Monday, February 21, 2011

Traumatic Brain Injury And The Bank Book

As tax time approaches I am reminded of tax times past. And budget making. In conversation recently with a good friend I mentioned how nice it is to be in a place where I don't owe anything. Not that I don't have bills, like: rent, food, child care, phone, etc...but we don't have credit card debt or mortgage debt. A few years ago, when everyone I knew was buying a house or trading up...I felt kinda like a loser, ya know renting. (I read an article though around that time that asked the question: Where do you want to put your money, a house or travel? Personally, I'd rather travel, I know Paul felt the same way.)

At any rate, it wasn't easy to be debt free, we had to make some decisions some while back. When I met Paul in 1992 he was very keen on the idea of keeping out of debt and had some very low numbers on his credit card. At that point I'd never even had a credit card. In 1994 we began living together here in Encinitas, I got my first credit card and was able to rent a car to go on tour and play gigs, it was great. I learned from Paul that I needed to pay off the amount on the card as soon as possible. That was all good.

In 1995 Paul's traumatic brain injury (for new comers/bike accident, no helmet) happened and he was in the hospital for a month and then outpatient rehab for another. I was so involved in the caregiving that I barely kept up on the bills. That had been the thing that Paul did. He was Mr. Responsible-Guy. When I got around to paying bills I noticed there wasn't much to pay on his credit cards which was great. After a few months Paul was "better" and back to taking care of our bills.

Now jump to 2002, Paul and I had a one year old baby, and Paul tells me President Bush and crew will be doing away with the kind of bankruptcy that allows individuals to escape from extreme credit card debt, and he thinks we should file.

I had about eight thousand dollars accumulated on my card, all from urgent medical type stuff, but Paul had a debt of over fifty thousand dollars! I was stunned and agreed to go through with the bankruptcy. After the bankruptcy took hold and we were released of our debt load my credit card company called me, the guy on the phone said to me "you paid your bills up until the bankruptcy and it was only $100. a month, you had great credit, why did you do it?" I told him my husband had fifty thousand on his cards and had a brain injury." He was sympathetic and agreed he'd have done the same thing.

Here's the puzzle: After the brain injury why did I think Paul could still handle the bills, and could pay for most everything, like he had before? Clearly, the fifty thousand dollars had accumulated over the years since 1995.

Years later a good friend and I poured over Paul's past bills and paper work, strewn around his office in a crazy godforsaken manner, we found signs of his growing dementia and perhaps even signs that he hadn't "recovered" from the initial brain injury as well as we'd imagined. Paul had been using his credit card to pay for some of our most basic expenses, sometimes rent, often groceries...the kind of stuff you never want to use credit for, and the stuff he would have never bought on credit in his pre-brain injury mode.

I thank Paul now, for pushing us, convincing me, that it was imperative to file bankruptcy. In a way, it was the old Mr. Responsible-Paul showing himself again for a brief and final interlude. I see it as Paul, on some level knowing he was falling apart, falling into dementia, knowing he wasn't coming back and setting things straight for the future, for me and our young son Alexander.

Whether credit card bankruptcy should exist (it doesn't now)...I don't know. I do know I'm thankful that my family was given a chance to get out of a terrible debt, that I wouldn't be able to handle on my own today, that was caused by the confusion and denial surrounding traumatic brain injury.