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Don’t Tell Anybody: My Journey of Shame and Forgiveness Through Bankruptcy - placeholderDon’t Tell Anybody: My Journey of Shame and Forgiveness Through Bankruptcy
7 min read | Jan 2022

Don’t Tell Anybody: My Journey of Shame and Forgiveness Through Bankruptcy

No one should feel embarrassed for struggling under an unfair system.

CosmosFactory / Millennial / Progressive / Writer, Photographer

On July 29, 2019, I filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. In doing so, I wiped away $35,000 of credit card debt—debt that included a decade of medical bills, insurance premiums, food, utilities and a lot of basic survival-type shit that I could not have otherwise afforded. 

I still feel a lot of shame about filing for bankruptcy. American culture is hyper money-focused, and because we believe ourselves to be a meritocracy, financial failure—or just financial struggle—is viewed as a moral failure. Struggling to pay your bills? Try harder. Got debt collectors calling you? It’s your fault

On the other hand, we deify the rich. Financial success in America is looked at as the pinnacle of human achievement. We worship at the altar of entrepreneurs, those maverick individuals who find ways to game the system and accrue fantastical riches. The message this sends Americans is: If you’re not rich, you’re not important. 

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I Had to Choose Between Paying Off My Debt and Eating

I was never wildly excessive with my money. I didn’t buy big-screen TVs or spend on lavish parties and vacations. But graduating in a recession, living during an unprecedented era of wage stagnation and rent increases with no healthcare coverage for years just kept accumulating costs I couldn’t cover. I stopped paying my credit card in 2018 when it became a choice between my minimum payment and eating. It is an entirely isolating feeling when you know you cannot afford to pay your basic expenses, but it is an even more overwhelming feeling when paying your debts means forgoing things like, say, food. So, I—not shockingly—chose food. 

It took only a few weeks for the phone calls to start. They came at all hours, from all area codes. Some days, they came in five-minute intervals. I ignored these calls based upon the advice of no one since I sought no advice on how to alleviate my debt. And because I felt like a sublevel human shit for having debt in the first place, I kept this process from almost everyone I knew.

Never at any point in this process did I consider bankruptcy. Even though I had no feasible way to pay off the debt, I was obsessed with the idea of digging my way out of this hole. Bankruptcy was for quitters, for the losers, the failures. In America, you’re told that there’s always a way to hustle your way out of a jam, to get that one golden opportunity that can rescue you from embarrassing destitution. Ignoring reality and dreaming super fucking vaguely that I’d be rescued seemed more hopeful than acknowledging my reality: that there was no chance in hell I had the means to handle this debt.   

One day, about a year after the payments stopped, the phone calls did too. In private conversations with other people running from debt, I’d heard that in rare cases—after a year or so—the collectors can actually just…disappear. 

Then, my bank sued me.

After Hearing an Acquaintance's Story, I Began Filing for Bankruptcy

They called up a law firm with a cache of aggressive lawyers; they filed a court date; and they sent an official letter saying that I was past due and liable to pay back everything owed or my wages could be garnished. Pretty scary shit. 

I’d vaguely asked about bankruptcy on Facebook years before (“Just asking out of pure curiosity”), and an acquaintance DMed me with her story. She told me that bankruptcy was one of the better decisions she’d ever made in her life. It allowed her to start fresh, to erase the mistakes of her past and be able to make financial decisions with a clearer mind. She told me it helped her be kinder to herself and referred me to a bankruptcy lawyer and financial advisor she said would guide me through the entire process without shame or judgment. 

I made the call that day and laid out my extensive financial history and was told immediately that I qualified for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Chapter 7 is the type of bankruptcy where you erase all your debts. In order to qualify, you must prove a few things:

  1. Your income is less than $55,000 
  2. You did not make any exorbitant purchases on your credit card(s) during the past three months anticipating bankruptcy would wipe them out (see: cars, homes, etc.)
  3. You do not have any inheritance or assets that could help you pay off this debt (if you receive any windfall within six months of filing, you are legally obligated to pay back the debt)

At the time, I was working as a bartender, waiter, assistant, truck driver, copywriter and was selling vintage clothes and flipping items on eBay. It was not a glamorous life but this also meant I qualified for 100 percent relief of my credit card debt.

After you decide to look debt in the face and punch it in the fucking jaw, you then need to fork over some dough. $1,800 goes to the financial folks who set you up with a bankruptcy lawyer, give you all the proper paperwork, help you file your court date, send you links to federally required pre- and post-bankruptcy financial competency tests and also field all your paranoid questions because you believe you’re going to fuck it all up.

You make an itemized list of three to six months of expenses for the judge (I was asked for six), and you get intimately familiar with how you spend every dollar you earn. Then, it’s a cool $400 court filing fee to get your date with the judge set in stone. I was broke and lucky to have a close friend float me the money to pay for the service. Many cannot.

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My Court Hearing Was Incredibly Anxiety-Inducing

My court date was set for a month after my payments went through, and during that time, I lived with paranoid anxiety that I would be rejected by the judge and banished to lawsuit hell. My lawyer assured me that if I brought my ID and was prepared to answer questions about my itemized expenses, I’d be out in a few minutes. 

On the day in question, I arrived at my hearing location—a Brutalist-style bank in Downtown L.A.—where hearings are held on the seventh floor. I sat under stained fluorescent bulbs and watched disheveled lawyers in mismatched suits giving young people, couples and elderly immigrants advice, assuring them their cases would be approved. 

Once my name was called to enter the room and sit with the judge, things got pretty fucking hazy. I wish I could say I held my head high, but once I was two feet in front of the person with the power to decide my financial future, I had difficulty making eye contact or speaking above a faint baby whisper. I’d faced my financial situation head-the-fuck-on by showing up in this room and was finally in a position to have a clean slate and I was deeply fucking terrified. 

The judge blandly asked my line of work (“waiter”), if I’d spent any money on a credit card in the past three months (“no”). I answered the judge’s questions with the confidence of a 5-year-old covered in glass shards being asked about a broken window, while she studiously looked over my paperwork. The whole affair took about one or two minutes before the judge plainly said, “You are approved.” My lawyer nodded and told me I’d receive my official notice in the mail three months to the day. That was it. Done.

I walked to the elevator, descended to ground level, walked into the acrid July heat and cried; the kind of cry where you make harsh grimaces and heave a lot. There was no fanfare, no hugs, no cheers for my courage. It was just the anticlimax of living through a traumatic moment and being forced back into anonymity.

I’ve Started Sharing My Story and Forgiving Myself

It’s been over two years since my approval, and I still haven’t fully come to grips with my reality. My credit score is slowly building up, and I’ve been denied a starter credit card multiple times. I won’t qualify for financing for a car or a home for at least another five years, though my wages make those purchases unreachable anyway. I’ve gradually become more open about my situation, not only as a salve for my shame but as a means to spark discussions about the predatory nature of modern capitalism.

It’s not an immediate shift toward forgiveness when I talk about my bankruptcy. Talking about it is often painful because the conditioning that all financial struggle is a moral failure—a dearth of effort and grit—runs pretty deep. I have to be mindful of my audience, of those I trust to listen to me without preconceived notions of judgment, of admonishment, of shame. But gradually, with time, there has been easing, a lightness and yes, even some forgiveness. The path is long. 

We do not live in an equal system. Hard work is not universally rewarded with riches. We live in a system where many of us are one medical bill, one illness away from financial devastation. Wealth inequality in America, especially since the pandemic, has propelled us into a new Gilded Age where a few individuals control most of the wealth. There really should be no shame for struggling in a corrupt and imbalanced system. Meritocracy is a toxic myth. 

I don’t force the decision to file bankruptcy on anyone, as each person’s financial situation deserves different approaches. Although I can be hardest on myself, from time to time, I find myself listening to my own advice as I console a friend in need, stressed or sick from the fucking toll it takes to stay just above water financially. “It’s not your fault,” I say. And for a moment, I believe it to be true.

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