A Long Flight Home
The story of Wealth Watchers really begins on March 28, 2000 when my life changed, suddenly and unexpectedly, forever.
That afternoon, I boarded a plane near Steamboat Springs, Colorado with my close friend Mary Kay Clinton and her five-year-old daughter Katy Rose. After a wonderful ski vacation, we were heading home to Chicago and the last gray remnants of winter. We boarded the airplane directly from the tarmac, and I was such a tourist that I was snapping photos of us waiting to climb the stairs onto the plane.
The plane was not very full and since our assigned seats were in a cramped row, we moved to the emergency row and settled in. It didn't occur to us that Katy Rose was too young to be in an emergency row seat and the flight attendants didn't ask us to move. In the window seat, I almost immediately dozed off. Though the vacation was fun, I hadn't slept well and I nodded off quickly. As the plane ascended into clear skies, the oxygen masks suddenly dropped from above. The other passengers seemed startled but not truly alarmed. Groggy from sleep, I assumed it was a mistake, a malfunction. There was no announcement from the pilot or the flight attendants about a problem.
But when, seconds later, people started putting on their masks I began to worry. Our masks seemed stuck in the overheads. I began pulling at my mask with so much force that I was afraid I'd disconnect it from the oxygen supply. Mary Kay finally wrestled the masks down and we put ours on before helping Katy Rose with hers.
Within minutes, Mary Kay decided her mask wasn't functioning properly. Assuming that ours were fine, she got up to move across the aisle. The flight attendants appeared wearing masks and oxygen tanks. Now we knew something was wrong and I felt my first wave of real panic. The flight attendants wouldn't allow Katy Rose to stay in the emergency row so they moved her and her mother to another row. The flight attendant asked me if I could operate the emergency door. I nodded, but I hoped it wouldn't come to that.
The more time passed, the more I thought there was a good chance that we were all going to die. For some strange reason, I wanted to be sure that my IDs would be with my body so I wrapped the straps of my purse around one hand and held on tightly. As an estate planning lawyer, I'm probably a little morbid...maybe because we're always helping people prepare for the worst. I always encourage our clients to put letters for their children with their estate planning papers just in case something happens to them sooner rather than later. I thought about the letters I'd written to Eddie and Andy, my two boys from my first marriage. The letters were in a folder with my estate planning documents and were to be given to the boys in case I died unexpectedly while they were young. KC, my one-year-old daughter from my second marriage, was home with my husband Dan. I remember feeling awful that I'd not gotten around to writing a letter to her. Right before my thoughts grew muddled, I mused that it would be my only regret.
I felt as though someone's hand was covering my nose and mouth. Breathing was labored but, having never used an oxygen mask before, I made the foolish assumption that this was how they were supposed to work. I still hadn't heard any announcement from the pilot. Having no information was awful. Steamboat Springs sits high in the Rockies and the plane managed to clear the mountains and then leveled off and descended toward Denver for an emergency landing. At some point after we were at a lower altitude, the pilot announced that we could remove our oxygen masks. It was a huge relief to be able to breathe normally. I think I would have passed out if I'd had to wear the oxygen mask for another second.
We had a smooth landing in Denver. We had been airborne for only about thirty minutes. But I'm sure everyone on the plane had thought we were going to die. With no explanation, the airline personnel rushed us onto another flight to Chicago.
I asked the flight attendant from the new crew if there were free drinks for the people from the aborted flight. The guy sitting next to me looked concerned. "I think you're in shock," he said. I didn't pay much attention to his diagnosis, but it was true that something inside my head didn't feel right. When we landed in Chicago I found my mom, who had come to pick me up. I don't have much of a memory of the ride home except that my mother said, "I think something is wrong with you."
I told her I was fine and when I got in the door, I was just grateful to be home and safe with my family. But when I kissed Dan, I realized my face was numb. I thought it was funny -- probably a good indication that my ability to think logically and clearly was impaired. I threw up in the shower, the wave of nausea coming suddenly with no warning. I knew our doctor, Jim Collins, was out on spring break since he and his family had been on my outbound flight from Chicago to Denver. He wouldn't be back for a few more days. I really didn't want to see anyone else, and I didn't want to go to the emergency room, so I did nothing.
The next morning, I felt a little off but I was able to go for a walk with Dan and KC. Outside in the brisk late winter air, I felt hot then cold then hot and then cold again. I had to keep sitting down along the way. We live just off the Riverwalk that winds through downtown Naperville and the brick pavers made me dizzy. I felt like I was going to pass out. By the time we made it to the playground at the other end of the Riverwalk Dan was alarmed. As a coach, he'd seen head trauma, and he thought I might have a concussion.
When I was finally examined a few days later, my doctor noticed that there was bleeding in my ear and he mentioned something about barotraumas, a type of injury due to dramatic changes in pressure that is common among scuba divers. He said that I'd probably be fine in a few days. But a few days came and went and I seemed to be even worse. He sent me to a neurologist who thought I might be suffering from migraines from the flight. It seemed an odd thing to say because I don't remember complaining of a headache.
It turned out that Mary Kay was dealing with some residual effects as well. She was feeling sick and wasn't doing very well. Mary Kay is a pit bull, and she was really annoyed that the airline hadn't acknowledged that there had been a problem on our flight. When she called the airline she was told that she was the only one on the flight who had complained. Not put off by that runaround, Mary Kay called the Federal Aviation Administration and demanded that they test the plane we had flown on. Amazingly, they did. They told me later that they had tested the plane and found that the masks in our row had malfunctioned again during the test.
That didn't do me much good. I was just struggling to get through the day and not thinking clearly enough to worry about culpability. I just wanted to feel like my old self.
Friends suggested I should get some rest and that I'd be fine. But I wasn't fine. I was an absolute mess. My sons, who were eleven and sixteen at the time, had come home from a spring break with their father a few days after I made it home. I didn't want to tell them what had happened to me because I didn't want them to be afraid to fly. But it was obvious. I couldn't even say their names correctly. I couldn't understand what they were saying when they were both talking at the same time. They were so frustrated with me that I had to tell them about the flight. "You're just going to have to cut me some slack for a while," I told them and they both started to cry.
Eddie disappeared and came back a few minutes later to tell me that the airline was on the phone for me. He had called the airline on his own and started yelling at people until he was put in touch with someone from the Claims Department. When I got on the phone I didn't know whether I should be embarrassed or proud. How funny that Mary Kay, a multiple Emmy Award-winning television producer, had had a terrible time getting anyone to take her call...and my sixteen-year-old son was able to get through to the right people on his first try. The airline representative seemed genuinely concerned about what had happened to me and he promised to have someone from their medical team follow up with me. But nobody ever did.
I figured the airline's reaction was standard operating procedure. Deny liability. Nearly a year later, I filed a lawsuit which, at this writing more than nine years after the incident, is still pending. Fortunately for Mary Kay, she began to feel better quickly and had no residual aftereffects. In my addled state of mind, I didn't put two and two together: She'd found a functioning oxygen mask quickly enough to avoid injuring her brain. By staying in my seat, I had sealed my fate.
After I had an EEG, the neurologist's nurse called to let me know that the test showed slowing, a definite sign of a brain injury. Even though I had begun to suspect as much, I was stunned. It was so devastating because in my heart of hearts I was hoping that nothing was wrong and that I would be back to normal any day. In fact, four more months went by before I had a clear moment. Life became a series of muddled days and nights during which I tried fruitlessly to recover. At least I'd finally gotten an accurate diagnosis. My doctor said it was an anoxic brain injury -- damage caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain. When the brain doesn't receive proper amounts of glucose and oxygen, nerves in the cortex where brain cells originate are damaged. It takes only five minutes for a lack of oxygen to permanently damage the brain. I'd had that mask on for nearly twenty minutes. My brain had actually slowed down, the synapses weren't connecting correctly. I was staggered. Here I was just forty years old and I had brain damage. How serious it was, how permanent it was, I didn't know. But it was very real and very scary.
It is hard to describe how strange it was to lose control of my life in this way. Outwardly, I looked fine and normal so everyone expected me to be able to do everything I had done before. I hated having to explain what was going on. I sometimes felt like drawing a huge scar on my forehead. During those first few months, I had so many car accidents, mostly backing into our own cars in our driveway. Sometimes, when I couldn't remember where I was driving, I'd just have to pull over, take a deep breath, and try really hard to stay calm and think. One of my worst memories is of forgetting to pick Eddie up from a golf course. By the time I remembered and drove to the golf course, it was dark and there wasn't a single car in the parking lot. I found Eddie sitting on a curb all by himself. I hugged him and cried and told him I would never forget him again. It wasn't the end of the world for Eddie. He was finally going to get the cell phone that he'd been asking for.
I tried to go to work but it became increasingly difficult to concentrate, to remember what I knew, or to interact with clients. I couldn't sit at the computer without getting dizzy, and I simply could not focus on what was on the screen. I watched my livelihood go up in smoke.
My injury put serious strain on my marriage as well. Dan has the patience of a saint but I was driving him crazy. I think it must be true that when you're not well, you take it out on the person closest to you. Poor Dan. He bore the brunt of everything that had been upended by my brain injury. He had to get used to me being fatigued, forgetful, and crabby. I don't really remember this, but he said the greatest change in me was that I was always mad at him. Things got so bad that we wound up in marriage counseling. Dan is a very private person, but he was so desperate for help that he told the marriage counselor that my poor memory was driving him crazy. This was a turning point in my recovery. I realized that I could no longer convince myself that I was always right. I was going to have to start relying on the people around me to help me get through this. But that would be easier said than done.
I've always been a determined, organized, and independent person. I'd never been overwhelmed by pressure, and I'd successfully started my own law firm, raised a family, and stayed fit. Now it was as though a curtain had come down on that life and I had entered some kind of Twilight Zone. I can remember lying in bed at night wondering "Why me? How could this have happened to me? Nothing bad ever happens to me." I had always been able to make the best of any bad situation, but I was pretty sure I'd never be able to say that anything good came out of my brain injury.
I couldn't even do the everyday things, like pay bills and oversee the family's finances, chores that I'd always enjoyed doing. Brain injured people tend to be terrible with money. Unaware of how much they are spending, they forget to pay bills and lose track of their financial accounts. All this was suddenly happening to me but I was too stubborn to ask for help.
The first two years were the worst. I could barely function. KC was just a year old when this happened and one night, I put a plate of food in front of her as if she could feed herself. She wound up just dumping it on her head. I thought it was hysterical, but Dan was worried. I couldn't work at anywhere near my old pace and I would sometimes meet with clients and forget to ask them the right questions. Sometimes I didn't even recognize people I had just met with two weeks earlier. I began working with a neuropsychologist to help me manage my law practice. I made dozens of lists of everything I needed to do just to have some hope of keeping up. My law practice hung on by a slim thread as my ability to handle multiple tasks was disappearing I asked my brother George to help me pay our bills. Dan, who had always been very solid in handling his own finances before we were married, had been trying to help me with our finances, but for some strange reason I ignored him. Maybe it's because I didn't want him to know how bad things really were. For the first time in my life, money became a real challenge. My income tanked and my spending shot through the roof. I once lost my sunglasses -- just one of many things I lost during this crisis -- and when I went to buy a new pair, I couldn't decide which ones I liked. So I bought them all! That was just not something the old me would ever do. Now, all bets were off.
I told Dan that we were carrying a balance on our credit cards, something we'd rarely done before, and he suggested that, horror of horrors, maybe we needed to go on a budget. I told him that everything would be fine. I was sure I'd be back to my old income before we knew it. But I was wrong. A big blow came when we received a credit card bill from a company I didn't recognize with a $20,000 balance on it. I had enough sense to call the credit card company to ask about it, assuming it was a mistake. They told me that I'd received one of those promotional deals in which they include what looks like a legitimate check for some product or service. Most people toss those away but apparently I had signed the check and deposited it in our bank account as if we'd suddenly been given a surprise gift of twenty grand. I went back to our bank statement for the month and sure enough, I had deposited the check with absolutely no memory of doing so.
I did finally have the presence of mind to call our accountant, Tom Weber, and ask him for help. I had no idea what was going wrong. I asked him what seemed like an odd question: "How much money can I spend?" And his answer was brilliant: "Alice, you can't spend more money than you make." I think he meant to say that you shouldn't spend more money than you make because of course you can and I had. Big time. But it was a loud wake-up call. How much money did we make, and how much money could we spend? I became determined to find that magic number.
It was a battle, let me tell you. As things spiraled out of control, I started wishing that someone would tell me I was terminally ill. I didn't want to live the rest of my life like this. I would rather have died. Actually, money had nothing to do with my death wish. I felt wretched, trapped in a perpetual fog. And if that wasn't enough, out of nowhere I started gaining weight.
Fortunately, I come from a large family and their support brought back my optimism that I could get through this. My mom, in particular, was a lifesaver. When I had reached the end of my rope and felt like I couldn't be a lawyer anymore, she encouraged me to take time off from work and lent me enough money to keep our office up and running without me. That month off was exactly what I needed, a chance to shut off my brain and begin to heal. I began to feel better after that and I signed up for Weight Watchers in order to shed the weight I'd gained. Weight Watchers turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. Everyone has heard the name Weight Watchers, but some may be unaware of its philosophy, which is what makes it the most brilliant weight loss program available.
Simply put, Weight Watchers is not about dieting. Weight Watchers believes a healthy body results from a healthy lifestyle, which means mental, physical, and emotional health. Best of all, it's not dependent on prepackaged foods. They encourage you to set and track a daily goal for what you eat and part of that includes eating foods from the right food groups. They never tell you that you can't eat anything. In fact, they would say that you can eat anything you want as long as you plan for it. The goal at Weight Watchers is to help people make healthy eating decisions. They stress the value of exercise, good food choices in the right portions, and most of all, the importance of keeping track of what you are doing everyday so you will know exactly how many calories you are taking in. It's not about dieting, it's about changing behavior and making good choices. It was the perfect place for me. The original Weight Watchers plan was based on people attending meetings where they not only get valuable information but invaluable support and encouragement, and this is what they offered me.
At one of these meetings in 2002, it just hit me. The same principles that applied to weight loss could also work with money. It meant keeping track of money in the same way we kept track of our food intake "points." It also meant understanding down to each day how much you could spend without going into debt. Every single day would be important. It was more than keeping a budget; it was about changing your financial behavior.
When I used these methods for my own financial issues I made remarkable progress. I started to share the idea and its promise with others and it struck a chord. In fact, it was downright contagious! Like Weight Watchers, it was a simple system of accounting and accountability...in fact, the system is the solution -- simple, no excuses.
The name Wealth Watchers came to me in my sleep -- when I do some of my best thinking -- and a new business was born, which in my diminished state was probably the last thing I needed. If you are wondering how I could have even considered starting a business in the midst of this life crisis, you ask a reasonable question. The truth is, at the outset, I didn't envision starting my own business. I thought, if this concept could work for me, wouldn't there be a great opportunity to create a business and sell it to some ambitious entrepreneur? But as I pushed my way forward, I began to see that the concept was not only working for me, but that I might just be able to make this work on a larger scale if I had enough strong support, good advice, and very good luck. I never thought anything good would come out of the brain injury. But having something exciting and new to work for proved to be a potent medicine for my soul, and I began to think that maybe I had been through my ordeal for a reason.
Before my brain injury, managing money was effortless for me. I rarely made mistakes. When I was younger and money was tight, I kept a strict budget. As I grew successful and made more money, I discarded the budget. I no longer had to worry about having enough set aside to the pay the bills so I spent wisely but freely and didn't give money a second thought. Arrogance put an end to the financial discipline I'd relied on when things weren't so easy.
For many of us, the American dream is about reaching that point of financial security and freedom where you can buy a nice home, support your family comfortably, buy a decent car, take a special vacation, and afford to send your kids to college. When you are doing OK financially, you don't need to sit down every night to log in every single dime you spent that day.
But life can change very suddenly. Getting complacent about money is the surest way to get into trouble. I have learned the hard way that we set ourselves up for bad luck when we forget to be prepared for the worst. And, as many of us parents know, making things look too easy is a poor lesson for our children.
Wealth Watchers is really nothing more than a means to a positive end. It is the voice on your shoulder reminding you to think before you spend. As you will see, the discipline of keeping careful track of your spending needn't be a burden. In fact it can guarantee a completely fresh way to think about your financial condition.
My own long struggle with the brain injury and its impact on my financial life made Wealth Watchers far more than a business opportunity for me. It became a discipline, my lifeline to financial awareness. The first year we kept our daily Wealth Watchers journal, Dan and I spent $12,000 less than we had spent the year before. Looking at my financial mistakes after the brain injury, I honestly think we would have been bankrupt if we had not used Wealth Watchers. For example, I had always made savvy real estate decisions. I bought my own home when I was a single mother and watched it appreciate in value. We invested in a few condos that also appreciated dramatically. But just before the real estate bubble burst, I convinced Dan that we should cash out of the equity in our home since builders were offering ridiculous amounts of money to tear down homes in our neighborhood. We found a perfect home to move to that was only four blocks away and closed the deal on the new house before we sold our old home. And then it happened: the collapse of the subprime mortgage market and the beginning of the slide into the worst economy we have faced during my lifetime. And there we were, paying two mortgages when we could barely afford one. We had a fifteen-year mortgage on the first house that would have been paid off if it weren't for my lost income. We had to refinance it into a thirty-year mortgage. Besides funding two mortgages, we have also carried the costs of college, the costs of a law firm, and the costs of a start-up business all with lines of credit and home equity loans. I didn't realize how bad things were, mostly because I am such an optimist and I always believed things would work out. But I've had to ask for help from my family to get me through more than a few tough moments.
And I shudder to think how difficult it would have been to pass along some financial awareness to our kids without Wealth Watchers as a template.
It's easy to talk about people's struggles with money but if you are financially secure and have never worried about missing a bill payment, you can really never understand the agony of living on the edge of financial disaster. The New York Times, on February 7, 2009, ran an insightful article about "Plan B," that "whimsical reverie about the life that you could swap for the one that you were leading." Plan B used to be that bed-and-breakfast you'd run in Vermont or the round-the-world trip you'd take after you retired. Now, it has become the dreadful reality of a once secure life gone awry. "The old Plan B was a lark that you could enjoy even if you never got past the dreaming phase," the article said. "The new Plan B is a menace you can fear even if you're fully employed. It's a threat rather than an option."
So many of us have unwittingly stumbled into the new Plan B. Living off home equity loans and credit cards, facing the loss of a home, spending most of a retirement account, standing a short step away from financial hardship or disaster are unfortunate facts of life without a safety net.
My brain injury has pushed me into my own Plan B. As my ability to work diminished and my decision making became more and more muddled, my financial choices wreaked havoc. And though I'm resigned to the struggle that the brain injury has caused, I am determined to keep working and not to give up.
The concept of Wealth Watchers came to me in 2002 but it took me years to gather the courage to actually start it up. On one level, it was unthinkable to start a new business. It was hard enough to keep up with my estate planning practice. And for some unfounded reason, I worried that Wealth Watchers would hurt my reputation as a lawyer. But by the end of 2005, I had enough encouragement from people I trusted that I decided to go for it. After all, Ray Kroc didn't start McDonald's until he was fifty-two, and he ran it on borrowed money for a long time. I figured if Mr. Kroc thought it was a good idea to borrow money to start a business, then it was. Over the past three years, the concept has been validated not only by friends, family, and individuals who have adopted the Wealth Watchers program, but by a growing list of schools and companies that have incorporated Wealth Watchers as a foundation for promoting financial literacy.
So let me introduce you to the concept. As you will find in Part II of this book, I've provided all the Wealth Watchers tools you will need to get started. The only ingredients you have to provide are the will and the discipline to change your life. Copyright © 2010 by Alice Wood
Excerpted from Wealth Watchers: A Simple Program to Help You Spend Less and Save More by Alice Wood
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