Escape to nowhere

After ten years at the same nine-tofive job, my husband began to fear getting a pink slip. The business was outsourcing and downsizing, and many employees had already been let go. My husband was afraid his turn was next. “I’m looking into the possibility of starting my own business,” my husband announced one evening, hoping to make his longtime dream a reality. He began to plan, spreading his files out on the dining-room table each evening after night seder and doing research. Instead of relaxing in his spare moments, he brainstormed with friends and worked on developing his new idea. All of our savings, as well as a nice amount of borrowed money, went toward getting advice from a business coach and hiring an accountant. We knew it would take time for a startup to take off and begin turning a profit, but we figured that with lots of penny-pinching and both our salaries, we could swing it. We’d have to live on a very tight budget, but it was doable. Several months later the ax fell and my husband lost his job. Having a business at this point was a blessing, allowing him to jump right in without the aggravation of job-hunting, which so many of his colleagues had had to do. The only problem was that with the business still in the beginning stages, not only did it not provide a steady income, it required additional funds just to keep it from collapsing. For the first few months after my husband’s layoff he collected unemployment, and I continued working at my part-time job. “Maybe I should look for something else,” my husband suggested one day. “It’s still going to be a while until the business shows even a minimal profit, and we have so many loans to pay off. And let’s not forget about regular household expenses, tuition and rent.” Eventually the unemployment checks stopped, and the only money coming in was my meager salary.

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This left us with the dilemma of having to decide where to spend it. Gas and electric bills? Car insurance? Food? Which one of these basics should come first? In addition, we were now without the medical insurance my husband’s former employer had provided.We tightened our belts, but no additional source of income magically appeared. Lenders began calling in their loans, the landlord was getting impatient with our excuses, and “final notice before shut-off” warnings began to arrive in our mailbox. For the first time in my life, I began to understand just how devastating an economic downturn can be. Even though our family, baruch Hashem, was physically healthy, our change in financial status had caused a 180-degree turnaround in our existence. It was enough to make anyone depressed. Forget about the annual family vacations we had once indulged in; I was now worried about putting bread on the table. It soon became a daily struggle. There was no way we could stretch my paltry paycheck to cover our basic needs, so out of necessity my husband became acquainted with the local gemachim. The landlord began calling us every day with reminders. “You owe us such-and-such an amount” was another line I became accustomed to hearing before I stopped answering the phone altogether. Some days I dreaded waking up in the morning. I needed to fill the refrigerator, but how? Whom could we borrow money from this time? A neighbor? A sister-in-law? My daughter was complaining that her throat hurt. Should I risk waiting another day or should I go to the doctor? How would I pay for it? And what about medication if the strep test was positive? Who would pay for that? My usual calm was replaced by frayed nerves.

One child needed eight dollars for a class trip. Another needed two dollars for a teacher’s baby gift. Whereas we had once taken these requests in stride, they now elicited a sense of panic. Where was I supposed to get those few measly bucks? My children started wearing hand-medowns; I learned to wash and set my sheitel on my own. Every item was carefully scrutinized before finding its way into our grocery cart; no more convenience food for us. Even the usually joyful anticipation of Yom Tov became a source of distress. The Pesach preparations my neighbors were complaining about paled in comparison to the pain I was feeling for my kids, who would probably be the only ones on the block without a single article of new clothing. Tzedakah parties and events were no longer on my social calendar; I couldn’t allow myself the entry fees. When the electric company finally made good on its threat, life reached a new low. How humiliating! How degrading! That night my son awoke with an earache. No! I don’t have the money for the doctor! And we’re supposed to pay the Schlissels back $3,000 next week! Despondent, I cried and cried and cried. How would we ever climb out of this pit? Would I always be stuck in such a hopeless rut? I was grateful when my father scraped together enough cash to turn our lights back on. With meager financial means, though, he couldn’t do much more than that. In the meantime, one of my children was in need of expensive ongoing therapy. Should I stop sending him so I could pay my bill at the grocery? I would constantly second-guess myself on the checkout line at the supermarket. No! I can’t do that to him. He needs it! For over two years we lived under constant pressure as the debts accumulated and the tension mounted. As the months went by, it became increasingly draining.

Although I told myself that Hashem had sent me this nisayon, I found myself frequently snapping at my husband and children. I would lie awake at night pondering our future. Every tiny expense that cropped up turned into a major issue. I’d grown accustomed to a comfortable standard of living, hosting, vacationing and shopping. Now every dollar I spent had far-flung repercussions. “I need a break,” I told my husband one day when I felt that I couldn’t take it any longer. I’d been relentless in my attempt to stick it out, but I felt I couldn’t do it any longer. “You’re right,” my husband agreed. “I know you’ve been knocking yourself out trying to make things work. How about we plan a staycation?” “No!” I responded adamantly. “I have to get out of here! I’m at the end of my rope. What I need is fresh air and a different environment.” “I hear you,” he sympathized. “Let’s see how we can make this work.” I’d never wanted to work more hours than I was already committed to; I felt it wouldn’t be fair to my family. But what if I worked overtime for only a couple of months? I calculated that two months of overtime would equal one vacation. It was certainly an incentive. An organization I’d done solicitations for in the past agreed to hire me. The job consisted of making phone calls to offer sponsorship opportunities, for which I’d get paid on commission. After putting the kids to sleep, I sat and called people for hours.

Only after it was too late to disturb anyone did I hang up the phone and begin to clear away the day’s mess. It was certainly hard, but I had a goal and was therefore motivated to slog through an exhausting session every night. At the end of two months I’d earned enough money and started to read travel brochures.Then one evening I overheard my husband talking to someone about his dire financial straits. Dropping the pamphlet in my hand, I sat up straight. Was I really going to spend all that money on a vacation when we were thousands of dollars in debt? How could I possibly justify it? We’d been under tremendous stress and a vacation would be a lifesaver—but what would other people say? What would my landlord think when he heard we had gone on vacation even though we were months behind on the rent? What about my sister? I owed her an enormous amount of money too! And the neighbor who helped me out with the groceries—I’d be embarrassed to face her! Would everyone feel taken advantage of or hate me for using them? I am still pondering this problem. I need this vacation desperately; the thought of forgoing it makes me weep. And getting away would do my family a world of good. I’d come back refreshed and ready to tackle the enormity of our challenge. On the other hand, how are all those people going to feel if I just pick up and leave? They have no idea how deeply our financial state has affected me. They don’t know that every day I feel as if the noose is tightening around my neck. And I worked hard for this vacation! What to do? I don’t know! As in all times of trouble, I beg Hashem to enlighten me and help me figure out the right thing to do. I ask Him to please let me know what’s best for me and my family, and to allow me to make the right decision.

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