As my debt mounts, my ADHD and anxiety make it hard to focus on making money. Can I manage my financial stress and get control of my finances before it's too late?
by Henry Greene
For the next 30 seconds, I will be perfectly calm.
This idea passes through my mind as I squint at my bedroom wall through sleep-encrusted eyelids. For 30 more seconds, part of me will still be dreaming about my childhood Jack Russell terrier chasing sticks across a sunlit quad. But it's only a matter of time before my attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) mind begins eagerly whirring into action, which it always does, but lately it's been whirring about financial stress.
Sunlit quad, like Temple in the summer…
It’s been 25 seconds now, and my mind is about to make another connection.
But I’m not at college in the summer. What do I do in the summer? Last summer, I worked. Am I working this summer? My mind kicks into overdrive. No, I’m not working this summer, not yet at least! What day is it? Dear God, I got off school last Friday, and now it’s ... Friday again! It’s been a week, and I haven’t gotten a thing done. I’m 400 bucks in the hole because I didn’t work a wink during finals, and I’m not working a wink now! Oh Lord, oh Lord, I need to start working already! I have to start on my freelance work today before my employer forgets I even exist and stops offering me assignments! [Editor's Note: This is an employer other than ADDitudeMag.com.]
Then suddenly, I’m awake. Within a minute, my heart rate is already through the roof. Those 30 groggy seconds of daydreaming, just minutes ago, might just have been the pinnacle of my day. I run downstairs. So much to do today, I think as I pour half a pot of lukewarm coffee into a jumbo-size mug. I need to work. I need income!
I’m so intent on my own thoughts and taking my medication that I overlook the fact that the coffee I’m pouring is missing my mug by several inches. Stale Maxwell House spills all over the counter and drips in thin streams onto the floor. This fazes me only slightly. I grab a sponge and make a halfhearted attempt at drying the sopping countertop. My mind is elsewhere.
Fifteen dollars per article, 300 words apiece. I need to start by paying off $100 in overdraft fees before I can even touch the rest of my debt. Ok, $100 means that ... Slowly, deliberately, I gear my ADD/ADHD brain up for arithmetic. Seven articles need to be written today. Forty-five minutes per article times seven is 315 minutes, and then divided by 60 equals 5.25 hours of work this afternoon. A light workday if you think about it. Easy!
I feel a little jittery at the possibility of spending my day manically grinding out article after $15 article. My hands shake slightly. I fumble the sponge and drop it onto the floor. A large splat of coffee seeps into the kitchen's wooden floorboards. I grab a mop and push it around the floor, barely thinking about what I’m doing. I don’t want to wait another second to get started with this hyper-productive day. As I walk back upstairs toward the laptop computer in my room, I feel confident, caffeinated, and ready to make some money.
At the threshold of my bedroom, I pause. A sharp bolt of anxiety shoots up through my chest. Each day for the past week, I’ve stood right here. Each day, I’ve contemplated writing seven articles in 5.25 hours. I’ve sat down at the computer and opened a new Internet browser, intending to visit the Web-content site I work for, into the search engine. But, each day, the thought of beginning to work only causes my money anxiety to spike higher.
I know it’s wildly irrational, but I can’t help it. I’d rather think of anything other than the fact that my $400 of debt is accruing interest day by day. And even though I know that even 10 minutes spent scrolling aimlessly through descriptions of my next semester’s courses might be the only push I need to blow the rest of the afternoon, those precious 10 minutes of calm invariably seem worth the price.
Before long, 30, 45, and then 60 minutes pass, and I’m vying desperately to push my money woes out of my head. Inevitably, in a last-ditch effort to quiet my mind, I give up completely on work and dash outside for a coffee, a run, any escape I can think of. The end result of my eccentric stress-management technique is that, so far, my summer has turned into a weeklong panic attack complete with seven nights in a row spent sitting on my porch at 2 a.m. in pouring rain, chain-smoking Newports while crunching on melatonin sleeping pills, praying to God that I’ll simply pass out asleep in my lawn chair, soaked by rain but finally calm.
As I stare once again at my computer, I feel my heart rate rise to a crescendo. I try not to think about how much lost income my chain smoking and panic attacks have cost me this week. I try not to think of the fact that if I don’t start working now, those fantasies about my next semester at Temple might need to incorporate a few details about wage garnishment, mounting debt, and diet of Ramen noodles.
Only one thought can soothe me: I tell myself I’ll overcome my ADD/ADHD. I’ll overcome the urge to spend the day aimlessly searching through Temple offerings. I’ll avoid the viscous cycle. I simply have to get over myself, I think.
In a solemn, earnest tone, I whisper to myself out loud, “I will write today.”
Stoically, I sit in front of my computer. I bring up my freelance company's website.
“I’ve done it, I’ve conquered my ADHD!” I tell myself proudly as the Web page loads. Finally, I feel focused and productive. I imagine all the possibilities that will unfold before me now that I’ve learned to buckle down and get things done. My imagination paints visions of success.
In my mind, summer’s over, and I’m cruising though next year’s courses. I nab an A average, and hey, I’ve got money in the bank! I treat myself to a night at my favorite steakhouse in Philly.
“Ugh, how badly I wish it were next fall,” I murmur to myself longingly. Another brief fantasy flits through my head. I’m seated at a desk, but instead of this godforsaken computer in front of me, there’s a professor. He’s beginning a lecture. He scrawls the title of the course onto the chalkboard: Introduction to Creative Nonfiction. I begin to get excited. Thank God I’m finally going to take a writing class, I think to myself. My anxiety begins to dissipate. It’s replaced by excitement.
The desire to feel less anxious and more excited flashes through my mind. My fingers second this desire by doing a quick tap dance on the keyboard.
“Temple University Introduction to Creative Nonfiction” finds its way into my search engine. I’ve forgotten all about working. I begin to feel better.
A little searching later and Google brings up the following result: Temple University Office of the Bursar: Cost per credit hour. Due to cuts in state funding, cost per credit hour must increase. Students struggling with money must...
I feel like someone just slapped me.
I shout as I slam my hand on the keyboard. I was just beginning to feel better, but not even a freaking search engine will give me a break today!
I can’t deal with this! I think. How am I gonna ever dig myself out of debt if my debt keeps me so stressed!
I bolt upwards out of my chair and swing around in a complete 180. I am now facing some drawers that sit behind my computer desk. I open the top drawer. In the drawer is a pack of Newport cigarettes. I take the pack. I sprint down the stairs, run outside and onto my porch. I begin smoking the long menthol cigarettes in deep, frantic puffs.
I think to myself, I’ll need to get another pack if I’m going to be out here till 2 a.m. again. That means another $10 overdraft fee. That means $110 to tackle now. That means I’ll have to write eight articles tomorrow. That’s six hours of work. Tomorrow I better get my act together! I sit down on one of my porch’s lawn chairs. The table next to it is pockmarked with burns from dozens of rubbed out cigarette ends, one week’s worth. I take another deep drag of my cigarette and start to feel more comfortable. I realize that sitting here is my new summer routine. I wonder how many melatonin pills I have left. I look forward to the moment when I’ll finally pass out asleep. I look up at the sky and think, Hopefully it won’t rain on me when I'm back out here in the middle of the night like it did last night.