Sometimes I like to pause and reflect a little on how far I’ve come. Last week Facebook popped up a “memory” of the day, five years ago, I finished my dissertation. At the time I had about $19K of student loans, $5K of credit card debt, and maybe $1000ish in the bank. No retirement savings, no health insurance, no nothing. Also, I didn’t have a job.
But even that wasn’t “rock bottom” for me financially. I had some ideas about how to make some money (none of which I had to put into effect since I did get a job about a week later.) I felt I would manage.
What was not really manageable at all, was the situation I was in circa summer 2004. I was renting half of a basement apartment in Washington Heights for $600 a month, and almost a year into trying to get a freelance film career going. I was supporting myself, barely.* But I’d come off a film — and thus had my last income — a month earlier, and nothing else was materializing, despite my calling around twice a week to the few people I knew. Also, right at the end I’d picked up a bad cold, which had gotten better and then come back again, so I was spending a lot of time on the couch in my awful apartment feeling sorry for myself and not doing any of the self-improving things I should have been doing with all that enforced time off.
Then the cold got worse.
What had been a cough became what they call a “productive” cough — I started coughing up phlegm. It was painful. Then after a few days of that, the phlegm turned a poisonous-looking green, and I found that I couldn’t breathe when I lay down, and could only barely do it when I was sitting up.
It was clearly time to go to the doctor, but obviously I didn’t have health insurance. I recall searching the internet (did google exist then? I guess it did) to figure out if I could possibly have tuberculosis. It turned out that if I did there was a government program to pay for treatment, so I guess there would’ve been that.
Frankly, I was really scared at that point.
Anyway, I also searched for sliding scale clinics and found one about a 45-minute subway ride away. This was late evening, I guess, and so I planned to go first thing in the morning. I plugged my cell phone in to charge, setting it on the windowsill above the outlet.
After a night of cat-napping in between hideously painful coughing bouts, I got up, got dressed, and discovered that someone had reached in through the bars on the window and taken my phone.
SO. Off I went to the clinic, dragging myself down there on the subway. I was there when it opened, but I waited most of the day (coughing all the while) to be seen. When I did finally get seen, they tried to convince me I had asthma and made me sit with an inhaler for a while to see if it helped (it didn’t.) Eventually they agreed to do an x-ray, which they had a machine for on-site, which was the only good thing that happened that day. At that point I’d been out of contact with the world for most of the day; I needed a phone so my parents could call me, so the doctor could call me back with the x-ray results, so I could accept work if someone offered it to me. I went to the Sprint store and bought a phone as soon as I left the clinic — using a credit card of course, which is also how I’d paid for the clinic visit.
It turned out I had pneumonia (they called the next day after the x-ray was read.) Luckily it wasn’t a very serious case, as these things go; I took a course of really really huge antibiotic pills (also, of course, paid for on credit) and within a few days I could breathe enough to lie down. It took me nearly a month to be completely back to normal though. I’m forever grateful to Law and Order because in the middle of my recovery period they booked me for a day of PA work, which was money I desperately needed. But when I showed up with a terrible, very loud cough (I wasn’t contagious!) and too weak to do almost anything, they let me sit and guard all the personal stuff belonging to the extras and crew, just about the only job I could have managed in that state.
I honestly don’t know what I would have done if I’d had to be hospitalized. Probably still be paying off that debt today. But I wouldn’t have been in that situation in the first place if I’d had insurance, because I would have gone to the doctor well before the pneumonia stage.
It was a really awful day, though, that day. Stolen cell phone, sliding scale clinic, no idea where my next bit of work was coming from…. I hope I never get back to that place again.
What was your lowest ever financial moment?
*By the next year I was more than self-sustaining, and by the year after that I was in a union and pulling in perfectly respectable middle-class money, which I then gave up to go to graduate school, at which point it took me eight years to get back to the yearly income I’d been at. I don’t know, I don’t make very good decisions generally, I guess.