A Woman Starves in Brooklyn: I'm on the iStarve Diet, Ask Mom for Help and Can't Find Decent Work
Photo Credit: Unnamed photographer for Bain News Service David Shapinsky / Wikimedia Commons
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I moved to Brooklyn four and a half months ago as part of the wave of migration bringing young folks from around the country to this city in search of opportunity and community. The trajectory arriving me here is probably not unlike that of many others like me. I graduated college in 2012 and spent some months travelling to different parts of the world. I worked as a server at a local restaurant back home, putting away some savings, and all the while feverishly writing cover letters in the hopes of landing a job that would bring me to New York. What I got out of submitting those 50 or so cover letters was one offer for an (under-)paid internship in publishing. Far below the salary I had established I needed in order to survive in the City, I took the four-month internship at the inspirational urging of friends. I imagined that the struggle to survive would pay off at the end with a permanent position and my own hard learned, albeit romantic life lesson on the rewards of resolute gumption.
However here, five months later, sitting in my marked-up, eight-by-five square feet Bed-Stuy closet of a room, all I have to show for those months is many free books, no job, persisting anxiety and loads of resentment. I have been baptized in the fire of an insecure existence, understanding now that the story of the romantic struggle that pays off in the end is a calculated deceit. On its face, it’s a reasonably noble tenet — the idea that turbulent beginnings are necessary in order to really earn and appreciate a comfortable ending — but pressed beyond the plausibility of it’s superficial logic it amounts to no more than popular chicanery. This is because intense struggle doesn’t make you better. There’s nothing picaresque about a hopeless poverty with no end in sight. And perhaps most consequentially, this corollary tale to the American Dream, much like the Dream itself, hides the reality of structural inequality. It dumps the brokenness of a system that forces you to compete unceasingly in order to eat, onto, say, a 23 year old young woman with a brilliant mind and tons of intellectual fervor, but with no individual capacity to effect immediate change in the circumstances of her life. Put simply, it’s clear now that all the gumption in the world doesn’t overcome a system stacked against you.
Despite it being a convincing notion, I resent that I was foolish enough to buy into thinking struggle was admirable. To be fair, my mistake was probably in thinking that struggle and work are the same thing despite the fact that the two are not at all synonymous. Working can be an incredible experience of discovery. Doing different types of work can allow you to learn so much about your capacity to contribute productively to the world and your ability to affect your reality both individually and by collaborating with others. Yes, work can be difficult, but coming out on the other side of frustration is often rewarding. In that sense I don't take strong issue with the idea that work may make you appreciate excess and luxury in a more substantive way.
That idea is, however, different from the notion that people must struggle to appreciate life. Struggle can break people. On the whole, it is painful, alienating and unfair. Left to fester indefinitely, struggle engenders bitterness, saps hope and stifles creativity. Never have I heard of someone looking back on an experience of struggle and laughing. That people laugh in the midst of struggle is a miracle that spares them unyielding tears. It is utter inhumanity and a perverse sort of mockery to suggest that people must expect to do work that is unfulfilling, underpaid and dehumanizing in order to starve, be plagued by insecurity and suffer the mental health effects of anxiety and inadequacy. That this sort of intense struggle does not guarantee food, shelter, heat, healthcare, or peace of mind, points to a tremendous deficit on the part of our government infrastructure. Struggle is excruciating and to write it off as the dues one must pay in order to enjoy an uncertain and unpromised prosperity at some point in a distant future is social masochism.
It makes me livid to reveal that I know this reality in real time. The stress of spending the whole month anguishing over where my rent is going to come from is quickly deteriorating my own psychic well-being. My default disposition is no longer a general contentment. Anytime I'm idle, my mind begins racing to concoct a reasonable explanation for my persisting poverty, unemployment and hunger. Its inability to make sense of these circumstances despite my clear intelligence and capacity, throws me further and further into the depths of confusion and misery, and I end up doing what I know to be irrational and blaming myself. I try not to wallow in self-pity because doing so is an entirely unproductive luxury I know I can’t afford (that is if one can conceive of anything more unproductive than unemployment). I make a strong effort to distract myself from compulsively agonizing over where to get money after realizing that I've begun to somatize that stress in the form of chronic heartburn. I find myself short of breath sometimes just sitting and ruminating on how urgent my need for work is. I obsessively check my email and voice messages to see if anyone is responding to my job applications and when I see no new messages, I often cry. My self-esteem is continually eroding and I'm losing my ability to keep it healthily intact.
I am chronically hungry. A friend of mine jokes that I am on the iStarve diet whereby I simply don't eat in order to achieve the perfect summer bod. We laugh, but it's a sick joke because in the last four months, I've literally dropped 12 pounds without once exercising, because I'm food insecure. On any given day, I can hardly afford to consider what the next thing I put in my mouth will be. I’m regularly confronting the inhumanity of choosing to purchase a subway ride or a bar of soap over something to eat.
I am embarrassed. I writhe in my own judgment thinking about the fact that the same people who graduated with me, who did worse than I did in school and took their educations far less seriously than I did, are self-sustaining. While I don't envy some of the forms of employment many of them have elected to pursue (i.e. Finance, Advertising, Consulting, etc.), I still feel like I'm losing — I feel like a failure. That I am 23 and have to ask my mom for financial assistance fills me with shame. The shame is heightened by the fact that I am not nor have I ever been a comfortably entitled Hannah Horvath. I am in fact consciously critical of the Hannah Horvaths of the world and I resent that the popularity of Girls may be trivializing the truth of my struggle at this time in my life. Unlike them, it doesn't make me happy to ask for my mom's money. I come from a working-class family led by a single-mother who supported 3 children on her one insufficient salary. I am her last child so while she is no longer struggling to the extent that she was while we were all growing up, she's certainly not well off. I know that asking her for help is skimming the overflow off of whatever little excess there may be in her income and that makes me feel like shit. My embarrassment is so pronounced that I will ignore phone calls from my mom and other family members from whom I receive the most help because I hate futilely attempting to explain my continued joblessness and perceiving judgment even in their silences.
I'm harboring this weird sort of dissonance wherein my burgeoning self-loathing coexists with a strident sense of indignation and outrage. It makes me furious that I am as smart and capable as I am and I still wither in this sort of unreasonable poverty. I, of all people, should have a job. I am so brilliant. I have travelled the world. I speak more than one language. I went to college and did exceptionally well. I have spent time studying at three prestigious universities. I am articulate and eloquent. I’m sure that the richness of my life experience at 23 rivals the experiences of people twice my age. What do I have to do to regularly feed myself? I'm not just smart in the sense of being a quick learner or a good test-taker. I am analytical. I have a critical outlook on the world I encounter daily and I work to apply that criticism to everything. I think incisively meaning that I am always asking tough questions that call power into question, that challenge convention and tradition, and that undermine structures too often taken for granted in our society. Deep, productive criticism in people is a rare find and I have it. But beyond the ivory tower apparently, no one wants it. It is my disposition towards critical inquiry that allows me to see the hollow mockery in the idea that people must struggle to appreciate comfort. And it's my consciousness of the injustice of this poverty that makes it all the more unbearable. As indignant as I am about my own personal experience of poverty, it only illuminates the nature of the system that probably squashes the life and resolve out of people far more accomplished than me.
Just like work isn’t synonymous with struggle, comfort isn’t synonymous with leisure. Demanding government assistance to help people meet their basic needs is not a suggestion that is successfully undermined by the assumption that people will become lazy. It is humane to expect that people should be able to live comfortably; and even if some folks are a little less inclined to be industrious, the penalty for laziness cannot justifiably be starvation.
I'm realizing in this nadir of my existence that no one should ever have to live like I am living now. Invoking the fact that there are other people living far worse than me is not effective in muting my outrage. Romanticizing poverty experienced by anyone is just another way to make the people who endure suffering bear the onus of systemic injustices. It let's a national economy that is invested in the bolstering of corporations and the rich, off the hook for the unnecessary suffering of thousands if not millions of capable people like myself. The idea that we all have to endure our individual moments of struggle to appreciate prosperity in the future places the burden of disadvantage on the person struggling rather than turning the light of judgment and the charge to improve lives on a system that should allow neither our best and brightest, nor our average Janes, nor our petty losers to suffer immeasurably just to live.