A note on surviving debt, domestic abuse, and suicidal thoughts

This blog post is part of the Suicide Prevention Awareness Month blog tour in partnership with Debt Drop. If you are feeling suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741.

Follow other posts with the hashtags #EndTheStigma #DebtDrop


One of the reasons The Holistic Wallet is so important to me is because of the correlation between financial health and mental health. Did you know that debt and economic strain are leading causes of suicidal deaths?

While I can certainly empathize how suicide can seem like the only option at times – financial and otherwise – debt is NOT a death sentence.

In fact, I am a survivor myself – of debt, domestic abuse, and suicidal thoughts – and I would like to take this opportunity to share my story in the event that speaking my truth can help someone else.

Earlier this year, I called off my engagement and moved 1,500 miles across the country to escape months of narcissistic abuse that had a devastating impact on my psychological health. I never understood quite how resilient the human spirit is until I summoned the courage to get out.

I’m still working on forgiving myself for letting that relationship go on for as long as it did, but leaving it was the greatest act of self-love and self-care I have ever committed. However, it didn’t have quite as positive of an impact on my financial health. (Well, not yet. It will pay off in the end because financial abuse is no joke either but that’s a story for another time.)

I am writing to you now with $5,566 of credit card debt and $2,813 of medical debt that I am scheduled to pay off in 18 months costing $479 in interest. With the interest-free credit options available to me, I assure you I’m getting off easy.

I’m sure there are plenty of ways I could have started this new chapter of my life more frugally – six separate households offered to take me in indefinitely and I lost count of all the hand-me-down furniture offers – but I accepted as many favors as I could stomach while also rebuilding my sense of independence and self-sufficiency.

Debt isn’t quite synonymous with freedom. But for me it most definitely is.

The debt I carry now is directly related to that traumatic period of my life. It is the cost of leaving and the cost of surviving. It is symbolic of being both a victim and a survivor. And because of that, I am proud of my debt.

See, in the months before I left, I thought I had to fake being happy until I would inevitably have to kill myself to get away from my ex. Because there was no other way out. My life would be intolerable if I stood up to her and walked away.

Writing that seems petty now that I’m on the surviving side but I was so traumatized by my ex’s erratic behavior – the fear of the financial mess it would create, of the violent retaliation and public defamation, and of losing everything I had worked so hard for over the past several years – that I just didn’t want to be alive to witness it all come crashing down.

The break-up was just as messy and painful as I anticipated it would be but I got through it because I knew I didn’t want to be dead; I just wanted to stop living the life I was living.

Let me be clear: If you don’t like where you are, YOU CAN LEAVE. Fuck the price tag. Fuck the stigmas. Fuck the messiness. It might not be easy, but it’s attainable. And we all deserve to be safe and to be treated with kindness.

I am writing this now with a HUGE bittersweet grin on my face because I have been the happiest and healthiest I have ever been in my entire life these past few months. I am very, very, very grateful I am here right now to experience this.

And I don’t remember when it clicked but now I see my debt as a trophy of survival. I make a $500 payment every month as my big fuck-you to the stigmas of debt, domestic abuse, and suicide.

Your debt does not define you unless you want it to.

As Melanie Lockert says, “You are not a loan and you are not alone.”

There are times when I feel like a fraud in my industry because I am simultaneously ashamed and proud of my debt. This industry still does a good job at debt-shaming which is ridiculous because our entire economy is built upon debt but that’s a rant for another time as well.

I try to speak to myself as I would speak to anyone else who would come to me with a similar situation. And I said “Your story is not over yet. Your debt will not define you. This struggle will not be as permanent as death.”

Debt is not the end of the story. Debt is not defeat. Debt can be resilience.

I can tell you this with certainty because I have debt and it feels like both a horribly traumatic mistake and a modern financial tool that has saved my fucking life.

There is always something else on the other side of that debt. It does not appear out of nothing. Maybe it’s something tangible that you own like a couch or an education. Maybe it’s just a story, a lesson, or a personal growth experience.

That is not to say that my debt in the past wasn’t shameful, that a big number of negative dollars didn’t feel like it would follow me for as long as I lived, that I didn’t consider I was worth more dead than alive once I had life insurance.

Debt can feel like a heavy burden to drag along. Debt can represent a mistake, a bad call, a distressing period of your life. It can be another big thing you have to worry about when you’re already worrying about so much.

Whether it’s medical debt for a false alarm or a life-saving surgery, whether it’s a destructive shopping habit or daily life essentials on your credit cards, whether it’s a mortgage-sized amount of student loans for a degree you never used or one that led you to your dream job….

Know this: You did what you had to do with the means and mindset available to you at the time. You are here now. And you are breathing.

If your debt does not represent a personal triumph, if your debt is the trauma itself, I promise you it is not as permanent as death is.

I promise you will have other wins. I can easily name 50 things I am grateful for now that I am still here to write this email. One of those is likely a good parking space I nabbed at Trader Joe’s. It’s still worth it.

I still cannot find the words to express how liberated I feel these days that I still have a voice. I am still afraid to use it at times, especially being a public figure on the internet, knowing my livelihood can be destroyed in a very public way and I will have no power to stop it.

But I have faced this beast before and I will let my body decide when my time is up before my mind does. I hope you continue to stand up to your beasts, too – debt or otherwise.

Living my best life,

PS. Here are some books that have been indescribably helpful to me: This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can’t by Augusten Burroughs; Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson; White Hot Truth by Danielle Laporte; The Places That Scare You by Pema Chodron; and Power: Surviving And Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse.

PPS. I am working on a post about how I prepared my finances to leave my abusive relationship. If you do not have time to wait for its release, please email me when you can safely or comment on the blog post here with an alternative contact method. I have to approve comments before they are published and I will not make yours public.

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{ 17 comments… add one }
  • Lily @ The Frugal Gene September 11, 2017

    I started this weekend writing for #debtdrop and I read most of the resources available to me but for some reason the pen won’t hit paper. When it did, I crossed it out seconds later. I’m no writer and writing this topic is probably one of the best challenges I gave myself this year. Everyone likes to say money doesn’t matter but for a lot of us tie our bank account to our confidence and ego. That’s how we are ingrained and it’s important to never fall into that mind trap. Shift thinking to focus on survival and the pride in the fight itself.

    • Michelle September 12, 2017

      Exactly! Thanks for your comment and I’ll keep an eye out for your piece.

  • Lance @ My Strategic Dollar September 11, 2017

    Thank you for writing this. Very glad that you were able to get out of a bad relationship and are working towards repair. A lot of people wouldn’t be willing to share that, so thank you.

    • Michelle September 12, 2017

      Thanks for your kind words!

  • D.G. Reid September 11, 2017

    Good to see the side of debt being a positive thing even as we work hard to pay it down. I’m just a year out of a relationship that wasn’t the best for me and while I’ve had to pile on debt in order to put food on the table and clothes on my daughters backs I have manage to hang onto our home and am now in a position to start paying it all back. I just needed a bit of space to think in and time to pull together the grand plans. Best of luck to you!

    • Michelle September 12, 2017

      Thank you for this comment and the reminder that I’m not alone in this. You did a very brave thing too and I’m cheering you on as your keep swimming on the other side of it.

  • Astreja September 11, 2017

    I’ve been through the abuse wringer before, and I agree wholeheartedly: Debt is a small price to pay for freedom, when the alternative — losing or even destroying yourself — is many orders of magnitude worse.

    When I escaped an abusive marriage 17 years ago, I walked away from a house that had been completely paid for less than a year earlier, almost entirely by me due to the financial irresponsibility of my ex-partner. After the twists and turns of the divorce were settled, I got back half the value of that house. It was still an incredible bargain to get my life back on track, and since then I’ve worked hard, learned how to better manage money, and last year paid off my new house.

    Dare to choose the life you want. In time, the happiness overcomes the fear of jumping over the abyss of uncertainty and self-doubt.

    Thank you for writing this, Michelle.

  • Kay September 11, 2017

    Hi, I really enjoyed reading your article. You are a courageous person. I’ve been there-dating an abusive person. It’s horrible. My relationship lasted 3 years too long. Luckily we didn’t live together but I did leave with over $10,000 in debt.
    I’m so happy you were able to free your self and that 7k is nothing when it comes to freedom. I can’t wait to read the next post about how you saved up in preparation to leave.

    • Michelle September 12, 2017

      Precisely, a drop in the bucket! Thank you for your kind words!

  • Jacq September 11, 2017

    I am glad you are on the brighter side of this situation.

    • Michelle September 12, 2017

      Thank you!

  • Jody September 14, 2017

    Married to a narcissist for 15 years, I left and divorced him last year. He was not as bad a narcissist as many, but it was a major force in the relationship that affected everything. Zero empathy and it was always all about him. He’s at least third generation of a family that operates on exageration, stories, lies, and bullshit. Since leaving, I’ve heard some of the lies and stories he’s created to “explain” what happened. It’s painful and makes me angry. There’s nothing I can do except hope people who really know me can read through it. I also recognize his need to make parts of his life up from scratch as an incredible insecurity, and I have come to pity him quite a bit. Can you imagine going through life feeling such a lack of “you” that you have to make “you” up?

    I’m 42 and have been living with my parents for just over a year, trying to get back on solid ground. I paid for the divorce, around $1600. I wrote the settlement up and he agreed to it. I was very lucky we didn’t wind up doing everything through the court (no children). He wound up with the dilapidated POS house (I didn’t want anything to do with that house) and two vehicles….and the loans that went with them. I wound up paying off the CC debt I assumed in the settlement in 8 months and had no other debt (I do now have a car loan), and all my retirement $ came with me. I have a very good paying job for the area and have always heard that it is difficult for women to bounce back after a divorce, but I never thought I would be in that boat. It’s been difficult, but it was a kick in the ass to get my financial affairs under control and while I’m not there yet, I am making great strides.

    Yeah, I have struggled with depression for years. That has improved since deciding to choose me instead of constantly trying to make sure he was happy. 3 years of very bad insomnia has almost completely disappeared since I left my ex. Still trying to find/make peace, though. Still angry I gave him so many good years. But I have a lot of good years ahead of me, meeting new friends and chosen family all the time, making newer and better choices and memories. I’ve been house-hunting for 6 months. Tired of cohabitating with the ‘rents but nervous about relying on only me. I know I can do it, I’ve done it before, but the nervous is still there.

    And what I usually do in these cases is put on my (imaginary) Golden Retriever Suit and treat the newness like a Big Adventure instead of something scary. “Oooooh Booooy!” the Golden Retriever always says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen but it’s new and exciting and I LOVE IT!!”

    • Michelle September 14, 2017

      Thank you thank you thank you for this response! I agree 110% percent. The past is the past but right now we have the present! I’m so glad you got out, too! Life is too short for that stuff. The calm in a narcissist’s absence still fascinates me. I empathized with my ex as well and thought if I could just show her what healthy looked like she would change, but ain’t nobody got that kind of power! We can only improve ourselves. All the best to you!

  • Wena September 16, 2017

    “Let me be clear: If you don’t like where you are, YOU CAN LEAVE. Fuck the price tag.”

    Unless the price is not having a car, no money or access to public transport, so you’re running with your child on your arm, knowing that your spouse has threatened several times to kill you. And there’s a good chance they’ll find you, because you have nowhere to hide.

    I’m glad you got out of the abuse situation, but please don’t assume everyone can.

    • Michelle September 16, 2017

      I have plenty of excuses of my own in my #WhyIStayed story and they are as valid as the ones you just stated. I agree that that sentence does not speak to the degree of difficulty and danger involved in leaving, but I will continue to assume everyone can. I didn’t say it was easy, risk-free, or non-life-threatening, but neither is staying.

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