When I was in San Francisco two years ago, immediately before I met my girlfriend in person for the first time, I visited a small bookstore in the city's gay district (The Castro). It was the kind of cozy, inviting bookstore that encouraged leisurely browsing, which is exactly what I did for my last few hours in the city. I checked out the staff favourites; I discretely flipped through LGBTQ books that would make Dan Savage blush; and I somehow resisted the enormous selection of magnets and mugs and bookmarks that I'm usually suckered into buying. In the end, despite finding a large collection of books that wanted to come home with me, I managed to leave with only one: Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed.
If you have never read this book, you should go out and do so immediately. And don't take it out from the library (although I love libraries): buy it so that you can read it over and over and over again. The book is a collection of articles from the "Dear Sugar" online advice column that Strayed used to write, and it is easily the best advice column I've ever read. She addresses every topic from romance (of course) to friendship to finances to body image to life's purpose, and she does so in a way that is wise and frank and kind and simply amazing. I loved the book so much that I finished it on the red-eye from San Francisco (instead of resting up for my date when I got home), and I have read it cover to cover two additional times. When I picked it up to start writing this blog post, I had a hard time not reading it a fourth time.
Anyway...this is not supposed to be a post about the genius of Cheryl Strayed but rather a post inspired by one of her responses as "Dear Sugar". In one of the letters she received, a young woman wrote about her desire to go to graduate school and her frustration about having to incur additional student debt to do so because her parents didn't have the means to put her through school. In one line that stuck with me, the woman stated "[M]ore often than not, I am defined by my 'student loan identity'." Strayed's response surprised me a bit. She seemed to diminish the woman's concerns about debt, and she encouraged her to strongly consider graduate school despite the cost. In addressing the woman's concerns about the psychological aspect of debt, she said "I don't even known what a student loan identity is. Do you? What is a student loan identity?"
As I sit here, months away from having a positive net worth for the first time in almost a decade, and another decade away from having my debts payed off, I know exactly what a student loan identity is. A student loan identity is waking up every morning and thinking about how much you still owe. It's feeling like every dollar you earn is already accounted for and that none of it is actually yours. It's saying yes to extra clinics and extra weekends of call because you're bloody tired of being in the red. It's feeling like every decision you make has to be based on the financial implications, rather than on what you most want to do in your heart. No matter what my rational brain tells me about the wisdom of my decision to go to medical school or the long-term financial security that I will enjoy, my lizard brain keeps fixating on my student loan and the long road between me and debt repayment.
I wish I could be more Zen about my debt and just accept that it's there and will be for a long time, but I can't seem to get past the sensation of OH MY GOD, MY HAIR IS ON FIRE! I can't seem to stop questioning every purchase, wondering if I can somehow live without $20 a bag cat litter and train my cats to use the toilet. (The answer to that question is a resounding no.) I can't seem to say no to any opportunity to make extra money, no matter how tired or stressed I may be making myself.
More than anything, I just want to be back in the black.