Looking at the pint of Ben & Jerry’s, the Doritos, and the thinly sliced prosciutto, I felt suddenly self conscious. I had taken out my EBT card to pay for groceries. When I considered what I was buying (the my-daughters-are-going-to-be-with-their-father-for-a-few-days supplies) it all seemed so unhealthy that I thought, “how can I justify using government benefits to do my self-medicating with this salt and sugar and fat?” And then I actually said, “Aw, no, I’ll just pay for this. I’d feel weird using this [waving the EBT card] for all this junk… ha ha ha…”
I’m new to using foodstamps. The topics about which I know nothing are seemingly endless when it comes to getting assistance from the government. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so entirely clueless. What has surprised me in all of this, among many things, is how deep my shame is as I participate in the system. Instead of feeling proud that I am doing everything I need to for my children, I feel guilty and spoiled and greedy.
Walking around the grocery store a couple weeks ago I felt like I’d taken off backpacks filled with wet sand. I literally felt lighter. I walked through the store slowly and considered every section. I compared prices. I took time to recall what I had in the pantry and the freezer. I thought about what I could make and freeze or what would be useful to have on hand to use later. At first I thought I was feeling so light because I tend to shop very, very quickly with two young children and their needs filling up most of my time. I looked into my cart at the fresh produce and canned tomatoes and a few bags of whole wheat flour, and I realized it wasn’t that I was child-free. It was knowing I was going to use my newly acquired “food stamps” benefits to purchase the great bulk of this food. What an enormous relief! I was giddy. I could buy food! I could just BUY FOOD. It didn’t have to be depressing or stressful. I could look beyond the two deep discount sale sections that I tend to stick to and I could just buy food. I felt free.
With that realization came a sudden flood of shame. What kind of person goes grocery shopping and has someone else pay for the food? I was disgusting. Greedy. Lazy. Irresponsible. Surely I wasn’t someone who really *needed* this kind of help, right? Surely it was the woman who escaped domestic violence who has maybe a high school education who has three children under 4 and has untreated depression? She’s the one who really needs help who (as a general stereotype) I would never in a million years consider lazy or irresponsible for getting the help she needed to start over. Me? My former husband is much more generous with child and spousal support than the law requires. I make good money in my business when I am working. I go to Starbucks almost every day. [Here I have deleted a long explanation of why this is a necessary expense in my life.]
How easily I slide into justifying and explaining and excusing my choices. For months I’ve toyed with writing about applying for and using assistance but I found myself lacking the courage. The moment I mention I’m using food stamps I feel an urgent need to explain my situation.
Asking for help is humiliating for me. It’s so easy for me to find other people responsible and smart and brave when they ask for help. When it’s me, it’s harder for me to see it that way. Asking for assistance from the government, from “social services,” is a level of humiliating I have rarely ever felt. So much of the shame I feel comes from inside me. I’m stunned as I consider each individual person who is going through something similar to this; how each person has their own “issues” and their own sense of pride and self-sufficiency to tackle. That stereotype woman (domestic violence, little education, etc.) could very easily have just as much or more of an aversion to asking for help as I do.
The shame doesn’t only come from inside me, though. There is a deathly blanket of shame that covers the whole process of “assistance.” The way I’ve been talked to as I try to negotiate the system has brought me to tears more than once. So many of the people (the workers who process the paperwork) are just flat out mean. I understand it’s a broken system. I knew that before I was in it. I just had no idea how far-reaching the fractures and breaks extend.
When I take out my EBT card at the market, I’m so uncomfortable I’m usually compelled to make some sort of loud statement pointing out that I’m using food stamps. (As I mentioned, if I’m uncomfortable, I tend to address the discomfort very, very directly.) Intellectually, I know I shouldn’t feel ashamed. Emotionally, I haven’t found a way to shake the feeling that I’m being a lazy, spoiled, irresponsible moocher by using this tremendous gift. Writing about it here might help me, I suppose. Of one thing I am sure: the fact that I can go to the grocery store and just buy food makes wrestling with shame and humiliation a very small price to pay.