I Was Over $100K In Debt & All I Could Do Was Watch 90 Day Fiancé
Oh, also I was pregnant.
In the winter of 2018, my husband and I went to our friends’ Alex and Anna’s apartment for dinner, and I learned about TLC’s 90 Day Fiancé, a show with a premise that seemed somehow both dull and salacious: Couples navigate the U.S. Department of State’s (actually real) K-1 visa process, which gives the visa holder the titular 90 days to marry or be sent back to their country of origin. They’d just binged a marathon and couldn’t stop talking about it. Normally, I’d be game, but on this particular night, I was 11 weeks pregnant, very sober, starving, and not in the mood to be intrigued by anything. Why? Because I’d confessed to my husband days earlier that I had many thousands of dollars of debt that I’d been keeping secret for years.
I’ll get back to that in a moment.
Despite my stress, I listened politely as Alex and Anna took turns narrating the saga of cast members Angela, a 53-year-old woman from the state of Georgia and her long-distance Nigerian boyfriend, 31-year-old Michael. They described in great detail a scene that would become iconic among fans: Angela excavates a tiny American flag from her cleavage, and Michael unwraps it to find an engagement ring. Waving his cleavage flag and beaming from ear to ear, he faces the camera and says, “Donald Trump, I’m coming to see you!”
The scene represents the best and the worst of 90 Day Fiancé: that is, the intersection of trash and genuine stakes. In its seven seasons, the reality show has become a hit franchise for TLC, with over six million viewers tuning into the original and its six spinoffs. (These include 90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After?, 90 Day Fiancé: Pillow Talk, and 90 Day Fiancé: Before The 90 Days, on which Angela and Michael first appeared.)
The premise for the show is brilliant because it’s incredibly simple (you have 90 days to get married or get kicked out of the country) and yet the risks could not be higher (if something goes wrong, your emotional and financial wellbeing may be obliterated). The visa process is expensive: It starts at about $3,000 but becomes significantly pricier when you factor in things like travel, troubled diplomatic relationships between the U.S. and the rest of the world, and other unforeseen hitches. Arrest records for violent criminal offenses and unexpected pregnancies pop up with relative frequency, making the marriages to which cast members have committed even riskier, more urgent, and more costly endeavors.
It was a few months after I first heard about it that I actually started watching 90 Day Fiancé. By that time, I was in my third trimester and extraordinarily uncomfortable. The baby was positioned so that she was basically sitting on my lungs, keeping me from ever taking a full breath. Sometimes she would punch me in the heart. And not, like, metaphorically. Because I was so uncomfortable and whiny I worked from home a lot and when I work from home I keep the TV on. I quickly became obsessed with season six of 90 Day Fiancé, which I watched in four-hour-long binges On Demand.
The more I watched 90 Day Fiancé, the more I began to identify with the often truly dire straits of its cast. Here I was, 37, very pregnant, and completely incapable of comprehending motherhood in any kind of concrete sense, having lost both my parents when I was very young. I’d barely known my mother, and my dad, while I’d adored him, had been the worst kind of mercurial charmer — full of promises and charisma and too damaged by alcohol and trauma to see anything through to completion.
I’d inherited some of his finest traits — intellectual curiosity, a thick head of hair — but I’d also inherited from him the absolutely, jaw-dropping inability to handle money with any kind of logic or restraint.
During that long last trimester, as I sat on my couch, pants-less, television on, and crying under the weight of the guilt and anxiety and debt and the baby crushing my organs, I realized that if this were a season of 90 Day Fiancé, I would be the villain.
And so here is the secret I’d confessed to my husband in the early days of my pregnancy, as we faced down doctor’s appointments, a possible move, and a college fund — all things that would require me to share my finances with him: Through a series of terrible decisions, I’d amassed more than $45,000 in credit card debt (on top of the $65,000 I still owed in student loans). Two years before, I’d published a book, received a sizable advance, quit my lucrative job at a hedge fund to really “focus” on writing, then put not one cent of the advance money aside for taxes. The cascading series of attempts I’d made to rectify the situation, like cashing out my 401k and taking out cash advances on my credit card to pay for my half of the rent, actually began the year we were married, in 2015. By 2018, it was so bad that my entire paycheck was going toward paying the minimum on credit cards.
I understand why people choose to take their own lives when they find themselves in financial crisis. My father, after all, died from a slow suicide, a two-year bender that began when he was laid off and ended when his body gave out in a rent-by-the-hour hotel, with $200 in his bank account. You’re in such a tailspin that you’ll do anything to make it stop. When I came clean, perched on the edge of our sofa, my husband was furious, mostly because of the lying, and there was nothing I could do to make it better. I could tell him how sorry I was, but the decision to trust me again was his to make. During that long last trimester, as I sat on my couch, pants-less, television on, and crying under the weight of the guilt and anxiety and debt and the baby crushing my organs, I realized that if this were a season of 90 Day Fiancé, I would be the villain.
The premise of 90 Day Fiancé evokes immigration scams; nearly every American featured on the show is asked by friends and family, “Are you sure they’re not just using you for a Green Card?” 90 Day Fiancé certainly has featured dubious models who never seem to be able to Skype with their partner in real time. But the relationships are almost always far more complex — and far more illustrative of the frayed state of race and class in America — than the TLC log line implies.
As I watched the show, I thought a lot about what our friends and family would think when they found out I’d amassed overwhelming debt, kept it a secret, and gotten pregnant. This fear was one of the things that kept my deception going on for so long. I am smart! I am capable! I wrote a book! I’ve taken care of myself since I was 15! I’m a success story! I’d tell myself as I juggled money from one card to another, and stopped paying the interest on my student loans. If anyone found out that I had created this situation, why would they love or respect me? Why would I be trusted to be a good mother if I’d been a deceptive partner?
And I saw, in the breakout stars of season six, a similar kind of dangerous magical thinking. Colt (a 33-year-old from Las Vegas who lived with his mom, Debbie, and three cats: Sugar, Cookie Dough, and Baby Girl) and Larissa, a 31-year-old from Brazil, were determined to get through the K-1 visa process, despite not having any apparent chemistry or mutual respect.
Larissa arrives with demands, and while Colt frames them as outlandish, to me, they were perfectly reasonable. Debbie and Colt don’t own a couch, so Larissa thinks they should buy...a couch. Colt’s car doesn’t have functioning air-conditioning in Las Vegas, Nevada, so Larissa thinks he should get a car that has air-conditioning because…they are in the middle of the desert.
With her perfectly manicured nails, long black hair, and all-purpose freakum dresses, Larissa is supposed to be the villain — teaser commercials regularly showed her declaring, “WHO IS AGAINST THE QUEEN WILL DIE!” — but the power dynamics on the show are so incredibly skewed that it would be crazy if Larissa hadn’t lost it. Foreigners brought over on the K-1 visa can’t work, and they can’t get driver’s licenses. Colt controls all her access to money and transportation, and constantly lords over her the cost of the visa process.
I’d told my husband for years, while we were dating and then again when we got married, that I wanted to keep our finances separate because I wanted to maintain my autonomy, but that was never really the reason. Like my father, I’m a chronic debtor, and I suffer from a disease I call The Wants. The Wants convinces you that if you have a $10,000 limit on your credit card, then you have $10,000 to spend on all kinds of things: fast fashion, eyelash extensions, flowers from Whole Foods. After I came clean to my husband, we shut down my bank account, opened a joint one, and I gave him the usernames and passwords to all my accounts. I’d never in my life felt more vulnerable. Not because he had some kind of financial leverage over me, but because I would no longer be able to lie.
My husband is the opposite of Colt in every way: He is an exceedingly decent human being, he is kind, he sees me as a peer, he is allergic to cats. Together we came up with a plan to manage the debt, a slow and expensive plan that requires I be completely honest with him at all times. It was doable. But it left us with nothing extra. There won’t be a college fund in the near future.
Television has always soothed me. As a kid born into the golden age of the sitcom, I’d lose myself in the perfect lives of those primetime families. It seemed like if I could just have a staircase in my living room AND my kitchen, everything would be great. And as we continue, together, to pay down the debt, I still find a weird solace in watching 90 Day Fiancé.
The current season’s cast includes Robert, a 41-year-old Floridian who is hoping that 31-year-old Anny can be a good mother to his son, Bryson. Anny, who adores Bryson (and has the most enviable Brazilian Blowout I have ever seen in my life), is dismayed to discover that the promises Robert made her of romance and financial stability don't square with reality. In fact, it seems more like he's brought her over to be an unpaid nanny. At the very least he is committing wage theft. At worst, he’s essentially human trafficking.
These people are fucking crazy, I would think. And then I’d realize I’d given birth to a human being while living in a fourth-floor walkup, attending Debtors Anonymous — an amazing program I cannot endorse highly enough — and hoping that my husband could someday forgive me for my extended period of deception. Not to mention: my flightiness, my laziness, my unreliability, my teenage-like resistance to authority, and my complete lack of any employable skills beyond putting up with difficult people and blogging.
I had the very real fear of being “sent back”; if not to another country, then perhaps to my hometown of Providence, RI, or the dark, chaotic emotional place where I’d been leading a secret double life. To everyone else I’d made my dreams come true, been paid six figures to write a memoir, owned a Céline Trio bag, was newly married. But inside, I felt worthless. Maybe that’s why I spent and spent — to prove I had value. Yes, 90 Day Fiancé is a show about people who make unhinged decisions, like getting engaged to the Turkish man you’ve met on a beekeeping website even though your in-person communication is dependent on the Google Translate app, but it is also a show about judging “the other.” I found I really wasn’t sure of which side of that border I was standing on.
I’m not sure there exists another show that so accurately portrays the many cruelties we will endure — loneliness, racism, emotional abuse, being gawked at on reality TV — to find love. To create a family. To feel secure. There is so much weeping on 90 Day Fiancé. There’s also a constant recalibration of our expectations and affection for the cast. Sometimes, even if they aren’t doing great, they’re doing the very best they can…which might be being cavalier, or scheming, or threatening an old woman named Debbie. But for the most part, they are trying. Which is honestly all any of us can do.
When our daughter was born in April, we lost ourselves in the thick fog of new parenthood. I started focusing on the debt, on the idea that I didn’t deserve everything I had — it quickly spiraled into severe postpartum anxiety. I was convinced my family would be better off without me. I was convinced I deserved none of this: this beautiful family, this beautiful healthy baby. It was my husband who guided me through it all, taking phone calls with me and my psychiatrist, checking in, filling prescriptions, telling me he loved me, that our baby loved me.
Our daughter is happy and carefree. She shrieks with delight when I return home from work and belly-laughs when I sneeze. But I am never not worried. I am never not guilty. I am also never not trying.