Today, we have another edition of our interview series on overcoming adversity. We'll hear from Chris, who blogs over at Money Stir. Chris and his sisters grew up in a house where they endured consistent psychological abuse from their mother. As bad as that sounds (and it was) Chris's story is one that offers hope to anyone who may have been in a similar situation as a child (or adult).
Like all of my interviews, you will find hope and encouragement in Chris's story. You will also find brutal honesty as he described how it felt during that time, the guilt he felt over his sisters, the financial consequences as an adult, and how he triumphed over all of that.
On his blog, Chris writes about personal finance, focusing on budgeting, debt, and mortgage. You'll also find articles on personal development and financial independence. I encourage you to check out his blog.
With that brief introduction, here's Chris.
If you have overcome significant adversity (who hasn't?) of any kind and want to talk about it, I'd love to hear from you. Complete the contact form or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tell us a little about yourself
I was born in Helena, MT when my parents were very young (around 19 years old). I have three biological sisters, and two siblings with a different mom.
My dad joined the Air Force, and we moved every four years or so up through when I was around 14 years old. He ended up leaving the military and settling down in Billings, MT. At that point, I had lived in Oklahoma, Texas, California, Oregan, and Ohio.
I met my wonderful wife, Andrea, when I was serving as a leader in our church’s youth group (she was also a leader). After dating for 6-months and being engaged for another 6-months, we got married in 2005.
We have two daughters ages seven and ten years old. Andrea and I manage a local beauty salon, in addition to me working full time. Andrea is a cosmetologist.
I’m 35 years old and have been married for about 14 years.
Tell us a little about your career path
Ever since I started messing with code in middle school, I was fascinated with programming. My interest took off when I went to a programming class in high school. I read books and took online tutorials to create websites. This skill tapped into my self-learner mindset and helped prepare me for the future.
I was never an exceptional student, but I mostly got A’s and B’s in high school. I landed an internship at a local web development agency when I was a junior in high school. After high school, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I ended up taking a job at my church as an assistant. I stayed there for about a year before I quit to go to college.
I got a lot of attention in our youth group for doing skits and videos. So I decided to pursue getting a liberal arts degree in theater and enrolled in my local state college. After a semester I started asking myself how I was going to make money from this degree, and what options it would provide. I decided to quit college and pursue web development.
I took on a job for around $8/hour at a local web development agency. For the next 5-years, I learned how to manage priorities, improve my work ethic, and get valuable experience building websites. It was a tough job, but the experience was invaluable. I gathered that as long as I learned from my mistakes, worked hard, was reliable, and continued learning, I would probably do very well being a PHP web developer.
After 5-years, I quit that job to help start a church in Helena, MT. I switched between a government job and managing a team of developers as a contract worker before landing a remote job working for a web development agency based out of Washington, DC. At that job, I did well and ended up getting promoted to lead the programming department.
I was never the smartest person around, but few people could match my tenacity. I continue to work as a remote employee out of my home office building websites in primarily Drupal and WordPress.
At several points in my career, I was intimidated by how my resume compared with others. I didn’t have a college degree, but I had a ton of experience and did well wherever I worked. I'm not sure I’ve ever been in a situation where there was a high chance of me getting fired, but I did feel that way at times.
That's probably because I've always felt like I have been more critical of myself than anyone else.
You wrote an article about your experience growing up with a disturbed mother. Can you share more about that?
My mom would go through extreme mood swings. One minute she would be the most friendly and energetic person you would meet. Other times, that energy would manifest itself into intense anger, yelling and violence. I don’t think she was medically diagnosed as being bi-polar, but she appeared to have these symptoms.
Most of my experience with my mom when I was younger was trying to protect my sisters from her wrath and manipulation, especially after my parents got a divorce when I was eleven years old. Out of everything she did, it bothered me the most when she would talk bad about my dad. She portrayed him as this monster and would tell us these stories of what he did. I was old enough to know these stories were not true.
I hated feeling like I had to choose sides. About being forced to decide which parent I loved more. Because even with all of their issues, I loved both of my parents.
One of the hardest decisions of my life was when I decided to live with my dad and leave my sisters with my mom when I was 14-years old. My dad ended up getting full custody of my siblings within 1-2 years after that, but I can’t help but feel like I abandoned my sisters
I remember receiving a letter after I decided to live with my dad that was “supposedly” written by my oldest sister. It went on about how horrible of a brother I was for leaving my sisters to live with my evil father. I knew right away my mom wrote it. Even though I knew this was a way my mom was trying to manipulate my feelings, there was a part of me that thought she was right about me abandoning my sisters. These feelings still haunt me today.
Through all of this, I do not hate my mom. I feel like she has untreated mental health issues, and struggles with self-confidence.
But even outside of my relationship with my mom, my family was full of conflict and fighting. There wasn’t much emotional or physical affection showed to each other. For whatever reason, I felt that my primary role was to play peacemaker.
It was like I became allergic to conflict.
I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been. What impact has that had on you as an adult?
Through my childhood experiences, I developed a defensive mechanism that hated conflict. Most of the conflict I experienced growing up was driven by extreme hate and anger.
I would hyper-avoid conflict at all costs, which led to people pleasing and becoming somewhat passive-aggressive. I learned to internalize conflicts and struggles because I felt like I was alone.
Even though I’ve done well in my career, I’ve noticed a few similarities I have with my mom:
- Obsessive and driven nature
- I tend to be over-reactive
- Albeit it isn’t as extreme as what my mom would go through, I do experience mood swings
To this day, I struggle with self-confidence. Part of me feels like I am a fraud and am not good enough.
These words are hard for me to write since they hit close to home. But my biggest fear is being alone.
I desperately wanted to show affection, but for the longest time, I had a hard time expressing myself, especially towards Andrea. Thinking about it now, I believe this came from being worried that I was going to get hurt if I exposed myself.
Fear and worry have been central in my life for too long. When you are always reacting to these emotions, it becomes easy to justify stupid decisions.
You talked about how the experience changed how you viewed and used the money. How so?
Money for me became a way to numb my pain.
Early in adulthood, I spent more than I made on things that would provide me temporary relief. It also didn’t help that as a kid, I felt like we never had much money and were always financially tight.
I’ve always done an excellent job tracking expenses and paying bills, but even seeing the financial damage I caused, I would internalize what was happening. Ignoring the disaster led to marital conflicts, and for a time, Andrea and I weren’t emotionally close.
Through all of this, my wife stayed by my side. I’m learning that my mindset and actions were toxic, and I was dragging my family down. Up through last year, we ended up paying off $100k+ in consumer debt over about 15-years (credit cards, personal loans, lines of credit).
I’m a firm believer that most money problems, especially in regards to spending, are masking deeper core problems. This idea was true in my case.
How were you able to change these habits?
I stopped trying to push down my internal pain through my spending. I was sick of not having very much to show for our hard work.
My bad spending habits were masking a much deeper issue that also came out in my marriage. I started communicating and opening up more to Andrea, and we started talking about the future we want to pursue together.
We paid off all our consumer debts and this year are focused on building our emergency fund and saving over 55% of our income towards our future. Andrea and I are closer than ever, and I’m focused on learning from my mistakes for my family.
I’m learning to tap into my desire for intimacy by pursuing my family with a deep passion. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for them, and I want to give them the family I never had.
We’ve lost a lot of time, but we are motivated to make up for it by being more conscious of our spending and pursuing our dreams. Launching Money Stir in the middle of December 2018 has been helpful in that I can share my pain, struggles, bad decisions, and progress with the world. In a lot of ways, putting my thoughts in writing has been incredibly therapeutic.
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What encouragement would you give to anyone who grew up in an abusive household like you and your sister?
I’m not looking to justify the actions of our abusers, but I’m also learning that we are all broken in unique ways. However, this isn’t to say that what happened wasn’t wrong, or that we should pretend these actions didn’t happen. Seeing everyone as being unique broken vessels has helped me embrace forgiveness and start the healing process.
I could sit here and blame my mom for all of my bad financial decisions. But that wouldn’t be fair. Sure, I was responding to the pain I experienced, but no one made me make these stupid financial choices. I wasted about 15 years, where our net worth could have grown if I paid more attention to what was going on.
It’s easy to look at the past and feel guilty for the time we’ve lost. Time is the most valuable thing we have. But what is more important is to think about the time you have left and how your life can change if you turn things around.
I’m learning how much my mindset and the way I think came from my experiences as a child. These things have caused unnecessary pain and suffering, and it caused me to go into massive credit card debt. Once I stopped ignoring this pain and started tackling the core issues, I was able to start the healing process. We like easy fixes, but childhood tragedies are not easy to recover from and take time to heal.
At times, you might feel you are inadequate or not worthy. But know these thoughts are lies. I believe God wants the best for all of us and he experiences the devastation we feel. But he allows us to go through the pain from our choices so we can grow.
The best we can do is make good decisions with the time we have left. Who knows—the future could end up much brighter than we hope.
Thank you, Chris, for sharing your story. I know it isn't easy putting yourself out there like this. I also know that you, like others I've interviewed, do this to help anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation. your story offers hope and encouragement.
It also sheds light on the many forms of abuse. Your realization of the brokenness of your mom (and all of us) allowed you to enter the road toward forgiveness. Kudos to you for doing that. Many people end up in a state of resentment and anger. Sadly, they only hurt themselves by staying in that state of mind.
Please join me in thanking Chris for telling his story. Let him know in the comments below. If you've faced similar circumstances, how did you overcome? We want to hear from you.
Fred started the blog Money with a Purpose in October 2017. The blog focused on three primary areas: Personal Finance, Overcoming Adversity, and Lifestyle. During his time at Money with a Purpose, he was quoted in Forbes, USA Today and appeared in Money Magazine, MarketWatch, The Good Men Project, Thrive Global and many other publications.
In April 2019, Fred, along with two other partners, acquired The Money Mix website. To focus his time and energy where he could be the most productive, Fred recently merged Money with a Purpose with The Money Mix. You can now find all of his great content right here on The Money Mix, along with content from some of the brightest minds in personal finance.