In Part I of this series, I described my early motivation to become “successful” professionally in order to secure financial and material control over my future and my life, to create a financial “safety net” in case I ever needed one, and to avoid the oppressive outcomes of my mother and grandmother before me. In this Part II I describe how I executed my plan.
No female in my line had ever attempted let alone completed an advanced degree so I have no idea where I got the idea that I could do it. But I know when and where I was when I started thinking I should do it — I had just graduated from college and couldn’t find a job. I had been living on need-based student loans and various side-gigs for years and was frankly sick and tired of being a student but I was good at it and the loans paid the bills for now. I knew I needed to continue my education and I knew I needed to be as highly skilled and educated as possible if I had any hope of supporting myself including getting myself through when times got tough. I had no one to help me.
I applied and was accepted to law school and moved to a new state, got set up in an apartment and began a terrifying and exhausting journey that pushed me beyond my limits. I endured the dreaded Socratic Method that seemed designed to cause anxiety and panic in students. I did Law Review because I had heard that you needed either that or Moot Court on your transcript if you ever hoped to get a job and Moot Court was essentially Socratic Method on steroids. I did an extensive 2-term internship, took on a teaching assistant position, wrote and published a journal article and did everything I could to increase my chances of beginning the successful career I knew I needed to survive. I had days and weeks where I grievously abused my body and my mind completing grueling tasks with little or no sleep and suffered a couple of serious illnesses likely due to stress. At one point I had frightening GI symptoms that may have been my first bout with Crohn’s disease — looking back, I had all the symptoms of a bowel obstruction. But I soldiered on.
I graduated Magna Cum Laude and in the top 8 or 12% of my class (I can’t remember). Once I graduated, I had nowhere to live, no money and no way to get any, and my family was no help as I knew they wouldn’t be. Against my better judgement I moved a thousand miles away with my then-boyfriend hoping that things would work out with him but mostly I went because he offered me a place to live. I had an advanced degree, I had bested almost all of my classmates including him, I had a “bright” future ahead but I had nowhere to live and nowhere else to go. We had already had serious problems and there were several things that made me think it would never work including things he said to me that were so horrific I had to pass them off as a joke. Things like, if I ever tried to leave him he wouldn’t let me. I knew going with him was a terrible, terrible idea and I did it anyway. I figured if it didn’t work out I would just leave and I assumed that by the time that happened I would have the resources to do it. So I moved with him across the country and planned to start my career and the “successful” life I knew I needed if I was ever going to be safe, comfortable, and free from abuse.
The true horror of what I was getting into by going with him only recently became clear to me after 3 years of being away — he had fully intended to have me move into his mother’s house and to take all manners of shit and abuse from both of them and then start popping out babies without complaining about his lack of ambition or his obviously parasitic relationship with his mother where he had moved back in with her after law school and never intended to leave. How and where my career fit into his plans has to be assumed and I assume he thought I would abandon it. He and his mother were both shocked when one day I couldn’t take either one of them anymore and I found myself a one bedroom apartment across town. As men seem to always do, he moved into my space eventually and inserted himself into my life, but as it turns out it wouldn’t be forever.
At my first “real” job I was making very little money for the area but it was about average for a newly licensed attorney in a small firm. Essentially I was earning Midwest money but paying East Coast prices for everything including rent. I had no idea that new lawyers didn’t get paid a lot or that keeping up appearances for clients is, nonetheless, required. We both worked our asses off for a couple of years and I made several relatively modest purchases including furniture for my apartment, a professional wardrobe and a new car. He never seemed to have any money and I suspect he had been giving money to his mother or paying off old debts and then lying about it and since he had bad credit, everything, and I mean everything was in my name. And my energy, creativity and vision — not to mention my income and my credit — was responsible for everything “we” had. I made “our” home nice for us, I made sure we had nice sheets and towels and the like. When he was out of work and depressed I took us both out for movies and meals to cheer him up. I made sure we both did Pilates with a personal trainer every Saturday because I couldn’t afford to get fat and his sour, dank mood was driving me nuts. And I was starting to have symptoms of what I now know was Crohn’s.
I was having extreme reactions to food and troubling symptoms including swelling in my abdomen, chest and face and frightening pitting edema in my legs, ankles and feet; then followed insurance co-pays for doctor’s visits and testing and out-of-pocket expenses like supplements, acupuncture and medicinal food. How was I supposed to save money under these conditions? Obviously I wasn’t and I didn’t. I just assumed that this was the price of admission into my new “successful” life, that the raises would eventually come, and someday I would have something left over to save for the future and for emergencies which had been my plan and indeed the entire point all along.
And maddeningly, whenever I talked to my partner about creating a “safety net” he seemed to have no idea what I was talking about which baffled me but after awhile I figured it out. It was because nothing really mattered to him, because if he ever had to go without, and if I didn’t come through for him, he knew his mother would. If we were ever evicted for nonpayment of rent he could always just move back in with her, that kind of thing. The fact that moving back into his mother’s house was practically my worst nightmare held no sway with him, he just didn’t care to make other emergency plans that weren’t on her dime (or mine). Eventually I came to realize that I was his safety net and his mother’s too. If anything bad ever happened to them, both of them were going to come to me. If anything ever happened to “us” maybe she would take us both in. But if anything ever happened to me, I was all alone. Still. Nothing had changed and I was working my ass off and completely unable to save.
This went on for about 5 years and was so deleterious to my physical and mental health not to mention our relationship that my partner and I took a couple of relatively modest romantic trips to get our mojo back for our jobs, for each other and for our lives. Just writing this all out is so absurd it’s making me physically ill. Do you see what was happening? We were getting nowhere, absolutely nowhere and my health was starting to fail. The year I practiced law at an anti-poverty nonprofit which I had hoped would enrich me emotionally and professionally just buried me even deeper as I incurred significant vicarious trauma as an attorney and de facto social worker to an extremely oppressed, vulnerable and victimized population. I was making even less money than I was before and yet incurred significant additional transportation and commuting costs and needed to purchase an additional business-casual wardrobe to blend in with that corporate culture which was pretending not to be corporate at all. I had thought that the promised benefits to both my personhood and my career of practicing law in the allegedly altruistic setting of an anti-poverty nonprofit would outweigh the financial downside(s) but they didn’t and once again, there was significant fallout.
My luck seemed to change when I took a job at another small firm which offered me a substantial raise from my previous salary and I worked there for less than a year before I suffered not one but two work-related injuries — I was a paper-pushing lawyer and I was hurt at work twice. How does that even happen? Now I know that it happens because all employers cut corners on workplace safety, and all employers willingly work all employees to the bone, especially new employees and especially women. I filed for Workers’ Compensation benefits and was let go from my job a few months later. I collected Unemployment benefits for awhile then some shit happened like losing my beloved apartment in a hurricane and having to move back in with my partner’s mother anyway, and being diagnosed as seriously chronically ill and that was that — I never practiced law again. As it turned out, the most substantial money I ever made as an attorney was from the legal settlements from my two work-related injuries. Finally, I had some savings, and it had literally come out of my hide.
This concludes Part II of this series, in which I describe how I implemented my plan to secure a safe, sane and comfortable future for myself as a practicing attorney and how it failed rather spectacularly in the end. In Part III I will try to work out and describe just how in the fuck this actually happened, and offer it as a cautionary tale to anyone, especially women, who thinks it’s easy or even possible to rise above your station and to create a safety net to protect yourself from the abject horrors of capitalism and patriarchy when everything is set up to create the opposite: a vast pool of vulnerable victims to be devoured and abused.