Tonight I finished my taxes. It was sobering, to say the least. The last few years have not been easy for my industry. In a good year, a therapeutic body worker can make anywhere from $15k to $60k, depending on what State you live in and if you work under a Medical Professional or are Self-Employed.
My state doesn’t allow my profession to bill for insurance, so all our money is made from people having to part with their cash, so you can imagine we’ve taken quite the hit the last few years. In 2008 I watched 12 fellow therapists go out of business, in 2009 that number had reached 17. I lasted until just a few weeks ago.
Don’t misunderstand me, technically, I could have found a way to stay open a bit longer. I could have tried raising my prices, sold products in my office, gotten connected with things like GroupOn, taken in another therapist or found a rich woman to marry. But instead, I chose the unpredictable risk of walking away from something I was trying to keep alive when I wasn’t even sure I wanted to keep it alive any longer.
Last year, after doing my taxes, I figured out that I had survived on an average of $200 a month. After all my expenses; rent, licensing, liability insurance, supplies, advertising had been deducted from my income, I averaged around $200 a month to pay for food, gas, entertainment and anything unexpected that might arise.
I remember when I mentioned this to my dad, he shook his head and said, ‘I have no idea how you did that.’ Neither do I.
Here’s what’s interesting though. I didn’t really think about it at the time. I mean, I knew I was one of those paycheck to paycheck people, that seems to be the norm these days. I knew that if anything unexpected happened, like I got sick, broke a bone, my car broke down, etc…I’m very aware of how that could change my life from ‘just making it’ to ‘I’ve going to lose everything.’ Many of us in this world are living those lives when you just hope some NyQuil and sleep will do the job, you hope what feels like a toothache will subside in a couple of days, or you ignore that noise your car is making.
I remember one day I had saved enough money to be able to put in enough gas to drive out of town and back, which these days is no easy feat, but I just needed to get away for a bit. Of course, I got a flat tire. I actually found myself at a garage, in a town I didn’t know, trying to get hold of anyone that could run to my bank to deposit the $12 that I needed to pay the man who patched my tire, (Yes, apparently, the spare had a leak as well).
Those are the moments it hits home. Those are the moments when you realize you are not really an adult, not really self-sufficient and not really part of any ‘American Dream’ that so many other people seem to be living. But I also knew that just having a car made me luckier than so many others. I try to remind myself of things like that. It doesn’t always work.
And tonight, as I finished my taxes, I realized that I actually had my worst year yet. I had actually made less than I did when I was working my goofy video store job in college. It got me thinking about how much I hadn’t done last year. Not just things like not taking a vacation or buying the latest new phone, but the other things. I hadn’t paid more than $20 for a pair of shoes. I never filled up my gas tank. I had not, all last year, bought one item of clothing.
Then I started thinking about the holidays, how a few years ago, it felt weird not being able to buy Christmas gifts for nieces and nephews, but now, no one expects anything from Uncle Vince. How many times I had to feed my dog whatever I was eating for dinner, because I couldn’t afford dog food. How many of my meals consisted of macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly or beans and rice – but I didn’t ever think of myself as suffering, not when I thought about what so many people were going through in this country and this world. I actually considered myself lucky that I even had a kitchen to prepare my food, a bowl to put it in and a chair to sit on while I ate.
I remember one time a friend pointed to my hair and asked if I was ‘trying something new’; I said I was, it was called not being able to afford a haircut.
And now that I’ve walked away from it all, closed my business and left my home, it’s a real eye-opener at how many things I actually don’t have. Little things like a spoon, an alarm clock or a favorite mug. Just yesterday I said to someone that I didn’t own a knife, they said of course you do just go into your kitchen, I had to explain to them I no longer had a kitchen.
But here’s what baffles me the most. I no longer buy DVD’s or CD’s. I no longer download music to my iTunes. I don’t buy coffee at Starbucks. I can’t rent a car and affording an airline ticket seems laughable. I don’t go out to dinner. I just buy the basics I need to survive, which I will admit, has a certain Zen quality to it. Just last week I had to accept when someone offered to buy me a pair of shoes (mine were looking very sad). Who knew one of the hardest things in life would be to allow a friend to buy you a pair of shoes? It was an amazing lesson in humility, acceptance and gratitude.
So tonight, as I finished my taxes, it struck me that with all the things I don’t do, all the things I don’t buy and all the places I no longer visit…it doesn’t really seem to matter in the grand scheme of things.
So many Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. So many people are doing their best just to survive, or racking up massive amounts of debt, hoping nothing bad happens anytime soon. Yet, so many of us have just dropped out of ‘the game’ altogether, and by ‘the game’, what I mean is that silly notion that there is an American Dream and it’s something we can all achieve. It’s something for all of us, if we just try hard enough, pray hard enough, don’t take no for an answer often enough or just pull up, on those amazing bootstraps, with all the strength we can muster.
So many of us have disappeared from the role of consumer, have declared bankruptcy, are on unemployment or can no longer receive unemployment (or if you are like me, being self-employed, cannot get unemployment) – and yet – the companies and the corporations are still making record profits. Sometimes I wonder if they have figured out some amazing mathematical calculation, which allows them to make more money, off the less money you and I spend. It almost seems that way.
An entire portion of America has dropped off into the shadows. And I’m not even talking about those who are lost, those who wander or those who have become the down and the out. I’m talking about those who are one sickness away from being homeless. Those who are one stock point away from having their jobs downsized. I’m talking about those who have left this country altogether…but still live here between its shores.
We’re the ones who no longer even want a part of the American Dream, because we know how fragile a gift it can be, and how easily it can be taken away. To be honest, we no longer even look for the dream; we just hope that someday we will know what it’s like to be able to wake up in our own beds, once again.
Vince is the author of Einstein’s Shutter, among other works.