Engineering an Escape from Poverty
November 15, 2023
"You probably couldn't get much poorer in America," James quipped, explaining the small, rural New England town that he grew up in. One part of the town hosted a factory, another a trailer park, and the largest part of the town was farmland. Like many others in the small town, James' family did not have a lot of money. James remembers how the newest car that his father could purchase had about 130,000 miles on it. James explained that "everyone was pretty much poor and got poorer over time" – it was "all just kind of normal."
Both of James' parents were born and raised in the same small hometown (James noted that "no one ever leaves that town"). James' maternal grandfather was an alcoholic and after divorcing James' maternal grandmother, he was often with younger women who would "take care" of him. Most of James' mother's sisters were also divorced. In contrast, "everybody stays married" among James' father's many siblings. James' parents filed for divorce when James was two or three years old.
At first, James lived with his mother. Over the years, she invited different boyfriends to live with them. While it "wasn't a large rotation" of men, they were nearly all unemployed alcoholics that James "never got along" with. James believes that his mother was drawn to these men from the caretaking pattern modeled by his grandfather. She had a daughter with one of these men when James was six years old.
James' mother had a "difficult" and sometimes volatile personality. Her anxiety and explosive outbursts caused tension and instability in the household. In one incident, she had been sleeping before her night shift and James and his sister were responsible for waking her up in time for her to go to work. When they woke her up, she was stressed and began screaming at James. In another incident when James was eight, he came home from school like any regular weekday. He finished his chores and asked his mother if he could go outside to play. She refused to let him leave. James asked why, as he had done everything he was supposed to do. James' mother would not provide an answer. James threw a fit and hurled his backpack down. After silently watching him, she then told James, "See, I would have let you go out, but I knew you were going to throw a fit." James felt confused and betrayed. Later on, James realized that this episode was just one incident in an emotionally abusive pattern of "twisting." Beyond that, James was frustrated with his mother's arbitrary parenting. James felt that she constantly changed rules at the house, depending on how she felt, and in doing so, she "invalidated all of them." James thought "the rules over there were random. I disregarded all the rules." James speculates that she may have untreated borderline personality disorder, although she was never officially diagnosed since she refused to attend therapy. Whatever the underlying cause, James felt that she was "not really wired to be a parent."
In third grade, James deliberately cut his hand with broken glass he found behind his school. James remembers that "It wasn't really a conscious thing at all. It just seemed like the thing to do." He was too young to know exactly what he was doing, and he had not "heard of anybody doing that [cutting]." The habit continued off and on until he was 18. In retrospect, James believes he was driven to self-harm from "the chaos with regards to [his] mother." Around this time, James also began experiencing recurring nightmares. The nightmares would begin with flat bunnies that would grow, "like those little dinosaurs that you put in water." Once the bunnies expanded and "came to life," they would come closer to expose their terrifyingly large fangs. Then they would attempt to kill James. Another of his nightmares involved a baby who lived in the walls of a building. At least once or twice a week, James "would wake up screaming" from a nightmare.
Around eight years old, James decided to move in with his father. His father's house was across town and more importantly, "peaceful" and calm – a nice reprieve from the chaotic time with his mother. In contrast to his mother, James' father laid out rules that made sense to him (e.g. "you should come back when it's dark").
James' father was a man of self-reliance. Thinking he was being helpful, James once told his father that he had heard about "this paperwork" allowing "other kids to get free lunch" and added "we can, too." His father immediately refused. He possessed too much pride and did not believe in "depending on the government." Instead, he gave James some cash ("probably the last few dollars that he had"). James never saw the bills, but knew how much his father sacrificed for him. He came to understand his family's financial situation one day in sixth grade when he went to make Kool-aid with tap water from the sink. He turned the spout, but no water came out. He realized that his father was unable to pay the water bill, and that he was "about to move again." James recalls, "You're really poor when you can't afford tap water." Nevertheless, James' father did manage to purchase a computer and video games, which James loved to play. James' father "made himself go broke trying to make [James] happy." He even gave gifts to James' half sister, although she was "definitely not his kid."
Around age ten or eleven of age, James decided to move back in with his mother. At first, James' father was "pretty sad" about James leaving, but agreed to let James leave if it made him happy. After about six months, James found that living at his mother's house was "too wild." So James once again returned to his father's house and subsequently "bounced back and forth." James' parents' relationship remained amicable in that they "never said anything bad about each other" and James' father would not tolerate James speaking poorly of his mother. When James expressed his disdain for his mother by using "a bunch of four letter words," his father immediately shut him down.
As James reached adolescence, he began showing academic promise in school. He earned good grades, and outside of his classes, James' "main activity was… money." He became obsessed with inventing strategies to make money in order to purchase more computer games. He also knew that when he grew up, he wanted to be able to afford "a car that didn't break."
James' first scheme was selling candy at school. While walking to school or to the bus stop, he would drop into a convenience store and spend $5 on a whole case of candy. He would then resell this candy to students at his school with a 50% markup. He continued this practice every day until a teacher more strictly enforced the ban on selling candy. James also saved money by using the cash that his father gave him for lunch to buy "half of a lunch off a kid who got free lunch." This was mutually beneficial: James got a "cheap lunch" and the other kid got cash.
James started his first official job at age fourteen, working at a rose garden where he watered and maintained the plants. The next summer, he pumped gas, earning about two hundred dollars per week in the 1990s. He worked at the garage pumping gas for about a year. He saved the cash he received with one goal in mind – to purchase a computer.
James' passion for computers and gaming started early on in life. Growing up, James loved playing video games. He was six years old when he began playing Atari, one of the first early home gaming systems. He soon aspired to create his own video game. In second grade, James asked his teacher if he could bring his math book home from school, as he "heard you need math to do computer stuff." He liked playing "little math games" at the computer lab at school. In high school typing class, another student showed James how to quit the typing program and access QBasic, a computer programming language of that time. James learned how to change the background screen color using the programming language and he thought to himself, "I can make a video game now!" He taught himself QBasic from computer programming books and soon purchased some books about C++. James remembers being inspired by reading about John Carmack, whose name he first saw on the credits of Doom. Eventually, James was able to make different components of computer games.
Despite his programming interests and tendency to isolate and remain silent, James was a somewhat social teenager. He endeared himself with various circles at school, engaging with all sorts of people, from the academic "nerds" to the drug abusers. James also befriended the athletic "sports people," who would pay him to do their homework. Even being a part of these different crowds, James still sensed that he was "different" from his peers.
In his sophomore year of high school, James found himself the target of several bullies who "just started yelling at [him]". The bullies picked on many students, especially on those with a perceived weakness. In James' case, they likely "just chose somebody who was skinny and malnutritioned and had bad clothes." They stood at the head of a set of stairs and spit down on unsuspecting students, including James. Fed up with the harassment, James alerted several teachers about the bullying. The teachers were indifferent and unwilling to intervene. The bullying intensified in his junior year. However, during James' senior year, "Columbine happened" and the bullies finally relented. In the wake of the tragedy, the bullies "realized that they had to stop" for fear of pushing their targets to commit serious violence. James also noticed that his teachers became more responsive to reports of bullying.
After graduating from high school, James immediately began working at a local factory. Although he dreamed about going to college for computer games, no one in his family had attended college and "he didn't really know how." He applied for several scholarships, thinking the scholarships would enable him to get into a university. His applications were denied and James was uncertain of his next move. He also "didn't want to waste money" on expensive college application fees.
Eventually, James got his own place and formed a band with a few friends. One day, James looked at the band and saw that some of his bandmates were perpetually drunk, while others abused pills ("standard band stuff"). James realized that he had enough and became determined to enroll in college, shrugging off the cost of attendance ("so what if school costs tens of thousands of dollars? I'm broke anyway"). His mother co-signed his student loan, an act that James is deeply grateful for. Meanwhile, James' father was overcome with pride upon hearing of James' plans: James was "the first person" in his family and his extended family to attend college.
James rapidly immersed himself in all that the school had to offer. He would "work day and night" on his coding. He would stay on campus from the time the school opened its doors at 8 AM until its closure at 10 PM. Next, he would go home and "do more homework" because to him, it "was just all fun." Finally his vision of becoming a video game developer was becoming a reality. However, his childhood nightmares returned. They had recurred throughout his life, but were manageable due to their relative infrequency. In college, in response to the stress from how hard he was pushing himself, the nightmares worsened. The dreams revolved around "fighting" and a "stalemate struggle" between James and "some zombie-looking dead things." He still saw the bunnies chasing him and the baby, but they paled in comparison to the fighting. James believes the zombie imagery originated from either video games or from "watching horror movies."
James wanted to seek out therapy to improve his sleeping, but he did not have any extra money or even proper health insurance to afford it. Instead, he focused on his coursework and on finding internship and job opportunities to gain more exposure to the gaming industry. James fulfilled a childhood dream by interning at an Xbox company, and at the end of his third year of college, he secured a full-time paid software job. James finished his fourth and final year of college by balancing his senior classes and his full-time job.
After graduation, James stayed with the company until they went out of business. James went on to join several other startups, mostly for one-year stints. At first, James trusted many of his managers, thinking "oh, they're so smart, they have a business." Over time, however, James witnessed that "everything that could go wrong in the company went wrong." At one startup, he heard that the CFO was "borrowing" 401k funds. That startup closed three months later. Another startup that James worked for was acquired by Hewlett Packard and subsequently shut down. During the 2008 economic crash, James had four consecutive full-time jobs. He followed each company to their end. James went on to found or take part in founding several companies; "each of them didn't go very far for various reasons." Most of the startups were located in Seattle, where James now permanently resides.
With health insurance through work, James started attending therapy to address some of the relationship issues he was going through and his recurring nightmares that arose in childhood. At first, James was not sure what to expect. He resisted lying down on the therapist's couch, because he thought that it was "too cheesy." He instead preferred to sit face-to-face with his therapist. Several sessions passed before James acclimated to the therapy process and within two months of weekly therapy sessions, James' nightmares subsided.
As the therapy expanded into more difficult areas of life, James realized that it was easier to recline and stare at the ceiling than look someone in the eyes, particularly while discussing painful childhood experiences in great detail. One day, he simply walked in and stated, "I'm going to go to the couch today." He was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was "easier" to recount his experiences and share his inner thoughts. Sometimes, James was exhausted and would fall asleep for a little while.
Feeling impatient with the therapeutic process, James wanted real feedback, "right away." James compares his frustration to a scene from the Sopranos, where Tony Soprano angrily asks his therapist why she would not "just give him the answers." As James saw it, the trained therapists "obviously [knew] what was going on" and that he is "just not that special" and was "a series of patterns." He figured he could not be the "only person who's had these struggles." Just like in the Sopranos, the therapist insisted she did not "obviously know".
Later on, James tried out other therapists, in part because of changes in insurance coverage as he went through different jobs. James felt that his other therapy experiences "were almost like ninth grade English class homework." The sessions seemed aimless. Instead of offering James direction or expert advice, the therapists would repeatedly ask, "How does that make you feel?"
After several of these experiences, James realized that he really appreciated his initial therapist and decided to go back to her, even when he had to pay cash. In contrast to the other therapists, the initial therapist would "contribute some opinions and adjust [his] answers" in a manner that inspired James to positively change his life. For example, the therapist helped James improve his relationship with his sister by reframing their interactions. In one instance, James' sister asked James for financial planning advice. When he offered tangible insights on how to improve her returns, she became disinterested. Through his therapist, James realized that his sister wanted "to hear from her older brother that she's done a good job" – in that instant, she did not really want to hear ways in which she could do better. Before, James perceived their conversations as "just math problems," but discovered that for his sister and others, they were actually "feelings problems." James also asked his therapist about a director at his work who frequently interrupted and spoke over others. With his therapist, he brainstormed the best approach to confronting the director. After listening to James' predicament, the therapist told James to say, "Hey, can you please wait? We're having a meeting here and you're interrupting." Back at his office, James tried out her advice and was successful in conveying his message without "blowing up the room."
At one point, James also signed up for group therapy. He notes that "everybody in there kind of had a dark sense of humor. We just called it Depression class. It was great." Asked if he benefited from the experience, James says "Yeah, it helped me. It actually helped me to see other people and think like I have nothing to complain about." James also said that while he originally thought of anxiety pills as "a rip-off", in the context of the group therapy, he "saw a guy come in and his medications had changed, and he really struggled with that… I saw this guy before, and he was kind of happy and outgoing. And then he was just like a shaking mess because of coming off the meds, and he really needed something."
Interwoven with his journey with therapy was the evolution of James' relationship with his mother. When James turned twenty-six, he nearly swore off talking to his mother ever again because she had forgotten his birthday and was "busy with this guy who was on pills." Exasperated by his mother's apparent lack of concern, James stopped communicating with her for a year.
One night, James slept for about thirty minutes before waking up "strung out" from caffeine and stress. He went into the other room and started "crying and freaking out." His whole body began shaking with anxiety. When his emotions tempered, he realized that his panic was "related to not talking to [his] mother" and that "this isn't healthy for me." James resolved that he would reconnect with his mother.
In part because of therapy, James realized that "what she had been through" forced her to "end up the way she was." It was up to James to "take the good things" and leave "the bad things" in their relationship. With this mindset, James called his mother and was cordial. He "didn't talk about problems." His mother seemed happy to hear from him. But beneath the pleasantries, James wondered when his mother would finally "admit the things that she had done wrong."
James most wanted his mother to acknowledge that she could have paid child support for James, instead of how she "fleeced" his father. In a subsequent conversation, she defended herself, stating that she "had stopped collecting child support" from James' father, which she thought was adequate. James tried to explain that she should have offered financial support, but she refused to hear him out. After several failed attempts to confront his mother, James stopped trying to obtain an apology or explanation. Instead, he would watch TV shows with her or casually share life updates. They rarely discussed James' childhood or his father, except for one occasion. At that time, James' mother was suffering from health issues and was struggling to speak clearly. "She couldn't say what she meant," James recalls, but she did provide "some sort of picture." To understand her, James had to "put the pieces together" and realized that his mother regretted leaving his father all those years ago.
James gradually developed empathy for his mother and her difficulties. "Maybe something [was] wrong with her, apart from just being a mean person," he realized. He imagined that with therapy or another stable parent in the house, she would have been kinder to him as a child. While in therapy, James began to consider the concept of forgiveness. He struggled to comprehend it from both an emotional and religious standpoint. According to James, there is "some whole world of emotions" that he "[doesn't] seem to understand." To that end, forgiveness is "an emotional thing" that eludes him. James eventually "settled on understanding where someone's coming from." Although James has yet to forgive his mother, he "understands" her, which is sufficient for him.
Having candidly shared his escape from the financial and emotional toll of poverty, James emphasizes that he wants to "remove any kind of stigma around mental health." He encourages discussion and jokes that he would even "talk about therapy at work." At first, his co-workers thought "that's kind of weird," but a couple of them eventually confided in James that "hey, I'm going to therapy now. I never really thought I could, but you talk about it all the time."