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debt limits

Years ago when I was just a young child I remember battling with my older sister as siblings normally do. My kryptonite was her signature move that involved draping a blanket over my head and pinning me down to the ground. I absolutely hated the torment of the feeling that I was left with every single time that she did it. I would scream until she pulled the blanket off of me and then she would laugh at my fear of her fairly harmless maneuver. It wasn’t as if she was trying to hurt me or anything, I had plenty of air beneath the blanket, but I could not handle the claustrophobic feeling that rushed through my body the second that my head was covered. It sent me into a complete panic.

Claustrophobia is defined as “a fear of being in closed or small spaces” and additionally as “an unhappy or uncomfortable feeling caused by being in a situation that limits or restricts you”. I guess that you could say that those experiences with my sister likely were my first encounter with this particular fear. At least they’re the first that I have memory of anyway. But claustrophobia in my life was certainly not going to be limited to experiences with blanket battles in sibling rivalries. As my anxiety disorder began to progress during my late teenage years, claustrophobia became something that I had to learn to confront on a very frequent basis. Anxiety manipulates our perceptions by creating intimidating, threatening environments that restrict our willingness to participate in the lives that we’ve been given. Our minds perceive harm from unreasonable sources, prompting us to take impulsive actions that we believe will lead us back to safety. You see when you’re met with perceived harm your brain is programmed to trigger a protective escape mechanism known as the fight or flight response. And in moments of intense panic, “fight” is rarely the chosen road. When claustrophobic circumstances presented themselves in my life during periods of anxiety my instincts would scream for me to run back to safety. But sometimes, an immediate escape is simply not possible. Sometimes we must learn to stay and fight.

I’ve come a long way with anxiety over the past ten plus years, but in the present day I still experience many situations that prompt those claustrophobic feelings inside of me. For instance, have you ever stepped into an empty elevator in a hotel in the city on your way down to the lobby from the 20th floor only to find that your route is going to be detoured by five or more stops to pick up additional guests on your trip south? By the time you arrive in the lobby you’re peeling yourself off the back wall of an absolutely cramped elevator with clammy hands and beads of sweat heading down your forehead. Not a pleasant feeling at all, is it? I know it well. It’s the same feeling that I get when my flight is delayed for takeoff for an hour nearby the runway due to a seemingly endless line of planes ahead of us awaiting signal for lift off to the skies above. Or it’s the isolated, white knuckle feeling that I get when driving across a bridge over an expanse of water three to four miles wide. Sometimes it can even be as simple as finding myself stuck in a conversation at a co-worker’s doorway that I really want to leave. That’s a bit extreme of course, but it’s been a reality at different points for me in my life, and I think we can all relate a bit to situations that prompt our own feelings of claustrophobia. It’s never an enjoyable experience.

But reaching beyond all of those encounters, there is nothing truly comparable to the severity of the ongoing claustrophobic feeling that I’ve encountered for years as a result of one specific aspect of my life. And that is the claustrophobia created by debt. This extremely limiting and imprisoning fear has led me down the road of destruction for more than eight years of my life. It’s ruined certain relationships in my life, and more than anything, it’s made ruin of me – mentally, physically, and spiritually. I believe wholeheartedly that debt is the devil’s playground, and I hope that today I will be able to bring to light what’s been a horribly dark issue in my life. I am here to expose evil, that which remains in me and that which limits others. And to date, I can think of nothing darker than debt, which I believe is the devil’s stronghold in many of us.

For those of you that have followed my blog from its inception and know my story, you’ll recall that during my senior year of college, I met the woman with whom I believed I would spend the rest of my life. A few months following graduation during the summer of 2005, I decided that I wanted to make my proposal. I was living and working in the city of Philadelphia, earning less than $30,000 per year. Those were exciting times, but challenging ones, too. I was scrapping to get by. And I was in no position whatsoever to make an investment in a diamond ring. But I was in love, and I didn’t want to wait until I had the resources saved to really do it the right away. So I made my first major purchase on credit on what I believe was really the only card in my position at the time with the understanding that I’d simply need to pay it off a little at a time as commissions rolled in from my future sales efforts.

Unfortunately that plan fell apart for me very quickly. I could not handle the weight that I felt carrying a debt burden around. It drove me completely crazy. I was not content with paying a couple hundred dollars each month to cut down the balance down over time. I needed resolution, quickly. I wanted so very badly to escape the claustrophobia that I felt as a result of this new burden, so I began acting impulsively in hopes to flee the uncomfortable circumstances that I had created. The progression unfolded something like this…

debt  claustrophobia  OCD driven thinking  panic  impulsive attempts to escape  further indebtedness  captivity  feelings of hopelessness

I made many impulsive attempts to flee my circumstances but was never successful. My main escape method of choice was gambling. During college I spent about $200 funding a sportsbook wagering account one fall and I won around $1,200-$1,500 betting small on college football games. Ultimately however I surrendered everything that I had won because I got greedy and I began making riskier plays as a result of the grandiose ideas that flooded my mind when a little bit of prosperity came my way. And when the season was over, I wasn’t really engaged in gambling anymore whatsoever. Not until that is I began to feel desperate for another source of income to pay off my recently created debt burden.

It seems crazy to a logical thinking person that gambling could possibly serve as a reasonable means for getting oneself out of debt. After all, Vegas was not built on winners (as we all know) and gambling only serves to put people FURTHER into debt, especially those that do it compulsively. And that’s where I was headed, quickly. I began with the online sportsbook that I was familiar with from my college years, but after realizing that I just couldn’t seem to win fast enough, I began investigating the site’s online casino. And that’s where things began to snowball wildly out of control. Sure, in the casino you could win quickly, but you could also lose quickly. With only a meager recent graduate’s income at my disposal, I ran out of cash fast, and I began opening new credit accounts to fund my chosen method of escape. If only I could have understood that by doing so I was only further imprisoning myself. Unfortunately, addicts don’t typically think far beyond the next hit.

The issue that kept me gambling was the same one that had led me to it in the first place. I was obsessed with the claustrophobic feeling that grew more and more profound as a result of my debt. As the balance that I owed rose exponentially, so with it did the impulsivity and anxiety that I felt and employed with regards to my circumstances. I literally felt that I had no choice but to gamble. The debt never lessened for more than a day or two. Even when I did win, I was never content to cash out. It was never enough. Just like my engagement ring payment obligations, I could not be content simply chipping away at my balance. So I pressed on, and often times I sacrificed some very significant winnings…$6K here, $10K there…there was a time in 2008 that I left $42K on the table (which could have solved nearly every financial issue that I had) because I felt that I needed more. I got so wrapped up in the release that I felt as a result of my winnings that the idea of finally being out of debt was no longer even enough. I was now more than a desperate man seeking a way out. I was a compulsive gambling addict.

As a result of debt and my corresponding gambling disorder, I did things that I could have never dreamed I’d be capable of doing. I forfeited an incredible amount of good people’s hard earned money, including that of my grandfather who busted his hump his entire life to ensure me an opportunity to buy my first home. It still sickens me to this day that gave up every ounce of equity that I had on my first mortgage to take a loan to fund the mess that I had created in my life. I sold most of anything that I had with any value, setting up ads on craigslist and running to pawn shops when I was desperate. And in order to continue bankrolling my gaming account and to stay on time with my bill payments, I even used store credit cards to purchase gift cards that I would sell at a discount for cash to a guy I met on the internet. I took payday loans at ridiculous interest rates. If there was a way to stretch a dollar, I found it. And I lied to people close to me. I snuck off to casinos when I had committed to being other places. I turned into a person I that I couldn’t even begin to look at in the mirror.

Thankfully, I have not gambled a dollar of my money in more than two and a half years. But debt does still linger in my life. And it does still have a profound impact on me, perhaps even more so in the last couple of years because I’ve been forced to live with the claustrophobic feeling that it leaves me without any true immediate means of escape. We can all see now that gambling was certainly not a viable saving grace, but because I believed that it could be, it did offer me some sense of comfort with the idea that things could turnaround at any moment with any hand. Today, I invest some of my money with the belief that my educated decisions will lead to growth over time. But I also understand that investing is not a quick fix. It takes patience; companies are not built nor are they transformed overnight. So at this stage in my life I am attempting to do something with these uncomfortable feelings that I haven’t ever truly been successful at accomplishing. I’m choosing to stay and fight instead of taking flight and rolling the dice on impulsivity. And I have to tell you, it’s hard, because claustrophobia is powerful.

Staying to fight does not mean that I intend on forfeiting any more of my life or my decision making to debt, however. I’ve done plenty of that and I’m now choosing to stay the course of my calling with faith that the Lord will lead me to greener pastures in His time. As long as my decisions revolve around lack, that’s all that I will continue to receive. My decisions will now be based on abundance through Christ. And I trust that by following His decrees I will wind up exactly where I need to be, lacking nothing. I’m far more fearful today to lack in personal and spiritual development than I am fearful of lacking of financial resources. I’ve learned to survive with very little. And while I would love to be freed completely of my debt burden, I know that my fresh financial start will come in time. But it will only arrive if I pursue the Lord’s abundance first with the belief and understanding that He is the source of all that I can possibly need in this life. I wish not to seek first the world, but to seek first the kingdom of God.

Well beyond the financial losses suffered over the course of the past eight plus years of my life there is something far more tragic that has taken place as a result of this claustrophobic issue known as debt. And it’s about more than late payment fees and exorbitant interest rates. It’s about what’s been sacrificed personally. It’s about what remains. Who have I become as a person? If I ran into Matt from 2005, would I even know him? Would I even know how to engage in a life without the compulsive thinking that I’ve embraced surrounding this issue? Would I even be comfortable living without the anxiety, stress, and torment that it causes me every single day? It would take some time to relearn a normal lifestyle. But I would certainly welcome the challenge.

Debt has caused me relentless stress, and it has changed me as a person. It’s brought me tremendous anxiety and it’s made me irritable, hopeless, and at times controlling in my interactions with others. It’s pure evil. Although I don’t like to use this term, I do believe that debt is personal slavery. I wish it upon no one. Be careful with the choices that you make as a borrower. Live a cash funded life as much as possible. And don’t let MONEY shape who you are or what you become in this life. Neither lack nor abundance should discourage you from becoming the person that God has called you to be. The world may tell you otherwise, but our Lord has the ability to shape us into whatever He chooses so long as we choose Him first and lean not on our own understanding. There are many amazing businesses that would have never built and lives that would have never have been touched if our world’s revolutionary thinkers had focused on lack and not on potential. Step forward in faith and change the world. I’m tasking myself with the same goal, so I can assure you that you will not be alone in your efforts.

When I become claustrophobic I tend to tense up my entire body. My chest grows tight and I feel that I’m beginning to have trouble breathing properly. A lump presents itself in my throat it grows hard for me to swallow. My mind starts to race along with my heartbeat, and my palms begin to feel clammy. And then, I imagine Jesus Christ reaching out to me in the darkness. He takes hold of trembling hand and from my head he lifts the cover that’s long confined me and hidden me from the light. All of sudden, I can breathe again. And everything is calm. I realize that what’s surrounding me is not threatening at all. I was simply misguided as I obsessively focused more on what frightened me about the darkness rather than what excited me about the light. Now it’s crystal clear. In the light there are no limits, no fears, and no lack. I can see it now, and it’s beautiful. I look at Jesus and I say “Thank you, Lord. I trust You. Your will be done.”

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