Friday, July 26, 2019

Bag Lady Syndrome: How "No Place Like Home" Helped Me Face My Fear

What’s Bag Lady Syndrome? According to financial columnist Jay McDonald, “Bag Lady Syndrome" is a fear many women share that their financial security could disappear in a heartbeat, leaving them homeless, penniless and destitute”

The Washington Times reported “90 percent of women say they feel financially insecure…and almost half are troubled by a ‘tremendous fear of becoming a bag lady’.”

Bag lady syndrome can be paralyzing, according to Olivia Mellan, a Washington, D.C. therapist who specializes in money psychology.

She says “Lily Tomlin, Gloria Steinem, Shirley MacLaine and Katie Couric all admit to having a bag lady in their anxiety closet.”

"It cuts across women of all social groups; it's not like wealthy women don't have it," says Mellan. "Heiresses, women who have inherited wealth, have big bag-lady nightmares because they really feel like the money came to them magically and can leave them just as magically."

When you quit your day job to write full time—especially if you’re single—those fears can escalate to nightmares, anxiety attacks and debilitating self-doubt. 

My Bag Lady Moment

For me, my anxieties hit a crescendo when my first publisher went out of business and I had to go back to square one, writing query letters to agents and editors again like a newbie.

My magazine writing gigs had dried up, too: either the journals had gone under or they were no longer paying. I’d been out of the workforce for years and the world was in the middle of a recession. My savings were dwindling fast.

I feared I’d made all the wrong financial choices and I’d soon be living under a bridge.

I started having a recurring nightmare about living in a rusted, wheel-less truck in some kind of dump full of rats. My skin was crawling with insects. Sometimes parts of my body would fall off. I’d wake up screaming.
My nightmare home

Even the Ultra-Rich Can Lose Everything

One morning I woke from one of those horrific dreams to an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition. (Yes, I have Public Radio on my clock radio: I guess that qualifies me as a super-nerd.) They were talking to a successful Manhattan magazine editor who had lost her life savings to Bernie Madoff.

Look: it can happen to anybody, I told myself—even people with a ton of savings who have done everything right.

I got up and read my local morning paper, which was full of letters to the editor complaining about how homeless camps and panhandling were ruining our town’s idyllic image as “the happiest town in America.”

I flashed on how that posh magazine editor I’d heard on NPR could be one of those scruffy people standing outside the San Luis Obispo Mission with a cardboard sign. She could be one of those despised people living in the “filthy” camps.

So could I. 

A Lot of People Are One Catastrophe from Homelessness

An awful lot of us are only one Bernie Madoff or catastrophic disease away from those camps.

After I heard that story, I took a day off querying and outlined a novel about a New York magazine editor who is not only conned by a Bernie Madoff type, but married to him.

She not only loses everything, but is accused of being complicit in his crimes. On the lam and destitute, she ends up living in a homeless camp in the idyllic wine country near where I live.

For me, picturing somebody like Martha Stewart living in a tent and cooking over a Sterno stove, worrying about where to go for showers and basic bodily functions—not knowing which homeless people she could trust—helped me to walk myself through my fears and see that it would be possible to survive. 

Thinking the Unthinkable
Edvard Munch's "Anxiety"

Thinking the “unthinkable” sometimes helps us to cope with fear. If we can visualize ourselves in a terrifying situation that has a positive outcome, it can help us overcome the terror.

That’s why fiction—reading or writing it—can help us treat our anxieties.

A columnist called "The Anxiety Doc" says “When it comes to treating anxiety, panic attacks and phobias, creative visualization techniques have proven very therapeutic for sufferers. In order for the visualization to be completely effective, the person must involve all their senses in the process. They need to see themselves performing the behavior, hear the sounds associated with it and feel any tactile sensations. In some cases, even the senses of taste and smell will be involved.”

That’s what a writer does! So when I visualized my character, Home decorating magazine editor Doria Windsor, in a homeless camp, I pictured her surviving each of my own fears: the lack of hygiene, the stink, the cold, hunger, loss of dignity, etc.

And if she could do it, so could I.

It also helped that I write romantic comedy. I had Doria—and my ever-unlucky sleuth Camilla—both find romance (and some perspective) as they face homelessness because of the Ponzi-scheming villain’s crimes. 

Homeless People are Survivors

To give the homeless people in Doria’s camp personalities and backstories, I talked to the homeless people who panhandle in front of some of my favorite stores in Morro Bay. One woman was remarkably plucky and full of humor. She became the model for my character of Lucky.

I decided not to make my homeless characters objects of pity, but strong-minded survivors who help solve the mystery of a homeless man’s murder. In a way, they’re the real heroes of my story. 

I used metaphors from The Wizard of Oz to show the journey Doria takes and the helpful friends she finds along the way.

Not long after I started the book, I got an offer from the editor of an independent press to publish my backlist. Then another offered to look at the new stuff. Between September 2011 and December 2012, we published 7 of my books, followed by  
No Place Like Home the following year.

I now have 13 published titles, several of which have become bestsellers.

Things are looking up. I think making my characters face the “unthinkable” helped me to think it through for myself. I hope it will help my readers, too.

I’m not saying that I’m entirely over my bag lady fears. Some of us never will be. But I don’t have those nightmares anymore and the panic isn’t lurking under the surface every time I lie down to sleep.

What about you? Do you have "bag lady syndrome" or a fear of homelessness? Do you know anybody who does?

NO PLACE LIKE HOME: Camilla Mystery #4  

Comedy with a conscience. Doria Windsor, the uber-rich editor of Home decorating magazine loses everything, including her Ponzi-schemer husband, when their luxury wine-country home mysteriously goes up in flames. Homeless, destitute, presumed dead and branded a criminal, 59-yr-old Doria has a crash course in reality…and a second chance at love.

Meanwhile, reluctant sleuth Camilla Randall is facing homelessness too, as Doria's husband's schemes unravel and take down innocent bystanders along the way. When the mysterious—and dangerously attractive—Mr. X. turns up at Camilla's bookstore looking for clues to the death of a missing homeless man, Camilla joins in the search.

With the help of brave trio of homeless people and a little dog named Toto, Doria, Camilla and Mr. X journey to unmask the real killer and reveal the dark secrets of Doria's "financial wizard" husband.

Anne. R. Allen weaves her usual blend of archetypal images (this time from The Wizard of Oz) with unique and wacky characters, hilarious situations, and laugh-out-loud one-liners that all somehow come together and make perfect sense at the end.

No Place Like Home is the fourth of the Camilla Randall Mysteries, but can be read as a stand-alone novel.

No Place Like Home is available at all the AmazonsNOOK, and iBooks, It's also available in paperback from Amazon USAmazon UK, and Barnes and Noble, in regular and LARGE PRINT. LARGE PRINT is also available at Barnes and Noble.

It's also available in an audiobook, narrated by Anne and award-winning narrator, C.S. Perryess. You can find it at Audible and iTunes UK. It's also available at iTunes US

Another version of this piece first appeared in the anthology "Indiestructable" published by Vine Leaves Press


  1. Have been struggling with this syndrome since retirement. The present political state has not helped! It may not be based in reality, but is still scary as hell! Your book helped me see some humor and explore this "phase" of life in depth. As a volunteer for hospice I sit with people on their final journey. Never has anyone said I am worried about being a bag lady. (person) but many do say their perspective concerning money has changed drastically in their lifetimes. Most of my people are close or greater than 100 so that is not surprising. Thank you for exploring bag lady fears and showing us there are paths through the jungle.

    1. Bonnie--Thanks so much for your insight. You are doing so much good volunteering for hospice. When my mother was fading, it was hospice volunteers who kept her spirits up and kept us all going. A lot of her antiques I couldn't keep in my small house, I donated to our local hospice store. Much better than the hassle of dealing with antique dealers. I figure whatever they got for the things was paying back hospice from my mom.

      I agree that when we have a political climate where everyone who isn't a billionaire is considered a non-person, we are all pretty terrified.

      Thanks much for commenting!