“One look at me, and people think I’m privileged”

You don’t know what’s really going on behind the facade.
You don’t know what’s really going on behind the facade.
Image: Reuters/Laurent Dubrule
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This story is part of a series called Craigslist Confessional. Writer Helena Bala has been meeting people via Craigslist and documenting their stories for nearly two years. Each story is written as it was told to her. Bala says that by listening to their stories, she hopes to bear witness to her subjects’ lives, providing them with an outlet, a judgment-free ear, and a sense of catharsis. By sharing them, she hopes to facilitate acceptance and understanding of issues that are seldom publicly discussed, at the risk of fear, stigma, and ostracism. Read more here. Names and locations have been changed to protect her subjects’ anonymity.

Maddy, early 30s, Northeastern United States

I grew up poor in America—in a dilapidated house in the middle of nowhere, with no running water, no heat, very little food, and no medical or dental care for miles and miles around. I often went to bed hungry when I was a kid, which is probably why I’m always eating or snacking now. It’s probably also why I’m such a private person. My mom never let me have any friends over because she was ashamed of how we lived. I still carry that shame.

When I was in my early twenties, I got out. My best friend moved to a big city and I followed her. I started working—hustling and scraping by, often holding down several jobs at once—and I felt normal for the first time because I was in city where so many people did the same thing. I felt assimilated. But I still have lingering hang-ups from my past, and I often feel like an impostor in my new life.

One look at me, and people think I’m privileged. And in a lot of ways I am, because I’m white, I sound educated, and I can get unskilled jobs pretty easily. It’s amazing how big a part appearances play in success. But people also assume I have a safety net to fall back on if I fail. Whenever I’m struggling, they ask why I don’t just hit my parents up for help. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve heard the word “unconditional” associated with parents. And for me, it’s so far from the truth.

I talk to my mom every once in a while, whenever I’m feeling brave enough to confront some real issues. Like, for example, why she harbored an emotionally abusive man in our house for so long. My stepfather crushed whatever was left of my self-esteem and for the longest time, I couldn’t talk about my feelings. I clowned around—made jokes, deflected questions, acted tough. I’m still not ready for anyone to see the mess.

So I let people see what they want—the picture of me that’s easiest to digest. It’s neater than the truth. There’s so much criticism directed at millennials nowadays that any whisper of a complaint draws out mass accusations of entitlement—even where it doesn’t exist. It’s all about the bootstraps stories and the easy narratives of people who struggled but then they just pulled themselves together and made it.

For every one of them, there are hundreds of me—people who have seen just how far you can fall, who have experienced what it’s like to go to sleep hungry, and who have nowhere to turn to for help, but inward. On any given day, my life has as much of a chance of being a bootstrap narrative as it does of being a cautionary tale. I’ve been on the verge of homelessness, on the verge of hunger, and on the verge of unemployment.

I read somewhere that the number one predictor of someone’s earning capacity is her father’s income and occupation. If I take that at face value, then no matter what I do my childhood has conditioned me for a life lived in poverty. I know many people think that getting an education and finding a good, steady job can change that—but these opportunities are not within arm’s reach for all Americans. The idea of putting myself into student loan debt and foregoing several years’ worth of a salary only to hopefully get a better job in this job market is not all too appealing.

These days, most of my peers come from affluent or middle-class homes. They have parents who helped them pay their way through college, or pitch in with rent during the tight months. Through no fault of their own, they project their reality onto mine. They assume that I grew up similarly, had similar luxuries and toys, and lived a childhood that mirrors theirs.

A while back, I was in the kitchen with my roommate and she was using this fancy apple-slicing contraption. I asked her about it, and she said something to the effect of—they sold these in infomercials back in the day; everyone had one of these—and all I could think was that we barely even had apples. She called me a simpleton.

In the way that some of my friends speak about their lives, I can tell that they take certain things for granted—nice childhood homes, a family who loves them, and a place to turn when things go south. It confuses me because I look just like them, but I feel so different.

I often tell myself that my upbringing built character, and that I’m better for it. Some days, that doesn’t ring true. I don’t want to begrudge my friends their ease of living, but sometimes I do. I struggle with my prejudice against them. I guess the grass is always greener on the other side.

I wish there was a label you could wear that told people everything they needed to know about you. I feel like it would make people so much kinder to one another—to know of people’s troubles and burdens, and be more considerate of them. Mine would say—Maddy: good person, hard worker, grew up poor. Trying her best.