Poverty, and other forms of ill-fate

I’ve been thinking a lot about being poor, since reading the post that struck me as so heartless yesterday.

My parents were both educated, intelligent and talented, but neither of them lived up to their potential. As a result, my sister and I grew up with the support of MediCal (California’s version of Medicaid – the healthcare program for the disabled and the poor), receiving free lunch at school (a stigmatizing experience that I found mortifying, and most days, I have my lunch away, rather than eating “charity” food), and evey month, we received an AFDC check – Aid to Families with Dependent Children. But, due to my mother’s distorted sense of justice, a symptom of her lifelong mental illness, she would gleefully open that check, and immediately write et own check for the same amount to Greenpeace, or Save the Turtles, or the WILPF (Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom). She delighted in diverting “government” funds to her radical causes. No matter that those funds were supposed to buy her kids clothes and other necessities. Thank goodness we had hand-me-downs from older cousins, and her parents always ready to help us out of a jam. We occasionally spent nights “homeless” – sleeping in our car, when we had one. In California, having no roof for a day or two is less of a problem than it is for my patients in Baltimore.

I would never have gone to college without PELL grants, and other programs for the poor.

And now, I’m not poor, but I take care of a patient population that is disadvantaged economically. Many of my patients, like my mother, suffer from mental illness, and no amount of rational explanation, direction, or training will get them on track with the rest of society. Some of my patients aren’t mentally ill, but their circumstances led them to grow up with so little education, and so much misinformation, that they have little chance of moving out of their circumstances. Some, despite these challenges, manage to succeed, in relative terms.

I am so often amazed, looking back on my own experiences, that I managed to arrive at this place in my life, with financial security – it would have been so easy for me to end up addicted to heroin or cocaine (like some of my patients), or incarcerated, or a victim of suicide. But, something, like an invisible bungee-cord, always held me back from the extremes.

So, I don’t look askance at my patients who struggle with pulling their chaotic lives together. There, but for the Grace of God (or whatever you may attribute good things to), go I.