The Accidental Op-Ed

A couple of years ago we found ourselves deep in the throes of a post-911 tech industry downturn financial famine. I had gone from making a six-figure income to being unemployed for 18 months before I finally found work. Jeff had taken on two after-hours jobs to supplement his full-time county employment, and I was working seven days a week — part-time as a receptionist, and full-time as an aide in a long-term care facility. It should have come as no surprise when I ended up flat on my back with full-blown pneumonia. Quote from the ER doctor:

This is no glorified cold that we call ‘walking pneumonia’ so we can prescribe fancier drugs. This is the good old-fashioned die-from-it bacterial kind of pneumonia, the kind that kills you.

All through my unemployment I had endured daily phone calls from verbally abusive creditors; faceless, heartless strangers who knew nothing about me as a person, but confidently labeled me as a deadbeat because I prioritized feeding my children over giving them my grocery money to sprinkle ineffectually into the ever-deepening cavern of interest and late payment penalties on the bills we were struggling to pay. Their threats of damage to our credit rating were meaningless, since it was already long past “damaged.” What really bothered me was having our integrity questioned. We had every intention of paying those bills, no matter what. We’d had some setbacks, but eventually we would recover. I had tried to negotiate payment plans with several creditors, but with no success. Actually, one creditor had agreed to work with me, but only if I sent in a payment by a certain date to show my committment. It took every penny we had, and made it hard to keep food on the table for a few weeks, but we did it. A week later the calls started coming again, and she claimed no memory of any agreement. She had lied just to get me to make a payment.

By the time I got sick, I had reached such a point of utter frustration that I was having trouble sleeping. The unfair accusations would play over and over in my mind, and I would lie awake feeling more and more helpless, worthless, and angry. One day I got fed up, and dragged myself to a sitting position long enough to compose a letter on my computer. The letter was never meant to be mailed. It was just catharsis — a private session of therapeutic ranting at my faceless tormentors who could not seem to conceive of the idea that an honest person could actually be unable to pay her bills. “Everybody can afford to pay something,” one of them had informed me, in the condescending tone of one who is absolutely certain of their own superiority. But we couldn’t, even with five jobs between us, and now I was sick in bed and we were falling behind even faster.

When I finished venting my frustrations, I closed the file and crawled back into bed. With my racing thoughts safely stored away in text, I could turn off the endless looping in my mind and get some rest. I slept.

A few weeks later, shortly after I was finally well enough to work again, Jeff confessed to me that he had stumbled upon the file while typing something on my computer. He liked what I had written so much that he posed as me and e-mailed it to the op-ed editor of our local newspaper, The Oregonian. He was telling me this because it was scheduled to appear in the following day’s paper.

I was mortified at the thought of everyone knowing my innermost thoughts, and our embarrassing financial situation being exposed for all to see. Driving to work the following morning, I stopped to pick up a paper, hoping as I turned to the editorials page that the piece would be unobtrusive enough not to draw attention to itself. But I had no such luck. There it was, prominently displayed in the premium upper right half of the page. As if that weren’t enough, my picture was stuck right in the middle of it.

By the time I got to work at the long-term care facility where I had just started working, my panic had subsided a little. “Nobody really reads those things,” I reassured myself, thinking I could still hide in my role of anonymous CNA and no one would be the wiser. But when I walked into the report room, there it was — posted in a cleared area right in the middle of the bulletin board. Newsprint Ruth smiled happily at me, blissfully oblivious to the fact that our wounded soul had just been completely exposed to hundreds of thousands of people. I was naked, and there was nowhere to hide.

Letter to a Debt Collector

Over the next few weeks a number of people contacted me to express their appreciation for my article. It seemed to have struck a chord with a lot of people. Then I was contacted by a man named Thierry, who said he made movies. He wanted permission to use my letter as the basis for a film. With nothing left for it to protect, my pride had long since dissipated, so I said he could.

We eventually succumbed to bankruptcy. We gave up our house, and now live in a rented log cabin in the country. Things are still rough financially, but we are happy, and that’s better than having money. Jeff drives to work every day over winding mountain roads, enjoying the beauty of nature instead of sitting in traffic breathing the exhaust of rush-hour traffic. I’m in my third year of nursing school, and work as a student employee on campus during the week. On weekends I work the night shift as a CNA at Emanuel Hospital.

When I think back to my former life in the tech industry, I am struck by how much different I am now. I was happy then, much of the time, but never in a way that could begin to compare with the deep sense of contentment I feel today. Most people don’t understand how I could be glad I lost a high-paying job. Just the other night I tried to explain it to someone. “I was so much older back then,” I told him, trying to make him understand how vibrantly alive I feel today, compared to how weary I felt back then. He smiled, but still looked a little puzzled. It may be one of those things you just can’t comprehend without experiencing it. All I know is that it was worth every miserable moment it has taken to reach this place in my life. This is where I am supposed to be. I am becoming who I was always meant to be, and doing what I was born to do. There is no other feeling like that in the world.

It’s been two and a half years since that “dark night of the soul” when I turned my feelings into words in a desperate attempt to store them outside of myself for a while and find a few moments of peace. I didn’t know they would be launched out into the world, but that’s what happened, and the ripples haven’t stopped spreading yet. The film A Simple Smile is scheduled for its first screening in two weeks. I’m looking forward to seeing what Thierry has created. I’ve had the honor of meeting many of the actors and actresses who played in the film, and was able to visit the set a few times to watch them shoot. Some of them have shared parts of their own stories with me. Many were drawn to the project because of experiences in their own lives that mirrored the ones I wrote about. All of them worked for free, and Thierry shouldered the costs of filming, because it resonated with them, and they wanted to see it happen. I’m still a little overwhelmed by it all, but seeing what has grown out of my experiences, both in my own life and the lives of others, I feel a deep sense of “rightness.” It’s a good thing. I’ve decided to forgive Jeff for sharing my pain with the world. If he hadn’t, I would have missed having a lot of fun and meeting some really awesome people. And I guess a little extra dose of humility once in a while is probably good for me.

The film will be showing, along with two other short films, at the Hollywood Theater on NE Sandy Blvd in Portland, OR, on Tuesday September 26th, at 7:00 pm. Admission is free. Thierry said I could invite whoever I want, so if you’re interested, feel free to show up.

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