Four years ago [four years back in 1988, that was], Catherine, a freelance editor with whom I was passingly acquainted, called me one afternoon weeping and barely coherent. “I have to see you,” she said. “I’m desperate.” We met in a park twenty minutes later. Catherine was distraught and haggard. She’d called, she finally managed to say, after an hour of standing in front of a window in her seventh-floor apartment, thinking about jumping.

She called because she’d remembered hearing from a mutual friend that I had once been in serious trouble with debt myself, but that I’d turned everything around.

* * *

These days, people will tell you practically anything about themselves – the most intimate details of their sex lives, their drug and drinking history, that they’ve been in jail, have an eating disorder, were treated for suicidal depression, or even that they were molested as a child.

What they won’t tell you about is their debts. Or the past-due notices they receive, that they can’t pay the rent this month, that a credit card or store account has been canceled, or that they bounce checks, push their Checking Plus to the limit, or repeatedly turn to friends or relatives for a loan. Even the thought of ever telling anyone how much they owe, about the trouble they’re having meeting bills and obligations, makes their heart pound, their breath go shallow, and their palms start to sweat.

It’s almost un-American to have trouble with money (which is to say debt). [Or at least it used to be, and actually still is to a large degree, except for those who are utterly wiped out and can’t conceal that any longer.] That’s the popular myth, anyway.

In truth, personal debt is epidemic in America. [And that was way back in 1988, long before the Crash of 2009. There is indeed nothing new under the sun.] Twenty million Americans are overwhelmed by it at this very moment, and millions more are living in daily stress and discomfort because of it. Consumer debt now represents more than 70 percent of consumer income; personal bankruptcies have been climbing by as much as a third each year; the United States savings rate is the lowest in the industrial world.

To simplify, we’re going to exclude secured debt here, that is, loans backed up by collateral, such as a house or car. What we’re talking about is unsecured debt – credit cards, loans from friends and relatives, late rent, back taxes, money owed to a dentist, and the like.

Trouble with this kind of debt cuts across all social strata – from doctors and lawyers to carpenters and teachers, from psychologists and executives to house painters and firemen, from consultants and secretaries to stock clerks and stockbrokers. Some of us are earning more than $100,000 a year, others merely a subsistence living. Some owe tens of thousands of dollars, others no more than $500 or $1,000. But debt is debt, no matter how much we earn or how much we owe, and sooner or later it can, and frequently does, poison our lives.

Like alcoholism, incurring debt – or, debting – is progressive. So are the results: Eventually, we feel fear and frustration, our lives and personal relationships are disrupted, the joy and pleasure are sucked out of our days, we come to live in anxiety and despair, we experience pain and perhaps even impulses toward suicide.

Catherine, the editor, was $36,000 in debt when she called – to credit cards, department stores, friends, the IRS, the state tax bureau, and her landlord. Her daughter’s college tuition was due. She had just received an eviction notice. She had no assets left, no one would extend her any more credit. The eviction notice was the final blow. And she almost killed her­self: because she owed some money. That’s how badly the pressure of debt had distorted her vision.

Once Catherine recognized and admitted that this wasn’t just bad luck, that she had a debting problem, she began to recover. She paid each month’s rent when it was due, kept abreast of her current bills, began at a small level to reduce her arrears to her landlord, and negotiated repayment schedules with the rest of her creditors.

Was it easy? No, not at first. But neither is getting sober for an alcoholic. The parallel is more than incidental. Many people in recovery from debting speak of “financial sobriety.”

Here is a simple but profound truth: You can not get out of debt by borrowing more money. No more than an alcoholic can get sober by having another drink. And if you’re actively debting, forget about prosperity and abundance. You can buy the illusion of those, but only for a while. Sooner or later your debt structure will come crashing down around you, as it did for Catherine.

To determine whether your own use of credit, or debt, is reasonable or not, just ask yourself one very simple question: Are your debts causing you any trouble, on any level at all?

If they are, then you have a debting problem, or are likely to be on your way to one. That’s the bad news. The good news is, there’s a way out.

For some, the answer might simply be an awareness of what’s been going on, coupled with a knowledge that debting can become a serious problem, and a change in how they deal with money. For others, a more structured and supportive program may be desirable, like the one detailed in my own book, How to Get Out of Debt, Stay Out of Debt, and Live Prosperously, assistance from a local office of the nonprofit national National Foundation for Credit Counseling (www.nfcc.org) or membership in the self-help program Debtors Anonymous (www.debtorsanonymous.org).

For now, if you are having trouble with debt, here are four simple steps you can take that will have an immediate, positive impact upon your situation.

  1. Surrender – admit to yourself that you have a debting problem and that it has caused a lot of pain and trouble in your life.
  2. One day at a time, don’t incur any new unsecured debt.
  3. Destroy your credit cards and charge cards.
  4. Keep a record of all your expenses – from a 75¢ pack of gum to a $200 sweater – for one month. This will show you, which you have probably never known before, exactly where your money is going each month.

Finally, be of good cheer. What getting free of debt – and debting – is really about, is opening yourself up to prosperity and abundance, to a state of thriving, and to living a life that truly feels good to live, one day at a time.

Godspeed.