Amanda Donovan, a visitor of The Open Door Food Pantry in Gloucester, shared her family’s experience with hunger at the 10th annual Greater Boston Food Banquet. Her words are below:
I had a dream the other night. I was in one of these gorgeous Beacon Hill townhouses that some of us have had the good fortune of being allowed to poke around in. There was an endless number of floors, lots of light flooding through huge windows of Colonial-era wavy glass. It was peaceful and serene and spotless. They say that when you dream of a house, the house represents yourself. I was vaguely aware of this as I tore around the grand spiral staircase in a panic, trying to find my way out before the home owners discovered me, a stow-away. I was someplace where I did not belong, terrified and out of my element, heart pounding and unable to find the exit from a life I did not belong in.
I am a social worker, specializing in the treatment of psychological trauma and I’ve devoted my professional life to advocating for the underdogs. My husband is an economist, and had a very well-paying job that allowed me to stay home with our daughter. We were blessed with privilege, opportunity, and security.
Our son was born in January of 2010, but three days after he returned to work, my husband’s employer walked into his office and told him that he was being laid off. They read from a script. He was downsized. I could try to describe the crushing fear and betrayal that one feels. I could try to describe it, but so many already know first-hand.
After the initial shock, we sat down to review our situation, and surprisingly it was pretty good. My husband received a reasonably good severance package. We also had at least 6 months of living expenses, unemployment insurance, and no debt. We had been doing everything we were supposed to. We had been very responsible with our money, and we lived modestly. We thought that he could take some time off to enjoy his three week old baby and two year old daughter. In many ways, that was such a happy year for our family and we are so blessed to have had that time together. After a while, things became increasingly scary. We never would have expected it to be so hard to find work again. A year and a half into this ordeal we had no more savings, and no more unemployment benefits. What we did have was a mortgage, two cars that were no longer road-worthy, student loans gathering interest, and a looming heating bill for our almost 200 year old house.
You start to look around and see everything falling apart; doors falling of hinges, all the dinner plates are cracked, drinking out of mason jars because the glasses are broken. You wonder if you’re going to be Miss Haversham, or Norma Desmond living in your rotting castle dreaming of the past. Sometimes the pressure makes your eyes burn and when you look at your kids, you panic. The future seems less bright every day that goes by, and you feel hope slipping away, and everything becomes a countdown.
We are good people. We work hard and save money and invest in the market. We give to charity and volunteer. We bring casseroles to people when they are sick. We have never carried debt aside from student loans and mortgage. We over pay our bills to get ahead, and drive used cars. We don’t have iPads, or cable. We haven’t taken a vacation in years.
You wish you could afford to be depressed. You start fantasizing about staying in bed all day, asleep until something good happens. Then, the overwhelming guilt washes through you, reminding you how horrible you are for complaining while you still have a home, and you’re upset about not having a reliable car when there are children in refugee camps in the Congo. Depression can be so self-indulgent.
This is what a slow motion unraveling looks like.
It doesn’t matter if you went to a good school, come from a good family. It doesn’t even matter if you’re in good financial shape with no debt and never even got swindled by a big bank. You can be sitting there with all your ducks in a row, heat turned all the way up to 68 and before you know it, one little shift in the universe will send you and the people you love most into a tailspin. You will be compelled to watch as the ground gets closer and closer. You will feel yourself being discussed. You know people get uncomfortable when you talk about it, and they start to avoid you. I could no longer recognize my life. It’s a terrifying place to be for anyone, and there are a lot of us here right now.
At some point I had to scrape myself off the floor, and start to plan ahead for my family. It took a lot of courage for me to come to the food pantry for help. I was terrified about what the experience would be like, about how people would look at me, what kind of food I would get. I was scared of appearing ungrateful or greedy. I was scared of being judged for being poor, or worse- not poor enough.
I received our first pickup and was overwhelmed by the experience. Thirty-three pounds of fresh, healthy food was provided to us by the Open Door and Greater Boston Food Bank. That food got us though several weeks with some stretching. It was a desperately needed bandage for us at a particularly dark and needy time. One less thing to worry about, which is no small gift when you’re in a place of constant worry. It was a bit of light shining through a crack. I had been kicked around for so long and had come to expect the poor treatment, shame, judgment, and harsh words that had characterized many of our interactions during this period. I will never forget the staffs kindness and compassion, because seeking that help was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. What a valuable resource for our community, particularly right now when so many families are struggling more than they ever expected to.
If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone. The Greater Boston Food Bank is not just there for people who live in abject poverty. It’s for people in transition, who might feel like they don’t recognize their life right now. Many of us wake up one day to find ourselves living in a stranger’s house, desperately seeking a way back to familiar surroundings.
We are the new face of hunger.