Twenty-six years ago, I bottomed out on debt and money, ending up $50,000 in unsecured debt (about $110,000 in today’s dollars), with expenses of $3,000 a month, and a reliable income of $350 a month. I was living in torment, despair, and hopelessness. That is not hyperbole. I thought my life was over.

I had once had, and then lost, just about everything I’d ever wanted: My marriage was gone, my children were gone, my home, my career. My library was gone, my dogs, my stone walls, my oak trees. My books were out of print. I was alone and living in a tiny little room in the city. I was alive, but there wasn’t  a great deal more to say for me. I was a year off substance abuse.

Fortunately – by grace, circumstance, or simple dumb luck – I got introduced to the idea that if I wanted to recover from this chronic indebtedness, the first thing I needed to do was not to incur any more of it, any new unsecured debt. (I had been carrying some ongoing amount of it, progressive, ever increasing, every day, every month for two decades. Since I was a writer, I told myself, with an uneven income, you couldn’t expect me to handle money the way other people did). Now, I became dumbstruck by the obvious: If I didn’t borrow any more money, charge anything more, let the rent or bills for services like telephone and electricity go unpaid till the last moment, until I was facing severe consequences, then I wouldn’t go any deeper into debt.

Astonishing.

I got it immediately.

And one day at a time – just for one day, this day – I began not to incur another dollar’s worth of unsecured debt. No matter what that meant, no matter what I had to do, or not do.

Easy to say. Not so easy to do.

Still reeling from the effects of years of debting, I had to face Christmas, and this hard and painful fact: no matter how I contorted my Spending Plan, I had no money for presents. None. This verged on torment. Most of my life, I had spent a great deal on Christmas presents, especially for my two children; it was something I wanted to do, that I enjoyed doing, that gave me a lot pleasure.

What I did that Christmas – though it wasn’t easy, in fact, damn difficult – was inform the people I customarily bought gifts for, including my two sons, that while I regretted it, and loved them, and would be thinking of them, I had no money for gifts this year.

My youngest son was fourteen then. He was with me for the weekend. He listened with a seriousness that was caused by my own discomfort.

He said, “That’s okay, Dad. I understand. You shouldn’t feel bad.” Then he brightened, and with excitement said, “I already know what I’m getting you. I think you’re going to like it a lot.”
Instantly I said, “Don’t get me anything, Jesse. I don’t want a present.” His face changed. His excitement vanished, the joy died. He looked like he’d been kicked in the stomach, like I’d whipped him. I felt sick. We were both silent.

What I did next was hard – because I didn’t want anything from him, because I couldn’t accept anything from him, since I was failing him and didn’t deserve anything – but I forced myself to apologize, to say that I understood, that it was fine, that he could give me a present and that I’d be happy to get it.

His eyes grew moist – they don’t often do that – and he hugged me, and in a few moments he was his usual cheerful self again.

What I had done, because of my own inability to receive, was to rip away from my son his right to give me a gift, to do something for me that he wanted to do, to turn him away, to reject him. I had hurt him at that moment, and badly.

I did give gifts to my sons that Christmas, I gave them what I could. I wrote them each a very personal letter, speaking of their lives, from my first moments with them onward, and telling then how much they had meant to me, how much they did mean to me now, and how much I loved them. I gave something else to them that Christmas too, and gave the same thing to myself and everyone else I know, though it is an abstract thing and more difficult to grasp, and I could not see it then. I gave them my own recovery. I gave them a father, a son, a brother, lover, friend, fellow-traveler and acquaintance who had brought the downward spiral of accumulating debt and distorted relationship with money to an end and who was growing stronger, healthier, clearer and more capable every day, perhaps more than he had ever been, even in the years before the trouble with debt began.

In retrospect, it turned out to be one of the best Christmases I’ve ever had. Then, and now. And my life is easier, more hospitable, and certainly more worth the living because of it – that season a little more than a quarter of a century ago when I had no money for presents, none at all, and wouldn’t debt, and instead gave my children what I could.