For some years prior to my 50th birthday, apparently unimpressed with the notion of a steady paycheck, I harbored the patently ludicrous idea of launching my own newspaper. The original vision, detailed in a meandering business plan I imposed on anyone with spare change, involved a five-day-a-week afternoon edition hawked on downtown streets by old-fashioned newsboys and newsgirls. Finding no reckless capitalists, however, I settled for publishing a tabloid weekly that survived for two issues before morphing effortlessly into a less-ambitious monthly. All financed through a slightly tenuous home equity line of credit.
My Lovely Wife and I spent the next two years burning through about 10 grand a month while working about 12 hours a day. At a certain point, my shoulders froze up and I occasionally found it difficult to swallow solid food. A friend offered some bodywork to ease the stress, which provided some temporary relief, but nothing stopped the flow of red ink or signaled brighter days on the horizon. We churned out 24 issues before our bank turned off the spigot, and The Minneapolis Observer vanished sheepishly into the recycling bin of history.
So, we turned to Plan B: Sell the house to pay off the quarter-million or so we owed our many impatient creditors. All that borrowing, after all, had been based on the assessed value of our quirky Southside mansion. But the housing bubble had burst and with it our ability to raise enough dough to cover our losses. We eventually declared bankruptcy, gave up the house and the car, and moved with our two teenagers, three cats, and a dog into a tiny two-bedroom bungalow some equally desperate friends of ours hoped someday to unload.
Fifteen years have passed since that painful adventure, and I’m happy to report that MLW and I seem be experiencing no physical repercussions beyond the normal consequences of aging. We are, if recent research is any indication, more fortunate than some.
A University of Georgia study, published earlier this month, suggests that intense financial stress in midlife can manifest as physical pain many years later. It’s all about feeling out of control, explains lead author Kandauda Wickrama, PhD, a professor at UGA’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “Consistent with the proposition that sense of control is a key contributor to physical and mental well-being, depleted sense of control was related to escalating physical pain over 17 years,” he writes. “Further, the results provided evidence for the role of sense of control as a linking mechanism between family financial stress (FFS) and physical pain.”
Wickrama and his team focused on 500 long-term married couples who endured the late 1980s farm crisis in Iowa. Analyzing data from the Iowa Youth and Family Project, which tracked these families over the course of 27 years, the researchers controlled for age, family income, and concurrent physical illnesses before identifying the link between decades-old financial stress and current physiological pain.
They cite earlier research showing that feeling in control lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol, improves heart rate, and generally reduces inflammation and pain. Lacking a sense of control, on the other hand, activates the brain’s amygdala, triggering anxiety, fear, and stress — leading to painful results. Wickrama’s study suggests that the intense financial stress these families endured during the farm crisis never really allowed them to regain their sense of control even decades later when their financial skies brightened.
“The influence of the level of FFS reflects the impact of FFS severity on their sense of control, independent of the influence of changing FFS,” he explains. “That is, a high initial level of FFS may have depleted their sense of control regardless of any change in FFS.”
Several months into our post-entrepreneurial phase, a local journalist who was at work on a book about survivors requested an interview. We sat outside our rented abode on the makeshift patio and chatted amiably about our particular ordeal, which turned out to be much less of a disaster than we had imagined.
“At the end of all this mess,” MLW told her, “my feeling was ‘We’ve been there, done that. No big deal if we go broke.’ We’ve been broke. We know what that’s like. We have a lot of experience at being broke.”
I’d landed my present gig by then and whatever fraught financial and emotional waters we’d been navigating had smoothed considerably. Still, when we received a copy of How to Survive: The Extraordinary Resilience of Ordinary People a few years later, I thought the author’s take on our situation captured pretty accurately why whatever pain we may have endured during those stressful Observer years didn’t follow us into our dotage.
“In the end, things didn’t really change much for Craig and Sharon,” she writes. “They lost the bigger house — but that was OK — Sharon believes that their family ties were strengthened by the upheaval, that they were able to strip away all the excess (not that there was all that much excess to begin with) and focus on each other, and creating a happy, peaceful life. They have no regrets about what happened. In fact, they believe it was meant to be.”