I Got Out of Poverty, But I've Never Stopped Feeling Guilty About It

I essentially married into the middle class. I could never have made it to college, to work, or anywhere without help.
Publish date:
April 9, 2015
childhood, poverty, class, Upward Mobility

I grew up poor. And when I say poor, I mean really poor. Often the contents of the refrigerator included a bottle of mustard and not much else. At one point when I was twelve, we were homeless for six months.

It’s hard to convey the feeling of packing up everything you own and putting it into storage. I remember taking silly pictures where we all made sad faces in front of the storage unit, my mother’s attempt at making light of the situation. I kept one garbage bag of clothes and one shoebox of things I could not live without. It included two CD cases, one of which was empty, as I would discover I had left the disc in my alarm clock stereo in storage. For the next six months I bemoaned my missing copy of Hanson’s “Middle of Nowhere.”

I grew up poor but I didn’t stay that way. I always had a knack for associating myself with people who had greater resources than I did. This is probably what saved me from a life of poverty, and for most of my adult life it has been a source of constant guilt. Guilt for being the one in my family who made it to college, guilt for being the one who left my hometown. Who was I to receive what hardly any other woman in my family had, a high school diploma and more than that, a college degree? Who was I to learn meditation and buy organic vegetables when my mother was still living paycheck to paycheck and at constant risk of getting her electricity shut off? Who was I to be not only surviving, but thriving, as my younger brother remained jobless and in extreme poverty?

In high school I chose the two most self-aware girls and made them my best friends. They reeked of body confidence and good life skills. I practically lived in their homes for the following four years. They both had parents that were still married and each lived in an idyllic farmhouse complete with rampant gardens and free roaming chickens. Their families were a certain breed of “back to the earth” crossed with “no-nonsense self reliance” New Englanders. I adopted their ways of speaking and carrying themselves. I inserted myself into the kind of situation I wanted to be in--I wanted their lives, I wanted their parents--and I clung on for dear life.

When it came to be time for college applications, my friends' parents drove them and flew them to visit various universities. My mother made no mention of doing so, but I demanded it. She didn’t understand how much I needed her encouragement when it came to education. She lacked the self confidence necessary to help me navigate my schooling. So I watched as my two friends took SAT prep courses, and then I signed up to take SATs and I copied everything they did. I couldn’t afford the prep courses but I bought a used copy of a prep book.

My mother didn’t even know I had signed up for the SATs on the morning when I told her I needed a ride to the testing site. I had used my own money to pay for the fees and didn’t want to make her feel guilty. Later I went to my guidance counselor to figure out how to apply to college. I got accepted with a large scholarship to UMass Amherst, the only school I had applied to.

But it wasn’t enough. I thought I could fake it ‘til I made it, but my parents couldn't help me with the small bill the university sent prior to the start of classes. All that we had to do was set up a payment plan with the school, but neither of my parents understood how that worked and I was too scared to call financial aid on my own.

It might seem like a small thing but it was really a big thing. It was entangled in my sense of self worth. I was terrified by the thought of moving into a dorm, that somehow the other students would know I didn’t belong there. Neither of my parents had gone to college. We just didn’t seem like college people. I never showed up on the first day of classes.

However, my ability to latch onto opportunities didn’t end there. I decided I still needed to enrich myself mentally even if I wasn’t going to school. So I worked hard and chose to call it a gap year. I traveled by myself around Canada and the West Coast, staying at hostels and with friends. I slept around and drank and had pretty much the best time imaginable.

I felt like a failure for not going to college, but a gap year seemed like a way to save face, it seemed like a respectable thing that some of my wealthy friends might have done. And in any case, at least I wasn’t still working at the grocery store in my tiny hometown. When I got back home after six months of travel I still felt sick to my stomach when I thought about college.

A year later I met the man I would marry at a meditation center in my town. We met on a three month long silent meditation retreat (that’s another story). He came from an educated, wealthy family. He had just graduated from Cornell. He was doing things with his life. He had no plans to stay put. And so I clung. For dear life.

It may sound cold to call one’s husband a resource, but he has been the biggest resource I’ve ever encountered. He went along when I insisted on traveling in Asia for a year to “find myself.” He helped me (i.e. forced me) to apply to college. When I was accepted, he helped me understand the financial aid process. He helped me to move across the country to attend said University. He helped me get a therapist, he helped me to learn how to network and thus get almost every job I’ve gotten.

I helped him too. There is nothing so valuable as a constant ally when it comes to overcoming low self esteem, and this is something we learned together.

So I got out of poverty. I graduated from college (at 26) and now I have a respectable university job with a decent salary. But by no means did I pull myself up by the boot straps. I essentially married into the middle class. I could never have made it to college, to work, or anywhere without help. My friends, their parents, the people I met at the meditation center, my husband, each played an essential role. All I really did was engage the clinging mechanism.

When I got accepted to college (the second time) it was because my husband had helped me write my application essay. When I got a job it was because he’d helped me edit my resume. I used to feel yucky for my skill to seek out positive situations. I felt like some sort of awful sycophant. I felt greedy because some part of me never really felt worthy of what I gained when I moved out of poverty.

After years of viewing my life in this way, as the impostor whose accomplishments were not her own, I am beginning to realize something important. Everyone needs help. Every single person who is successful has gotten help. My husband and best friends grew up with people helping them and teaching them how to succeed. Our individualist society might have you believe that every person is an island, that there is such a thing as a “self-made” millionaire, but that is just not true. We need one another, and that fact can feel so excruciating. But I see now that my intuition for aligning myself with people who could help me is what saved me, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.