My colleague’s cramps & an invitation to speak about a hush-hush topic
Yesterday afternoon, just before leaving the high school where I work, I stopped and chatted with a young teacher. “Well, I’ve got a doctor’s appointment, so I’d better go,” she said after a couple of minutes. I told her that I hoped she was alright. “Yeah . . .” she said with some uncustomary reserve. And then she continued in a quieter voice, “I’m fine. I just get really bad cramps every month.”
I dashed for a pencil and a small piece of paper. I was all over this. “I used to get severe cramps when I was young,” I told her – without bothering to keep my voice quiet. “It was so bad I’d have to leave my school or my part-time job if I was working. Just agony for about a day or two.” She was no longer in such a rush to leave. I knew she was feeling a rare relief in talking to someone who could relate. She said, “I realized I had to see my doctor about it after I took some prescribed cough medicine that I had left over from a bout with bronchitis – medicine that was filled with narcotics – to dull the pain of my cramps so that I could sleep. It’s that desperate!”
I gave her the paper on which I’d written “Ponstan”. “This is the name of the drug I used,” I said. “It just made the pain disappear completely. It was like, Hallelujah! I would have done a commercial for it.” She thanked me, took the paper, and said she’d definitely ask her doctor about it. Just before she left, I added, “If you ever have a baby, you probably won’t need the meds anymore.” She laughed as she went through the door. “That’s what my mom says!”
Is that too much information? When I was a student and even a young adult, I would no more talk about this subject than jump out of a window and fly. But the times have changed. I have been absolutely dumbfounded by the openness of many of my female students through my career – “Miss, I have to go now! I’m having my period and my pads are in my locker!” – and I think it’s a good thing. For too long, it was an oppressively hush-hush topic, and those of us who suffered with it suffered in silence. Over the years, I’ve been happy to challenge my own silence by evangelizing Ponstan the few times when there has been an open door.
OK, so what does this have to do with personal finance?
- Personal finances and personal debt in particular are hush-hush topics. We hear about finances through the news, but the stats and interest rates and economic projections are all faceless. Almost never do people have frank and open discussions about their personal debts, expenses, or savings. Most people manage or mismanage their money in complete isolation from everyone else. Most of us have no idea how our neighbours are doing financially – or even some of our family members. Personal finances are shrouded in silence – in “privacy”. It is considered rude, inappropriate, un-classy to talk about such a personal matter.
- People who suffer financially generally do so in silence. Everyone has bills to pay and most people have debt of some kind, but not everyone is stressed – cramped – in their financial life. Those who are can feel very alone. There’s a pride and a shame and an uncertainty about how to go about bringing up the topic. And doesn’t everyone deal with these things? Is my situation really so bad? Without direction or a compass, the ever-present stress is endured in a fog of self-doubt.
- It often takes a jolt – a wake-up moment – to shake the suffering debtor out of silence. My colleague’s experience of resorting to narcotics made her wake up to the severity of her situation. All sorts of things can wake up the debtor: job loss, big and unexpected expenses, a maxed-out credit card, a rise in interest rates . . . Suddenly, what had always been suffer-able in silence makes us yell, “Ouch!”
The “Ouch!” moment: time to speak
The “Ouch!” moment is the open door – the moment to speak. And there is a way to do it:
- Let this person know, “I feel your pain.” Acknowledge his/her stress.
- Share your solution concisely and with hope. And then let it go. He or she might not respond right away or at all in the moment, and that’s OK. Don’t make the mistake of lecturing.
- Respond to specific questions or issues this person raises. Don’t offer every bit of financial wisdom you might have. Keep it focused on the individual’s immediate concerns.
- Offer a clear next step. Chances are, this person is operating in a fog. Clarity is probably welcome (as long as you’re not being bossy).
I’ve responded to two different money “ouches” in the past week. I can’t give any details about these incidents, but I can say that they weren’t unlike my conversation with my young colleague. A sensitive topic and an open door. Empathy, hope, specifics, and a suggested next step. Brief but powerful conversations. Then, a letting go. And a laugh.
I love it that Brian from Debt Discipline recently volunteered to share his debt story at a local library. I’m thinking of copying him. I hope that some day, we’re all as comfortable talking about our personal finances as my students are talking about their periods. It’s not a shameful topic. No one needs to be in a fog. No one needs to suffer in isolated silence.
Have you ever had the opportunity to respond to someone’s financial “Ouch!” moment? Has anyone ever responded to yours in a really helpful way? Your comments are welcome.
*Image courtesy of Matt_Weibo