Tuesday, April 17, 2012


The other day as I forced myself to use the elliptical at the gym, I watched the news.  I don't often watch the news.  I gave it up after I started to get a little neurotic after 9/11.  I keep up to date through online sources where I can filter my experience a little.  There's something so doom and gloom about the if-it-bleeds-it-leads journalism of televised news, and the other day was no exception.  I lost track of the number of stories about people shooting their wives or children, setting fire to their homes, engaging in standoffs with the police.  And then I came home and my husband told me about the man in Rome who shot himself in front of tourists after yelling out the terrible things that happened to him because of the financial crisis in Europe.

All the stories shared something in common: despair.  Rampant, oppressive, paralyzing despair.  It's every where these days - the lingering effect of an economic collapse and the product of an uncertain future.

I know all about despair.  I know how some nights you don't sleep until your body physically shuts down from exhaustion, because you are stuck in a cycle of self-recrimination.  How you lie awake and try to pinpoint where it all went wrong, curse yourself for your mistakes and foolish choices, and wonder how you will ever crawl out of the hole you're caught in.  I know what it's like to wonder if your children would be better off with other parents.  To wonder if you will ever give them anything more than the love you can muster up when you are caught in the clutches of hopelessness.  I know what it's like to wonder if you would be better off dead - to wish you were, believing it really is the only way out for yourself and your loved ones.

Two years ago I quietly asked my husband to apply for food stamps, because we just couldn't feed our children anymore on our own.  It was one of the low points, and it sent me spiraling into despair.  I retreated into myself.  I stopped meeting the eyes of the cashier at the grocery store, because they knew what that card was, and because I felt inferior to everyone.  A little over a year ago my husband and I sat in front of a judge, declaring bankruptcy, after unsuccessfully trying to climb out of the crippling consumer debt that had tripled while he was unemployed.  I was so embarrassed that I couldn't even tell my dear friend why I needed her to watch the kids that day.  I couldn't tell her that we couldn't make all our bills, even though she knew we were living on an hourly wage of $12.

One year ago I tearfully explained to a debt collector that no, not even McDonald's was hiring when she suggested I suck up my pride and get to work.  And even though I knew I was applying for jobs and sewing baby items in a desperate attempt to make ends meet, her admonishment stung.  Mostly because, as many of you know, even if I landed a job, I was unlikely to be able to pay for childcare, and because there was the bitter edge of truth in her accusation.  Part of me could not accept that I, as a college graduate with advanced degrees, could be in this situation.

A year ago I decided to adopt a different spelling of my name in case I got published, because then my past sins wouldn't follow me and condemn me to more failure.

But this story as a happy ending, as good stories are wont to do.

Not long after we applied for food stamps, I got a call from my mother-in-law that changed my life.  Not in an exaggerated, immediate way.  It changed my life in ripples so small and insignificant that I didn't realize I was being carried away until it was much too late to chicken out or to punish myself.  She thought I should write a book, which was something I always talked about doing, but had not.  I thought she was crazy.  I had a new baby.  A beautiful girl that brought me so much joy, but left my heart aching, because I'd brought her into a life of poverty.  And a three year-old.  I did not have time to write a book.  I was doing other things.  I like to say the reason her demand worked was because she knew I'd have to prove I could do it, but honestly I think it played into my cycle of self-recrimination.  I already believed myself worthless and now a call from my mother-in-law proved she thought I was, too.  I know that's not what she meant, but despair is a funny thing.  It warps everything like a funhouse mirror.

I would never own a home.

I would never pay off the student loans.  I couldn't even hope to make a payment.

I would never have a car that had air conditioning or door handles.

I would never show my face at a reunion.

I would never call up an old friend.

I would never send my children to college.

I would never be certain if there would be a meal on the table.

But I thought perhaps she had a point, and since everyone told me I'd never make a living as a writer, I felt I had nothing to lose.

So I started to write a book, and, at the risk of sounding cliché, it saved me.  A lot of people think of me as a whirlwind success, but getting past myself and allowing myself to write was one of the longest and hardest experiences of my life.  When you are caught in despair, you are caught in the attitude that you deserve nothing.  Writing was entirely selfish, and I struggled for many months before I took up the challenge to write daily in November.  But a funny thing happened when I started to write, I got outside of myself.  I went other places, even if only in my mind.  That selfish thing reminded me that it was okay to need and want things.  Very slowly, a sense of worth bloomed, blossoming at long last into confidence.  The only proof of which was in a tiny, little things - chatting with the cashier at the store, making a friend, pitching my book.  By the time I sat at that bankruptcy meeting, I was thinking of a fledgling manuscript I was editing and wishing I had brought it to work on.

I pinned my hopes on writing.  Not just financial hopes, but the hope that I could still become the person I dreamed of being.  There's a saying "it's never too late to become what you might have been."  And, dear readers, it isn't.

If you are reading this, then you probably know that all those hopes culminated into something that changed my life.  An agent.  A book deal.  A career.  But really it's more than that.  I sleep at night.  I still fuss over money and bills and budgeting, but I no longer wonder what I can sell to put food in my children's mouths.  I'm no longer ashamed to run into an old friend or visit my alma mater.  I meet people's eyes again.  I smile more.

Now that the cycle of despair is broken, I can see how much it paralyzed me with what-if's and should-have's and might-have-been's, abating only long enough to allow me to punish myself emotionally and psychologically.  Now I look at my pen name and laugh a little at myself for being embarrassed and scared, but cherish it for reminding me who I am.  I finally understand that yesterday is gone and all I can do is live in the present and spend each day moving forward.  I still have moments of panic and fear, but I'm far enough away from despair that I can take stock of my life and see my reality.

Right now I'm watching someone else I like very much go through something similar, and other people I like very much have come out of the woodwork to lend more than well wishes - many of them have admitted they are facing similar issues.  I want to hug them all, and I want to whisper in their ears as they sleep so that it might stick in their unconscious: Keep moving forward.  It will get better.  Hope.  Hope.  Hope.

Sadly, that's not possible, and it's even a little creepy.

Mostly I want to send them hope, that tiny fledgling bird that asks so much help from you with no guarantee that something won't break the fragile creature mid-flight.  I want to give them that thing that makes them come alive - that allows them to keep believing, but I cannot.  I can only offer an "I understand, and I'm here," but know this, those of you facing despair, you can do this and it will be spectacular.

And in the meantime, trust the words of Emily Dickinson:

"Hope" is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I've heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

* As much as I love this poem, I disagree with it a bit.  Hope does ask a lot of you, so much that it's easier to despair.  But hope will always be the smarter investment.



  1. Is it wrong that I nearly cried when I read this? You have such an inspiring story, my dear! I wish the best of luck to you!

  2. This is beautiful, and almost made me start bawling. I know what it is like to live month to month, maybe having $5 dollars left in the bank account if I'm lucky. I know the feeling of meeting the judgmental eyes of the cashiers, and sometimes even other patrons of grocery stores, as you hold out your green card with words of defense ready on your lips.

    My husband is a retired veteran. He was injured in Iraq. I know many people don't approve of the military, much less the war, but he was still the provider of our house. He was a strong man with stronger convictions, but he came back to me shattered and broken. I was left to pick up the pieces, to be a caretaker to my caretaker. With the increased pressure of a husband that could no longer work and two small children, I was also forced seek help. I had to pull the last remaining shreds of my pride together, and suck it up to help my family.

    I am going to cling to your words Genn, because they offer me so much HOPE. Hope for a better life for my family. Hope that all my hard work will someday make my children proud, to inspire them to reach for their goals…no matter how hopeless and unattainable they seem.

    From the bottom of my heart I thank you for this post. But most of all I thank you for infolding me into WrAHM. Because writing has become my savior. My way to dig out of the pressure and depression, to find a tiny place of peace all of my own. Finding friendship with a wonderful group of women was the icing upon the cake. Without them and their understanding, I don't know how I would survive.

  3. Thank you so, so much for this post. I'm currently typing this while surreptitiously wiping tears from my eyes, just so my husband won't see. My family is going through a similar experience. I have been looking for work for 2 1/2 years now. In a town where McDonald's has open houses due to the volume of job seekers they are experiencing, you know that there is something inherently wrong with the way things are going. I, too, know what it is to despair all the while mentally juggling dwindling funds just so the bills can be paid.

    We are starting to near the tree line and are almost out of the proverbial woods. My husband will graduate with his master's degree in education and his wonderfully kind aunt has assured him that she can help him attain a good job. I am finally nearing the finish line of my bachelor's degree in English literature and have bright prospects in the form of graduate school and my brand new baby book. It's still hard to look around and see the sadness on the faces of many, but it is at least getting easier to see the potential that my life holds. Thank you for reminding me that I am not alone and that change can happen when you least expect it.

  4. Oh Gen, so sorry for your struggles but so glad you had great people behind you to help and pull you through. All I can suggest is to pay it forward and keep Hope alive! Best of luck to you and your family, and everyone else going through something similar.

  5. Melissa Brady KingApril 18, 2012 at 2:44 AM

    What a beautiful, honest, uplifting story. Thanks for sharing, and for all you do for other hopefuls. :)

  6. You rock so hard, Gennifer Albin! Thank you for baring your soul, sharing your journey, and truly giving the beautiful gift of hope. I couldn't be more thrilled for all the shiny goodness coming your way.

  7. [...] morning I read Gennifer Albin’s blog post about hope.  It’s incredibly inspiring.  I recommend reading it, especially if you are yourself going [...]

  8. I started writing such a long response to this, that I decided to make it a blog post of my own. Thank you so much for inspiring me (and a lot of other people) every day! http://www.katherineernstwrites.com/2012/04/18/is-it-always-best-to-have-the-easy-life/

  9. Hope is such a wonderful message. Nine years ago we had to abandon our home because of black mold and I lost my business and we had to declare bankruptcy as well. Then I got a job with a wonderful company as a cashier--it was minimum wage but it was a job and the first time I'd worked fulltime outside my home.

    I did well at the job, quickly advancing and working mega hours. I loved it. Then the recession hit and they started cutting hours including my guaranteed 4 hr OT. Now the no longer wonderful company is downsizing my position and if I stay I'll be taking another 20% pay cut. And my husband's bank was bought out by another bank and his position is set to be phazed out by July.

    But in the words of Nathan Bransford, all I can control is my writing. So I write. And hope. And know, when life throws you a curve, sometimes it leads to a life you never imagined.

  10. Thank you for being so honest. So many people only hear/see about the sucesses and triumphs, but never hear the back story or the road it took to get there. I know that some horrible things in my life have only made me a more compassionate, empathetic person, and quite frankly, a better writer. And I am grateful for the experiences I had, and I'm grateful that you shared yours.

  11. I read this last night and cried so hard I couldn't see the monitor. So today all I can say is "Thank you" and that I love you so hard.

  12. I read this when you first posted and nearly had to pick myself up off the floor afterward. I relate so hard to your story and I'm glad you shared it with us. So many people are desensitized to the struggles of those around them, have to turn a blind eye just to preserve their own sanity, or believe that it could never happen to them. It takes so much courage and bravery to first admit that help is needed and then ask for it, particularly in our society where "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" might as well be printed on the money. Thanks for inspiring me.

  13. This was such a beautiful post, Genn. You're so right about hope. It's an incredibly powerful thing, something our inner demons are always trying to drown out. But hope is what propels us forward, what carries us through the worst points of our lives and sees us through.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  14. Thank you so much for sharing this, Genn.

  15. Thank you, Genn. It's amazing how many people can relate to your words. I am one of those people. For seven years my husband was very ill and couldn't work. For much of that time, I felt the despair you are talking about. And then I gave birth to a boy with another serious illness. Things started to look brighter in recent years, but we still face the huge burden of medical debt. We are at a crossroads right now. My husband just lost his job; but the next day I found an agent (just a couple weeks ago). Right now I'm trying so hard to keep HOPE alive. We are living with extended family, but even then, we don't have enough money to support ourselves and our three children, as things are. But I have HOPE things will turn around. It was a gift that I started writing this story 2 1/2 years ago. It was the first thing I'd really done for myself in 12 years, and it did "heal" me, much as writing has healed you. I have HOPE that it soon can support my family too. Thank you for being honest and writing this. I wish you the very best!

  16. I grew up in a town in a valley in one of the most beautiful places in the world. I had a daughter and was single and was working fulltime at a newspaper for 12k a year. I was on foodstamps and had to have help with daycare costs. I know that kind of poverty shame. There were so many days of fear.

    ILY. For ever.

  17. I just ran across this post after planning to go to UtopYA. Now I can't wait. What an amazing story - and Crewel is just so inventive that I've been proclaiming its merits since I read it about a year ago. Now I have even more reason to do so.