SNAP Challenge Day 4. I'm writing this at about 9 pm. I'm hungry, like I have been every night, but it will pass.
I had a nice kale salad for lunch today. The kale was inexpensive so I loaded 3 ounces of it into my salad bowl - that's 24¢ for a lot of kale, not organic. I added an egg, 33¢. That brought me up to just 57¢. From then on I weighed everything as I added it so I knew exactly how much I could have and ended up with an ounce of healthy, sprouted sunflower seeds, a few cranberries, 4 pecans and a smudge of dressing for a grand total of exactly $1.50, the allotment for one meal on SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program).
When 3 p.m. rolled around, it had been a little less than three hours since lunch and I was pretty hungry. I looked in my desk and saw that I had a dark Peruvian chocolate bar from the health food store. Man, did I want a bite! So I broke off a piece—it was about an inch square—and ran down to the kitchen to weigh it. It was an expensive chocolate bar so I knew there'd be a price to pay. My bite weighed a quarter of an ounce and cost 33¢. Wow! That's nearly a third of a meal. But I ate it anyway. Boy was it yummy. My first desert in 4 days.
Breakfast had been an organic nectarine cut up in organic milk for $1.58, lunch was $1.50 and my organic chocolate snack was 33¢. That left me with $1.19 for dinner. Sheesh. Rough. I cooked a nice meal of rice and beans with tilapia and tomato. My serving of tilapia was 3 oz - that's 75¢. A small piece. But 1/3 of the can of organic black beans was more filling, and that was 33¢. The small amount of rice and the 1/3 ounce of fresh organic tomato brought me up to a total of $1.27. I was 8¢ over my limit for the day.
Several friends have questioned my food choices this week. It's strange to try to eat organic food on a poor person's budget. Yes, of course I could just go fill a shopping cart with ramen noodles and the cheapest bread and pasta I can find. That would certainly fill me up and I could eat all week within budget. But I just can't do that. I've got an inflammatory disease called hepatic sarcoidosis, and one of the symptoms is gluten intolerance. It gives me such severe fatigue that I can't function. I wouldn't be able to work. And I'm a cancer survivor as well. Who knows the role that insecticides and genetically modified foods have played in these life-threatening conditions? I can't afford to be sick far more than I can't afford to eat good food. So I choose to eat less and eat the best food for my body. I have energy. I enjoyed a long work day, cooked dinner, and now I sit here writing these words tonight. I could never do these things without a healthy diet. I know because I remember how little strength I had before I changed it.
Others have said they were worried about me, and can't I just eat normally and pretend to take the SNAP Challenge. I appreciate their love and care for me, but I'm really fine. I'm not suffering. I might break out in hives from all this math (just kidding), but I'm really fine.
The truth is that because of what I've been through, I'm a pretty tough cookie now. I want to be able to encourage others going through tough times, even simply by the gesture of taking on this Challenge. I want to let them know that their rough times can be a gift, not a curse. Let me explain my own experience and why I say this.
It was rough not knowing how long my financial nightmare would last. Everyone was saying, "It'll work out, it always does." But I knew it wasn't true. Of course it doesn't always work out. Look around. There are too many homeless families, too many struggling to get by, too many with no access to medical care. It does not always work out. But each day I tried to do everything possible to change our circumstances.
When I think about my very worst moment, when every attempt had failed so many times in a row that hope seemed like the cruelest joke, mocking me, I am still so grateful for that day. I got to that desperate place after one more thing had failed so many times that I finally got it. I wasn't going to fix this. Of course I'd keep working harder than I'd ever worked in my life—but that wasn't enough. I was going to keep smiling and laughing with the kids and celebrating life with the same optimism I'd always had—but that wasn't enough. I was going to knock on doors, make phone calls, hunt down my congresswoman and beg for information, assistance, guidance... but it would not be enough.
At the end of the end of the end of myself, I found that I was 100% at the mercy of forces I could not influence. It took about a year for that utter helplessness to come about for me, a very self-assured, self-confident, self-reliant person. But when it finally came, things finally began to change. Being helpless is not being hopeless. Hope may have seemed futile, but I remained hopeful all along. Helplessness is vulnerability. It's humility. It's surrender. When I came to the end of my self—when weeks turned to months and I had not thought I could bear even another day—finally a door opened slightly and little miracles began to happen, and one step at a time I left tragedy behind. I had sold everything possession of worth and lost my house, but the freedom that loss gave me is priceless, even today. I'm not afraid of anything. I'm not afraid of losing my home or my possessions... Nothing can own you when you've lost everything.
The world's pity doesn't make you a better person or equip you to climb mountains. Taking in, fully experiencing, whatever pain you're in, teaches deep lessons you can't learn from any book, blog, or therapist. You come to the bottom of the core of you and meet yourself, genuinely, for the first time in that fire of utter vulnerability and helplessness. You are alone there, truly. More alone that at any other time in your life. Those that love you can't go through that fire with you. Their love may give you some form of comfort, but compared to the intensity of that abyss, even their love is not capable of changing your experience. You must experience that helplessness alone.
If I could tell a woman like myself just one thing, a mother with a flock of kids at her feet and no money to care for them, I would tell her this: endure today's nightmare. Embrace each moment of this passage through darkness. Let it melt you down and roll you flat. When it's all behind you, you will be fearless and limitless—and I want to know that amazing woman you'll become.