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Dear Captain Awkward,
I have written to you in my head so many times already that this should be easier than it is. I need something like hope.
Everything I touch turns to ash. If I want it/like it/believe in it, it will fail. i keep trying to come to terms with this, but I guess I’m just too dumb to know when to quit. It’s not like my life has ever been a parade, so I should be able to just slog through this darkness too, somehow. I’m almost thirty now, and I never really expected to get that far – but there you have it. I guess the trouble really boils down to the slogging has gotten more like treading water, and ~I’m just so tired~.
I live in a really conservative area, and have since I was little. Every time there’s been a chance of getting out, something has happened to drain my meager resources and mire me here. What little passed for low-income health care/support has been utterly decimated in the last two years. Even if doctors/therapists could help with the pain/darkness, I don’t have access to it. It’s shameful, but if it wasn’t for Husband’s apparent superpower of Acquire Food (seriously – random coworkers/acquaintances feed him constantly) we seriously would not have had bread on the table since my monumental hubris invoked the Cloud of Doom to prove it’s still there.
The short of it is that on the hamster-wheel that is trying to survive, I had two jobs for a while. The part time job was at a small local business, apparently quite successful, with more demand than could even be met. Family drama seemed to be the prime motivator when the owner decided to sell. Being the idiot I am, I asked how much.
I had my plan, I raised capital, I sought funding for the rest.
Hindsight: I should have pulled out when the owner refused to open the books fully to my/lender’s inspection for “personal privacy”. It was a sole proprietorship – seemed reasonable at the time. We couldn’t get funding at that time without the old books, because the powers that be saw us as a successor business, though the management and practices and staff were all changing. I had my plan, the way to streamline the processes and produce a better product. I had grand hopes for Being the Change, and also, for once, having enough to live on.
So – gods help me – I proposed a payment plan for the purchase.
A year and some change later, with many smaller battles and struggles behind me, ~their~ bank showed up to foreclose on ~them~, and pulled the rug out from under us.
I was furious about the lies and the violations of contract – we all were, but there was nothing to be done. I tried to focus on the prospect of the new, far better machines, and this would be a minor gap in production. Demand was not only as strong but stronger than ever. The bank strung us along as Congress tried to decide about debt, and in the end said they weren’t loaning money to anyone who didn’t have cash reserves equal to the loan ~and~ solid profitability.
It’s seventeen kinds of messed up, and nothing I could do anything about. No one is lending to small business right now – and things like Kickstarter (awesome as they are) just don’t apply to what I was doing. Sadly.
So I closed the doors last fall. I thought by the new year I’d have the ends tied up and the thing dissolved entirely.
It’s been a continued, horrid mess. The details of the stupid that’s hounded the business-closing are so boggling I can’t even think straight to detail them here. I don’t know what to do about any of it, and I do need advice about that, but I don’t know where to go for that end of things. Maybe Team Awkward has ideas?
Its gotten under my skin in a way I never anticipated. I’m afraid to answer the phone, to open my email, to go ~outside~. I am constantly terrified that someone will ~know me~ and what a terrible failure I am, and demand that I… I don’t even know what. Explain myself? Let them take more from me?
I am afraid of losing everything – reason says that the LLC protects us some and reminds me that there’s actually not any debt on the business since the machine loan didn’t go through, but my heart won’t listen. I feel horrible guilt for putting Husband through this, for former customers etc believing in the project. Touching anything that is related to or reminds me of the business invokes the full force of the fear-response, and it is days before I recover the new and less stable version of normal. The only way I can bear to talk to anyone but husband is through the remove of internet and text
Some days I have the Victory of Pants, and make it down the hall to my tiny studio to scratch the pencil over the page, or bang away at some gothic story. Some days I lay in a ball of pain until Husband comes home from Job That Holds Things Together and herds me through the motions of being human. I’ve gained in size – bras and pants are tight and uncomfortable, even though I am eating less to account for less activity. Insomnia hounds me as bad as ever and the level of daily, stupid pain from old injuries and FMS has only risen. Now? Insult to injury: even the Ladyparts refuse to cooperate most of the time.
Parental Units and Housemate form a chorus of “You should totally do more push-ups, diet, and also suck it up and get a Real Job”.
Husband has been kind and helpful through all of this – the 70+ hour weeks, the stress, the financial trouble, the physical consequences of my folly. He tells me to ignore the Chorus, keep at my Real Work (art+writing) and we’ll get through. On the bad days, he reminds me about mortal limits, and shepherds me to a video game or something. I’m terrified he’ll leave me, and at the same time I wish he would so I wouldn’t be ruining ~his~ life anymore.
I’m not even sure what I am hoping you can do. I’m sorry I exceeded your word count by a lot. I pared down, I really did. You just seem to have some sort of magic on your team, and I could use a little.
– Death Warmed Over
Dear Death Warmed Over,
You sound like you’re from the USA (conservative area, no healthcare safety net, fights with banks), so I’m going with that in my answer. Apologies if that’s incorrect. And apologies if I get a little political.
Because in the USA, we’re just one giant fucking success machine, right? You had a dream and you worked hard and you used your BOOTSTRAPS! and you tried to make a business that served your customers well and employed other people and then you failed at it. “Oops,” say the people who are deliberately killing the social safety net and deliberately making racist horrible arguments about “deserving” and “laziness” because it will be a tiny bit cheaper for them if we decide as a country that we don’t have to take care of vulnerable people anymore and that’s blah blah something about “American values.” Oops, looks like you should have succeeded. The system only works for you if you succeed. If you fail, we don’t talk about that. Come on, be cool! You’re ruining our story!
The truth is, businesses fail all the time. People make mistakes, people lie and cheat, market conditions change, that one supplier you counted on goes out of business because the owner is retiring and none of her kids want to take over, the company gets bought and moves production overseas, the economy tanks and people can’t afford your service anymore, the idea was sound but the implementation was lacking, or the idea needed a little more work and you launched too soon, or someone had your exact idea a month sooner than you and a little better than you, or the Walmart moved in next door, or there were a bunch of expensive lawsuits, or the loan didn’t come on time (or at all), people got sick and couldn’t work the 100+ hours/week it takes to make a small business run at the beginning…
People fail all the time. Everyone reading this has failed at something sometime. Things that are worth having entail risk. If you’re reading this and thinking “Nope not me, I’ve never failed at anything!” then consider yourself to be a failure at failing, and a very good day to you.
Let’s talk about some practical stuff what you can do.
If you’re not already doing it, I want to recommend you keep some kind of daily journal (I’m really digging 750words.com these days). You can howl your depression and failure into the void for about 30 minutes every morning and then close the book and leave that stuff there.
What’s going to happen in the beginning is that it will be a journal of horror and grief. “The story of how I failed because I am a failure, by The Jerkbrain.” But what will happen (if you stick with it) is that your brain will get bored with its own complaining and start to change the narrative. You will start to think in lists. Think about stuff you learned. Think about stuff that was great about that project and that dream. Think about the people you met who were excited to work on the dream with you. Think about mistakes that you made, but try to think about them as lessons. “I’ll never make that mistake again.” The heartbreak is that you came so close, but listen: You came so close. Nobody gets that close to their dream without doing something right. The same qualities that drew people to you, that allowed you to spot a good idea, that made people believe in you, the creativity and imagination to see possibilities, the ability to form business relationships – those qualities are inside of you now.
Let your awesome husband take care of you for a little while. He wants to. And let him do it with grace (“Thank you, I love you.“) rather than an exhausting shame-dance about how you are horrible and don’t deserve him. There are worse things in life than having someone who believes in you and who will take care of you when everything goes to shit. Isn’t this why we get married? Didn’t you both stand in some pretty room and say some variation of “For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, as long as we both shall live” in front of everyone you know? What he is doing is part of the deal you made. You would do the same for him, and you’ll probably have your chance. Someday far in the future you will be like my grandmother, who waited for my grandfather to come back into her hospital room so she could look at him one last time before she died. Eat the sandwiches.
Your family and friends are (annoyingly) right about the pushups and looking for a job. Though fuck dieting – that is NOT going to make you happier.
If you can manage it, some pushups, some walks or bike rides, a swim in a nearby lake or pool, some stretches, WILL be good for you. I know it, you know it, everyone knows it. It’s so hard to get momentum for this kind of thing, but look at it this way:
Exercise will kill some of that unstructured time you have yawning out before you and make you feel like you did something with your day.
It will give you something to write about in that morning journal that isn’t “GOD I HATE MYSELF” and also give you a way to answer the question “What did you do today?”
Walks especially are great for me to think up stories & dialogue, and also concoct elaborate revenge scenarios where I run into people who wronged me at some point in the future and coolly look through them while they explain how everything was their fault. You may find this useful.
As for getting a job, it would be good for you to have some money coming in. It would be good for you to be out of the house and engaged with the world a little bit more. Right now, be very, very gentle with yourself about this. Think part-time. Think low-key. Don’t think about “careers” or “dream jobs,” and if the word “should” comes out of your mouth when you think about it take a break for the rest of the day and come back to it tomorrow. What is something you could do part-time, that would use your skills, pay you a little something, and give you a little breathing room? If you can’t find paid work right now, consider that it is an election year, and people could probably use your skills in canvassing on behalf of non-sucktastic candidates, helping people navigate Voter
suppression ID rules, registering voters, writing op-eds, etc.
Now I want to talk about shame and I want to talk about fear.
Hiding from the aftermath of the business going under because you’re afraid will not make the problems magically go away. You have to deal with shit. You have to make a giant list of all outstanding nonsense (maybe put it in a folder marked NONSENSE) and deal with it a little bit at a time. I imagine there are phone calls to be returned, letters to write, accounting/reconciliation to be done, nonsense with taxes, lawyers, banks, etc. What would happen if you gave yourself permission to deal with the NONSENSE file for one hour/day, and then at the end of that hour you could put it away and go paint or write or swim or read without guilt? Also, since you mention money being tight both for mental health resources and probably for legal/financial help, I recommend you look into Debtors Anonymous. Some of the language around addiction/compulsion might be scary and off-putting, but what you’ll mostly find is a group of people who have messed up their financial lives in some way and who are working together to pull themselves out of it and to do so without judgment or shame. It may make you feel less alone. Your fears are understandable, so I want to recommend setting up some kind of support structure for yourself to make them more manageable and help you feel like you are making progress but not giving yourself entirely over to worry.
What comes through most of all in your letter is shame. You’ve got the Gollum/Golem of Heartbreak following you around – I picture him looking pretty much like Grimace – and you think that everyone you run into can see him hanging out in your blind spot, stinking up the place like a fart in a car. He is the world’s most awkward dining and conversational companion, so you feel like you have to apologize for him all the time.
Uh, the thing is, he’s invisible. He’s your imaginary friend. No one can see him or is even thinking about him unless you point him out to them, and then they kind of politely have to go along with you, like “Oh yes, right, there is the shame monster, how silly of me not to see before, okay, sure, let’s of course make this interaction all about him. By all means.”
It sounds like a lot of what happened with the business is publicly known and some people will be thinking about it when they run into you (especially if it’s dealing with stuff about the business). But you get to decide how much of the interaction is about your shame monster and how much is about getting shit done. People will take their cue from you. (That is true in SO MANY situations, btw). So if you are calm and collected, even if you are faking it within an inch of your life, people will be grateful for your poise and they will do whatever they can to let you keep it.
The way you get this poise is to fake it for a while. And to have a very short statement that you can make in response to questions or comments on what happens. Something like:
“I tried to buy the business, but there turned out to be a lot of undisclosed, underlying problems and we could not solve them in time to save the company.”
No shame. No blame. Just facts, delivered levelly and comfortably. Most times when you have to say this you’ll be saying it to people who want to express how sorry they are for what happened, so add on “Recovering financially and emotionally has been very difficult, so thank you so much for your kind words. That means a lot to me.”
If it comes up when you’re looking for a job, add “It’s taken me a while to sort out all of the details, so I am definitely excited to move onto something new.”
People will be relieved to not have to meet the shame monster. You’ll feel better every time you get through one of these conversations without cracking.
After all, this is the U.S.A., where people are mostly looking for you to sweep failure under the rug and put a positive face on things. You might as well use it to your advantage to get out of awkward conversations and make yourself feel better in the meantime.
Little by little you are going to climb out of this and turn this into a story you tell as if from a great distance, the way we talk about long-ago exes who broke our hearts but we can’t remember how. You are obviously a creative, resilient person who is loved and has a lot to offer the world, so I’m looking forward to the day that you feel like that’s true of yourself again.