You know how the smell of cigarettes sticks to your clothes and no matter how many times you wash a shirt, you can still sometimes smell it?
Poverty sticks to us like that too. And the smell of it (and the shame of it) can pop up and flood your memories in the most unlikely places.
I grew up in a working class family that didn’t talk about money. I raised my kids on a very low income, and am on a journey to climb out of it.
In this post, I am going to tell you a story about how, even while embarking upon a dream vacation to Alaska as a newly-minted middle class American, the ugly hand of poverty gripped onto my leg and shook my very core. More importantly, I am going to talk about the tools I used to wake up and move out of this mindset, and reframe shame into something more positive-a feeling of adventure.
My dream trip-Alaska
One of my dissertation gifts to myself was a trip to Alaska. My good friend lived up there and was working at Denali. I flew up to Anchorage, was going to stay there 2 nights and then drive to Denali.
The flight went off without a hitch. I excitedly walked down long hallways and escalators to the car rental spot.
As this was 2019, we were still in the depths of credit card debt. At this point, we were not using credit cards at all, were paying on them, but were not making a lot of traction yet because we had so many that we were paying the minimum on. For context, it took us about a year and a half to pay off the first $5000, and then I think 8 or 9 months to pay off the last $20,000. Those first payments were just mostly going to interest and tiny bits of principal.
Trouble at the rental counter
Before I left, I decided that I would use a credit card that I knew would offer car rental insurance so that I didn’t have to pay the daily rate for it. I looked into and figured out which card offered good insurance, checked the balance and saw that we had about, maybe $800 available.
The card probably had a credit limit of around $3,000. I asked The Dude to make a big payment on it before I left to make sure that I would have some wiggle room. I know that rental companies will put a hold on an amount higher than what is due, and I don’t like surprises at the counter. So he made a payment and I felt okay about things.
Now, I am waiting in line and I notice that this particular rental company puts a $500 hold on cards. I thought this was for debit cards, so I felt okay. I went up, went through the paperwork, and….
Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. I am one of those people who, even when broke will check balances before going into a store to make sure that we won’t have the dreaded screen. And this, well this was much worse than just temporary embarrassment. I was pretty stuck.
The car rental stuff was in the basement and had terrible phone reception. I grabbed my backpack and rolling bag and tried to call the Dude but can’t get through. I sent him a message through Google Hangouts:
I have an sos situation
I need at least $900 available on the card and I don’t have the payment info and can’t call from here on
He got my message and made a payment, but it didn’t post. He tried calling the credit card company to do SOMETHING. I sent him this:
I have no idea what they hell to do and I am really freaking out
And I barely have internet and no calling service
Are you even receiving these
Some more back and forth texting revealed that he made an additional payment, but it wouldn’t post to the card right away.
I needed to call because the card was in my name. I raced up the stairs and stood in the very public space in the middle of the airport (only reliable signal) to give the credit card folks (and anyone nearby listening) things like my birthdate, credit card number, and social security number.
The attendant went over the info and noted that there was no way to get the card payment to post quicker and it would be 24 or 48 hours before the funds were available. He looked at my other cards and saw there was no wiggle to move credit limits to allow more space on this card. He tried to increase my credit but he couldn’t because my balances were too high and close to the top of the limit (see the irony here?)
Finally he asked, “If I am not able to help you, are you going to be stranded?” I assured him I would be. So he gave me a one-time, 90-day credit limit increase that posted immediately. I felt such huge levels of gratitude towards a giant financial corporation.
I called the Dude, he checked the balance and it showed that the money was available.
I ran back downstairs. The guy who had started my paperwork was gone and there was a new person there. And she told me…..
“If your card was declined, you have to wait 24 hours before we can process the card again.”
Declined. 24 hours.
These were my feelings:
These were my thoughts:
- I am so mad that I am currently in this situation
- What am I going to do now?
- Why didn’t the other guy tell me this policy and save me the long walk back
These were my words:
Where is the bus stop?
It didn’t seem worth it to fight about it because they were quite clear this was their policy and I couldn’t just hop to another car rental counter because there was a really good chance the car would be more expensive than my reserved car, since it was last-minute in August.
I decided my best option would be to hop on the bus to my hotel and then return the next day for the car.
While they told me where the bus stop was, I had no idea about the bus: cost of fare, schedules, bus lines. So I headed back upstairs to pull myself together.
I saw an Alaska Visitor’s Center. I went in and spoke with the two older women who were working the counter. They were light-hearted and fun, thought that the car rental place had been mean and unfair to me, and saw me as an intrepid adventurer. They gave me all the info I needed to ride the bus to my hotel.
The bus ride
I went and found the bus stop and boarded when it got there. I think I was the only rider for a while, then a handful of residents boarded on their way to work. A rather large and jolly group of tourists hopped on for a few stops. I was beginning to feel okay about things.I changed buses at the bus station. There were some agitated passengers that made me nervous, but the bus arrived and we went on our way.
Then I got to the stop for my hotel. I am not going to name the hotel, because it was perfectly fine and as advertised, but in my mind, I had romanticized it quite a bit. In reality, it was a basic budget motel in an out-of-the-way part of town dominated by used car lots and sad empty lots. It was end of summer and everything was brown. It reminded me of Albuquerque, and I don’t have very fond memories of Albuquerque.
I walked over and checked in. I was given a room on the bottom floor, which is slightly below ground level and so there were car headlights in my windows, which were at the height of my head.
And I was just so overwhelmingly sad. My amazing Alaska adventure was starting here, with no car in a sad room surrounded by a sad landscape. I also felt deep shame. How could I enjoy a trip when my credit is so screwed up that I can’t even rent a car?
I needed to get some water and some snacks, so I walked over to the gas station nearby. My sad, undeserving brain told me that I should stay in the room, count my pennies, and just get some dinner at the gas station. There weren’t a lot of places to eat nearby, and downtown seemed kind of far away.
So that is where my mind was. But I realized that this was my negative self-talk and I needed a different perspective. One of the primary reasons I started a blog so many years ago was to feel less alone in my unconventional lifestyle. I needed to pull on this force again.
Time to reframe shame and grab that spirit of adventure
I don’t have Facebook on my phone, but since I would be traveling on my own for part of the trip, I decided to download it in case I got lonely or needed to connect with someone. I opened my app and posted about my sadness. And my friends came through. Not only did they validate my feelings, but one friend reached out to me and asked if I would like to be connected to a friend of hers who lives in Anchorage.
I took her up on that and connected with the most wonderful couple. More on that later.
I have another friend who runs a travel agency to help people plan low-cost adventures. I reached out to her for advice. She looked around and told me that I had found the best rate on lodging, which actually made me feel better. This wasn’t all for nothing. She encouraged me to ask for a room off the ground floor.
I think one of the reasons the chat with my travel agent friend was so helpful was because it helped me to reframe this into the language of choice. When you live with poverty for a long time, you become used to not having choices. You always take the cheapest option, or the thing that is given to you. Having her say, “wow you really got a great deal there” helped me remember that I chose this. I could have spent more on a hotel, but I chose one that was comfortable but low-cost. And seeing it as a choice made a huge difference in my mindset.
After these pep talks, I reminded myself that I am on vacation. This is not a crisis, just a bump on a trip. I have been in much more precarious situations. And unlike so many other times, I actually had money. It was time to stand up and force some fun.
I looked at Google Maps again, and tracked a route to downtown. It wasn’t nearly as far as I had feared. I put on my shoes and went for a walk.
Downtown Anchorage was really quite close. I walked around some, enjoyed the sights, and went to a restaurant and had a beautiful salmon dinner and a glass of wine. Every song that played while I was in the restaurant was about overcoming adversity, being happy, or finding joy. And it was a Top 40 kind of station, it was just channeling the right energy for me.
After a delicious dinner, I walked back to my room and talked to the front desk about moving. They told me I could change rooms in the morning. When I was ready to head out the next morning, the room wasn’t ready yet, but they moved all of my stuff for me so it was all set up by the time I got back. Moving to the 2nd floor made a world of difference!
Reframe shame-some more work
Before I left the next morning, I called my sister to help me with reframing my experience. My sister moves through the world with a sense of deservedness and belonging that I strive for. I told her what had happened. She praised me for thinking quickly on my feet. And then she said something to the effect of, “And now you have done it. You have faced this hurdle and overcome it and you have this experience in your back pocket. So the next time something scary comes up, you can think, remember that time I was stuck in Alaska and figured my way out?” And she prayed for me and I felt better.
I hopped on the bus back to the airport, feeling like a pro now. The ride over was a piece of cake and I was able to breeze through check out with absolutely no issues. Although I had reserved an economy vehicle, I got a proper Alaska upgrade.
After picking up my truck, I met my friend-of-a-friend for lunch. We had an absolutely lovely time and his now-wife joined us when she finished work. They were amazing listeners and they heard my story with a spirit of adventure, and that further helped me reframe. I met them for coffee a second time before I left, and I think it is safe to say that I made lifelong friends.
Let the vacation begin
I left them and drove to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, where I got a great deal of wildlife viewing.
I made it back to Anchorage just before sunset, and chased the sun until I found a delightful place to watch the ball drop.
The next day, I hopped in the truck, drove through a railroad tunnel, and went on a cruise to view glaciers up close. It was spectacular. It was worth all of the pain, discomfort, and embarrassment that I had gone through to be looking at an Alaskan Glacier melting into the sound.
I had done it. I had moved out of the feelings of shame and into a spirit of adventure, bravery, and overcoming adversity.
The rest of the trip was splendid. I may give a trip report some day, but today’s tale is about poverty’s grip, and the importance of reframing.
What I learned
For years and years, I struggled to reach out and be vulnerable, and the failure to do so robbed me and my family of a lot of community support. I have been working hard to break down that barrier. This trip was a huge step. Sometimes the most damaging perspective is the one in your own head and it can be really helpful to see it through another person’s eyes.
I took this trip in August/September, 2019 at a time when I was climbing out of debt that had come from years of poverty. I am happy to say that a year later, in September 2020, we paid off all of our credit card debt. We now use credit cards to help us earn points towards travel, and we pay off our balances in full each month.
- You always bring you and your baggage on vacation with you, and emotions from your past may spring up at any time.
- Poverty holds a firm psychological grip that can surprise you.
- Don’t be afraid to talk about what you are going through, because another person’s perspective may help you reframe your perspective.
- Don’t let fear and shame deter you from living a full and rich life. Reach out, ask for help and support, work on your own framing and self-talk, and push through if you can!