The Dynamics of Debt
by Lesli Musicar, M.Ed., R.P.

In our society, living in debt is normal. So is shopping for fun and gambling, two of the most common ways we get into debt. On the surface, shopping and gambling may seem very different. But both involve spending money, and getting instant rewards. And in the moment, both can make us feel powerful. With shopping, all it takes is a thin piece of plastic to get what we want when we want it. With gambling, there’s the adrenalin high of challenging fate and the illusion that we can control it.

As we all know, both shopping and gambling can be taken to an extreme. And once they are out of control, these activities can create a set of problems all their own. It is called unmanageable debt.

Childhood Trauma and Debt
There is another way of looking at out-of-control spending, gambling, and unmanageable debt. This is by seeing them as ways of coping with the aftereffects of trauma. When we think of traumatic events, most of us think of tornadoes, floods, or war. And these are without question traumatic. It is because they are overwhelming and inescapable. But for a child, lots of day-to-day events can fit into this category.

Children lack the resources, both psychologically and practically, that adults have to protect themselves. So children are easily traumatized. This occurs in homes where, for example, there is addiction, chronic illness, violence, or abuse. Marital breakdown is another common source of trauma for a child. So is life as a new immigrant, especially when there are profound language and cultural differences for the family.

If traumatic injuries are not adequately healed at the time, they will interfere with our day-to-day lives later. They may manifest as addictive behaviour, such as compulsive shopping or gambling. But what we are really seeing is the body trying to tell the story of our trauma. Like cleaning the poison from an infected wound, our minds are trying to get rid of the traumatic memory by acting it out.

Living in Crisis
Once we start looking at the parallels between historic trauma and present day crises, the connection between the two becomes apparent. When in unmanageable debt, we live in a chronic state of anxiety We are always worrying about making the next payment or being hounded by creditors.

The feeling is not unlike that of a child waiting for the next inevitable bad thing to happen at home: like the arrival of a drunken dad, the unpredictable explosion from mom, or the next sexual assault. In putting ourselves into overwhelming debt, we have essentially recreated a situation where we feel the same helplessness we felt as a child. As children, we may have escaped into fantasy to cope. As adults, we turn to compulsive behaviours, like shopping and gambling.

But what about when the gambler actually wins and can afford to get out of debt? Or when we get a pay cheque and can afford to pay off some bills? If we are unconsciously acting out our traumatic story, having money will ironically lead to even more anxiety. This is because in a traumatic home, the good times cannot be trusted to last.

Waiting for that good feeling to be snatched away can create unbearable anxiety. To deal with the dread, we turn to our usual coping tools: compulsive shopping and gambling. These serve to plunge us back into the crisis state we are used to. It may be hell, but it is one we are used to.

Denial and Seeking Justice
For children in traumatic circumstances, often the only escape is to deny what is happening. Unfortunately, those of us who have survived by using this defense, tend to use it into adulthood. Where denial once saved us, it now undermines us. So, rather than take responsibility for our recklessness with money, we will deny the consequences. We will focus instead on the immediate gratification of our purchases, or the thrill of the game.

Most people with unmanageable debt, however, do strive to pay it off. But what about those who do not? In these cases, we may be unconsciously acting out rage against either those who harmed us or those who failed to protect us as children. Alternatively, we may unconsciously be seeking justice for the past.

When we have been victimized as children, it is not uncommon to have a feeling that the world owes us something. We may therefore feel quite justified in telling ourselves that “They don't need my money,” or “They can afford to wait!” In refusing to pay what we owe, the survivor of childhood trauma unwittingly strives for justice by getting even. We long to inflict the same pain on the guilty party as we suffered ourselves. Except now the “guilty party” is actually our creditors. But the victim, once again, is us.

In Conclusion
There are likely many other parallels to be found between our present day drama with debt and an unprocessed history of trauma. Yet the key to stopping this cycle of re-enactment is to face our story directly. This requires considerable courage, dedication, and emotional support. By acknowledging with compassion our own traumatic past, we are taking the first real step toward healing.