|by Paige Bradford |

I earned my Juris Doctor degree three years before the bubble burst and the economy collapsed. My first semester in law school, I quickly figured out I wasn’t the brightest student there. This was somewhat shocking to me, as I always excelled at academic subjects related to reading and writing. Not one to take failure lightly, I pushed myself relentlessly and graduated with an “Excellence for the Future” award. I passed the bar examination and entered the work force thinking my law degree was my ticket to the 1% club. I bought a fancy car that I couldn’t afford and applied to every law firm in a fifty mile radius. Four years later, my car was repo’d and I was living with my parents.

My fall from grace was not quick, pretty or painless. My hair turned gray, my blood pressure sky rocketed and I nearly lost one of my best friends and myself. In my search for the golden ticket, I landed at a boutique law firm that focused on litigation. In the world of law, litigation is the most demanding because of the constant deadlines. I often slept in my office and worked through holidays, still barely keeping up with the work load. I was miserable and depressed, but my crushing student loan debt combined with the fancy car I couldn’t afford kept me chained to my desk. I managed to keep a tenuous hold on my sanity until my over caffeinated, sleep deprived brain finally snapped.

The day I lost it started out like most others. I turned on my computer at 5:00 a.m. to crank out another motion to be filed that afternoon. At 2:00 p.m. I filed my motion and returned to the office exhausted and ready for a break. Ten minutes after I sat down, my boss walked in with another time sensitive demand, and, I COULD NOT take it anymore. I got up from my desk, walked past her, went home and typed up my resignation letter. This rash, irresponsible behavior was totally uncharacteristic of my normally obedient self. I had no way to pay my bills and no prospect of finding another job in the middle of the worst recession of my lifetime.

In a haze of anxiety and depression, I gave away all my worldly possessions and drove across the country to move in with my parents. When I arrived home, I was broken and spiraling deeper into despair. I could see no way out from the mountain of debt piled on me and I was suffocating. I missed my student loan payment, I missed my car payment, I missed my credit card payments and then the creditors started calling. Every single day, multiple times a day. Over and over and over again, I would repeat, “I don’t have a job, I have no possessions that I can sell and I have no wealthy relatives that can bail me out.” With each conversation, my sense of self-worth and esteem plummeted. My future would not be excellent, it was doomed and I was a terrible excuse for a human being. I could not sink any lower. I hit the very bottom and all I could see was darkness. On more than one occasion, I thought it would be so much easier to just disappear.

I don’t know if I would have survived this time without the love and support of my family. Dysfunctional though we may be, we love each other deeply. And, we are fighters in the literal sense. My dad was a boxer and paid for my brother and me to take kickboxing. None of us are pros, but we all have what it takes to get back in the ring after getting knocked down. Although, I must say, I would have gladly traded a punch in the face for the hours, weeks and months of work it took to start tunneling out from Debt Mountain. At first, all I could find was minimum wage work, but it was a start. Although my pride screamed, “You’re a lawyer, you shouldn’t be selling magical vitamins,” my rational brain always won with the common sense response, “you’re no better and no more deserving than anyone else looking for work and you have bills to pay.”

I know there are so many people that lost everything during these awful years and my heart opens to every single one of them. All I lost was a car that I couldn’t afford even when I had a job. What I gained was far more valuable. I learned to be humble, empathetic and more open to new experiences. I learned that fancy cars and degrees don’t make people better or less susceptible to disaster. I learned that the people that love you and hold you up in your darkest times are far more important than any material possession you will ever have.

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