Debtors Anonymous: Step One —Admit the problem - MoneySense

How I fell into a chronic loop of debt addiction

The Debt Diaries, Step One: Admit the problem


One woman’s path of recovery through her money troubles through 12 steps. Step One involves surrendering with an admission that you are powerless over debt and your life is unmanageable

November 2016. I’m standing outside a gloomy storage facility, stamping my feet like a pony to keep warm. The owner comes out to let me in.  I’ve been talking to him on the phone for months; after a series of humiliating phone calls, this is the first (and last) time I will see him face to face.

“You can’t come up with the money?” he asks me.  “Any of it?”

“No,” I say. “I’m really sorry.”

I have a unit here that I pay $200-a-month for. Well, I used to. I haven’t been able to pay it for months and I can’t pay off the $1000 balance I now owe.

NEXT STEP: ‘I was trying to fix my pain with spending

I’ve been on the phone juggling creditors for several weeks now. That $1,000 is just not going to magically appear.

He sighs. “Well, OK,” he says.  “You’ve got five minutes in there.”

I go down three flights of stairs with the manager on my tail.

He opens my unit and I peer in. When I moved from a large condo to a room in a friend’s house, I put most of my stuff in this storage unit. Almost everything I own is in there. All my furniture, all my books, all my carefully chosen home accents (pink pillows, cozy blue bathmats).

“Five minutes,” he reminds me. “And only one box.”

I go in and open box lids, trying to decide what is essential. Time ticks down. Luckily, I have put all my most important papers in one box: my passport, clips of articles I wrote, old university papers, my favourite books.

I carry the box out into the hallway. The man pulls down the steel door and locks my unit.

The following week, everything in the unit will be sold at auction.

Within a few months, I will declare bankruptcy, move home and kind of lose my mind. And then, because I believe the universe is benevolent (if also possessed of a grim sense of humor) I will find my way out of hell.

How I got into this mess

January 2016.  I have moved out of my friend’s house but I am not quite ready to move home to my mother’s apartment, so I take a house sit in a small town in Ontario. The days are freezing and grey. There are several cats, two small dogs and a bird named Daisy.  The bird chirps incessantly—I have to move it down to the basement at night so I can sleep—and one of the dogs poops on the shag rug to show its displeasure with me.

I drive into Hamilton and attend services at an evangelical church led by a charismatic young preacher I met at a coffee shop in Toronto. I sit in the back row and wonder if God can help me with money. Does God care that I owe the phone company $500?

February 2016. I declare bankruptcy. I sign papers that write off over $20,000 of debt. It’s not a huge amount but I am so ashamed I throw up in a garbage can on the way to an appointment with my bankruptcy trustee, Julie.  Julie, who is as gentle and caring as I imagine a palliative care nurse would be, hands me Kleenex by the fistful and asks me how I got into this situation.  I tell her the truth. I don’t know.

I got my first credit card in university. The Bank of Montreal had one of those little kiosks outside of the school cafeteria with a sign that said Student Mastercard. I signed up for one even though I had no job and no real sense of how I would pay down the balance. I maxed out the card fairly quickly. It didn’t seem irresponsible. I intended to pay it all back, and on time. Onto that mass of debt, I added $10,000 in OSAP loans.

After university, I worked a good job and paid down all that debt. Every cent. But I was also living at home, not paying rent, buying Chanel sunglasses and flying to Boston to visit my friends. It was insane. I could never remember how much money I had—and in what account. I kept going into overdraft. I was on a first-name basis with my bank manager.

Graduate school. $50,000 in student loans this time. My connection with financial reality loosened. How would I pay the debt off? Why don’t I have any savings? Why do I spend every cent that hits my account? I remember being on a business trip abroad and being on the phone with the bank on the back of a cab, trying to finagle another loan for when I returned. It was madness.

The only way out

Research with people attending groups for compulsive shoppers in Phoenix, Tucson, Denver, Colorado and Detroit found that these compulsive spenders were found to have low self-esteem, to feel conflict over spending, and to view money as something imbued with status and power.  They were also more likely to view money as a solution to problems and as a way of comparing themselves with other people. They were also more likely than other people to feel that they didn’t have enough money.

All of these things were true for me. I didn’t know it at the time. Like so many addicts that have come before me, I was trying to fix my pain with spending. I was trying to feel important and powerful. I thought money and things were the answer. Of course, the compulsive spending caused more pain. It’s the addiction loop. Pain, impulse to numb pain, reach for behaviour, shame and regret, more pain, rinse, repeat. It’s an exhausting cycle. For me, the only way to break it was to embrace the 12 steps, a spiritual solution to addiction that I resisted for a decade before I finally gave in.

On the road to recovery, begin with Step One

And so began my Step One. The most well known 12-step group, of course, is Alcoholics Anonymous, pioneered by Bill W. in Akron, Ohio in the 1930s. AA members meet, usually in dingy basements with bad coffee, to get sober and straighten out their lives. In 1968, a group of alcoholics in New York who had recovered using the 12 steps, banded together to talk about their problems with money. They named their group Debtors Anonymous.  DA was established permanently in 1976 in New York City. There are now meetings all over the world. I found a meeting in Canada and it is there that I found what would become the solution to my money problems.

The journey I took from abject financial despair to hope and solvency is chronicled here. In order to recover, I had to move my way through a series of 12 steps. Along the way, this chronic debtor and spender found her way out of her own personal money hell.

Jane Dough is a pseudonym. The writer has decided to remain anonymous

Read the full Debt Diaries series:

Step 1: ‘I was trying to fix my pain with spending
Step 2:  ‘My higher power cares about money’
Step 3:  ‘I surrendered my free will to finally control my debt’
Step 4: Stop blaming other people
Step 5: Admit what got you into this mess
Step 6: Why spending money makes you feel special 
Step 7: Ask a higher power to remove your defects
Step 8: Make a list of the people you’ve harmed
Step 9: Make amends to those you’ve hurt
Step 10: My money problems can’t be fixed by reading ‘The Wealthy Barber’
Step 11: How meditating helps me with my debt problem
Step 12: My urge to binge shop won’t go away