When I‘ve been willing to do that (like today when I did a vision board) I live out what I write down.  I heard there is life after debt and I‘ve learned there really is life after getting out of debt. 

I’ve learned to get really clear--how can I be the best man I’m supposed to be today?  That’s what I ask everyday: “God is my Source, and how can I be the best man I’m supposed to be and how can I shine or share my light with others?”  When I’m willing to share my light with others, I prosper.  I spent quite a bit of my life wanting to keep a distance between myself and other people, but that’s not God’s vision for me. I prosper when I’m out with people and sharing with people. I encourage all of you to shine and to share your light and realize that God is Source and to affirm every day, “I want a bigger life.” 


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