The spiral began. His workmen’s compensation ran out, and my folks ran through their savings—$10,000, including his retirement from seventeen years at Skaggs. They got behind on their $800 monthly house payments, which were more than my mom’s entire—pre-tax—monthly income of about $660. My sister and I qualified for free lunches at school. Finally, we went on food stamps.

This in particular broke my parents’ hearts. They’re conservative Republicans. They don’t favor government programs. They do believe in the work-hard-and-you’ll-make-it ethos that if you do what you’re supposed to do, things will work out. I’ll never forget the sight of my mom, the first time she had to pull out the food stamps to pay for groceries at the supermarket where my dad had once worked. She broke down in tears, right there at the checkout. She was so ashamed. I learned to avoid the whole scene by going out to the parking lot while she paid for groceries, something I regret to this day.

Housing and Urban Development lowered our monthly payments to $68 a month, which kept us in our house for a couple of years. If we hadn’t had it, I don’t know what we would have done. We couldn’t even afford a cheap apartment. There was just no money. My grandparents sometimes had to bring us groceries.

Creditors would call several times a day. I still don’t know why, but my dad would answer and let some vulture berate him for half an hour about what a miserable deadbeat he was. Here was someone who had worked since he was a small child, as soon as his parents let him. If he could have worked for $5 an hour he would have, but he was a shell of his former self. I thought the pressure would drive him crazy.

Slowly, though, my dad recovered somewhat and went back to laying and cleaning carpet, though at a much slower pace than before the illness, and for much less money. The HUD program ended, meanwhile, and by that time so much interest had accrued on the mortgage by that time that we couldn’t have afforded it before he got sick. In February 1993, the jig was up. We had to pack up our stuff and go.

I think it’s hard to overstate the psychic impact of losing your house. It’s like being under siege or being in the middle of a nightmare— illness, job loss, creditors, telephone calls, and the attendant strains that come with all those. You try to hold them off and sometimes succeed for months or even years, but eventually all your defenses give way. It is utter defeat.

At last count, 1.2 million homes are in foreclosure, about one in thirty-six mortgages in the country. One in eleven are behind on their payments. Some say total foreclosures will hit four million. The impact is multiplied because each foreclosure affects an average 2.6 people per household.

I’ll grant that a not insignificant number of these foreclosures are from people who knew better: speculators betting on ever-rising prices, for instance. I don’t care about them. And I’m not going to pretend that people aren’t responsible for their own financial decisions. They are. But as we’ve written on The Audit, the evidence is overwhelming that the lending industry underwent a dramatic transformation, using boiler-room tactics and other tools of mass deception to sell defective mortgages with incomplete or inaccurate disclosure.

However they got into these mortgages, the vast majority of people struggling to save their homes are probably going through something like what we went through when we lost ours. Losing our home was the worst thing that happened in my childhood, and it surely has colored how I view the world since. It plays hell on your self-esteem and sense of security, I’ll tell you that.

After the foreclosure, we moved a mile away to a shabby duplex, our side of which rented for $600 a month. My dad got sick again and that payment proved too much and they had to move to a $475 a month apartment in a complex once known for its swinging singles scene in the 1970s, but since better known for its drug dealers. His medical bills soon forced my parents into bankruptcy.

They bounced around and eventually moved up to a rental house (fortunately, by this time I was off at college, able to go because of a full-ride scholarship from the state). My mom went to school and got her associate’s degree and now has a good career as a medical transcriptionist. My dad was no longer able to do backbreaking labor, but he became a truck driver. They slowly got back on their feet.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.