Cash Rules Everything Around Me—Especially My Health

Illustration by Vivian Rosas

Illustration by Vivian Rosas

By Melissa Haughton

So much of how we move through the world is influenced by money. For people of colour especially, it feels like the “gift” of financial preoccupation was bestowed upon many of us at birth. Think hard enough and you can likely pinpoint the moment cash began to rule everything around you.

For me, it was after my mom passed away in my adolescence. It’s impossible to summarize all the ways my life changed after her death, but the swift promotion from eldest child to my dad’s second-in-command—coupled with a new awareness of the adult world—was the most unexpected. 

While I’d always been aware of our financial situation—we visited thrift stores before it was trendy—the changed family dynamic meant I received much more knowledge than I knew what to do with. Requests to my dad for school trips and other teen must-haves (coloured skinny jeans!) were usually met with “Can it wait until payday?” 

Living in a mostly middle- to upper-middle-class area west of Toronto, this felt isolating, in no small part thanks to the large detached homes and streams of spending money I’d seen growing up with some of my peers. But appearances rarely tell the whole story. In 2017, a Canadian Payroll Association study found that 49% of Ontarians live paycheque to paycheque. Statistics also confirm that the income divide only continues to grow across the region—and that disparity is falling along racial lines, with Toronto’s ethnic communities bearing the brunt of the “suburbanization of poverty.”

There’s a particular kind of anxiety that comes with trying to ensure money stretches to the end of the month. Chronic stress has far-reaching impacts on mental and physical health, for Black communities in particular. It’s well known that Caribbean folx are at increased risk of developing high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, and these conditions are exacerbated by the persistent stress of trying to make ends meet.

The first stressful decision I made about money concerned my education. I come from a musical family, and since I wasn’t shaping up to be the next Alice Coltrane, I figured good grades were the best avenue for my journey towards parental approval.

In high school, this meant keeping my grades at an honours level. So when I was accepted to my first choice for post-secondary studies—Carleton University’s journalism program—with a partial scholarship, it felt like my work had paid off. My dad was proud!

But it didn’t take long to figure out that even with a scholarship, like an alarming number of students, I would still graduate with a significant amount of debt. I made the last-minute decision to enroll in a degree program at a local college instead. I deferred moving out and commuted to school from the suburbs on public transit, which took about an hour and a half each way. To pay for school, I worked as a server, got a second job on campus and wrote.

Saving money for school, managing competing schedules and spending hours on public transit put immense pressure on me, and left no time to prioritize my health. Getting home late every day quickly birthed a routine that involved fast food, limited sleep and finishing assignments at the eleventh hour. I felt like the walking dead.

Looking back, I was clearly emulating behaviour I’d seen in both my family and our broader community: constantly pushing through exhaustion and working multiple jobs, often in customer support, health care or caregiving roles. Despite the fact that Black people are overrepresented in these sectors, much-needed support is often difficult to come by for Black folx seeking assistance. Studies have even pointed to racial bias in medicine, finding that Black pain is often underestimated and undertreated. 

It seems we’ve been conditioned—by choice or necessity—to grin and bear hardship. Yet research confirms what many of us have long suspected: suppressing our way through stress, hardship and trauma seems necessary for survival, but it remains deeply detrimental to our physical and mental health

Recognizing this, I no longer feel the need to be Black Superwoman. I’m moving my mind out of constant survival mode, parting ways with my own personal brand of martyrdom, saying no to things that are outside of my capacity, and recognizing that rest is just as valuable as a direct deposit. I’m not an expendable commodity. Now, I write out my thoughts and stresses. I work out, mostly because it helps to ground me and quiet my mind like little else can. Automatic savings deductions, however small, help ease my financial anxieties. And though I’ll always keep space for fried plantain, I now make room for greens too (which are well seasoned, don’t @ me).

My friends tease me for my tendency to make moves in silence, but it’s where I do my best work. I’m finally choosing to make space for myself and all aspects of my health, the way I’ve long made sacrifices for the pursuit of success. I think my dad will be proud of that too.

Melissa Haughton is a Toronto-based writer, podcaster and travel enthusiast. You can find her waxing poetic about everything from politics to plantain on Twitter @melissahaute and Y’all Got Me podcast.