The Curse Of The Poverty Hangover, Ten Years On | Jack Monroe
Today has seen a dozen job applications drafted, painstakingly typed on my mobile phone, for bar work, shop work, warehouse work, train driving work, minimum wage work, any kind of work, because quite simply, this freelance writer on scrappy occasional royalties thing just doesn’t really work. I wrote a blog post exactly ten years ago today called Hunger Hurts, back when I was an unknown local political blogger with a dozen readers and a death wish, and it struck me recently that although much has changed in the last decade, in many ways I’ve circled back to some of the same difficult, desperate decisions keeping me up at night right now. What I’m about to write may come as a surprise, but I’ve always been upfront and rather too honest with my readers about where I’m at at any given time, and this – hard as it is to put into words – is no exception.
For reasons too complex and tedious to go into in great detail to be picked over by the vultures that feast on the rotting corpse of my fragile mental and physical health, I’m struggling to hold everything together right now, and have been for some time. Oh the hollow laughs at every libellous right wing tosser that confidently claims me a millionaire on social media whenever a makeup artist makes my hair look nice and my face look like I’ve had more than two hours sleep and a sandwich on daytime television. I, and my bank account currently -£14.60 in the red after an emergency vets bill, would dearly love to know where that pot of gold with my name on it is buried. And the password to get into the vault, and what medieval weapon and cod-Latin words I should deploy to slay the dragon that fiercely guards it. Because I’m so, very, tired of it all.
No, I’m not ‘poor’ any more. Nor do I pretend to be. I work, I get paid, I have some nice things, I’m managing, but my god the lengths I have to go to every damn day to manage are grinding my bones into dust. Literally. Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, calcification of my shoulder joint, recurring respiratory infections, burnout, poor mental health, exhaustion, chronic fatigue, constantly picking physical holes in my legs out of permanent anxiety and as a form of self harm; quite literally chipping away at myself as an external manifestation of my internal fears and disasters.
About the nice things, too. It is with some sardonic twisted irony that I find myself – ten years to the day of the last time I had to – sitting at my table with a pencil and paper in hand, making a list of everything I own of value to sell. Again. Much of it bought as insurance policies against this kind of thing, much of it celebratory for each book contract or publication day, barely enjoyed and preserved in case one day I found myself needing to cash it in. The Katie Hopkins sofa. The Burberry coat. All of my haunted engagement rings. My photography equipment, again. A Vivienne Westwood dress. My laptop. My mobile phone. My dining table. My bed. My home. Our home.
Well I don’t actually own the place that has been mine and Small Boys home for the last four years, the longest we have lived anywhere in the chaotic and transient decade that followed me losing my job in the Fire Service, I rent it. I started renting it with my ex partner, on a fixed term contract, and was left solely responsible for it when we split up. She owned her own flat in London, and went back to it. I couldn’t get out of the contract, so have been paying 94% of my income on the rent and bills every month ever since. And I’m broken, so broken, and I just can’t carry on like this any more. The last two years have been painful, and despite various meagre income streams, I can’t recall many months that haven’t been an absolute grind to make this work for us. I haven’t had a choice, however, as anyone on a fixed term rental contract will know; there’s no getting out of it until the end date. But I do have a choice about whether to renew that contract when it expires, and it’s one I’ve been chewing over from all angles for the last couple of months. My heart wants to stay here forever, until I can perhaps one day buy a small place to call our own for the security and little nest I have craved for the last 18 years of renting. My head whispers that – barring a wild change in fortunes that lets be frank, hasn’t happened in the last ten years so is unlikely to materialise in the next six months – buying a house with the buttons that are left in the budget at the end of the month is unrealistic, and the longer I stay here, the further away that dream skitters into the foggy horizon.
It’s taken me a long time to come to this decision, to downsize to a one bedroom flat and sleep on a sofa bed in the lounge, and it’s hurting my heart in places I didn’t even know were unscathed. I’ve talked recently about needing to make a big decision that will be one of the most challenging, stressful things I’ve ever had to do. You, my ever positive and cheerleading readers, thought it was going to be a Strictly announcement. Alas – there will be no sequins and permatans in my immediate future; just an awful lot of brown tape, conscious uncoupling with the things I have painstakingly built from nothing since the last time I sold everything I owned almost exactly ten years ago. The bitter cold revenge of the Universe for not succumbing to raging capitalism is best served in the height of summer, apparently, and when we least expect it. In the wake of the freshest of heartbreaks and my realisation that perhaps happy ever afters are for less broken people, after a grenade was carelessly tossed into my life as I knew it on a Sunday afternoon some weeks ago and I’ve been left standing in the crater holding the pieces of my heart and charred fragments of the plans we had made curling into the ill wind, perhaps razing the whole tumultuous decade to the ground and starting again might be the closure and the once-again fresh start that we need. Me, the boy, the dog, the cat, and a great big fuck-it button. Not so much a leap of faith off the cliff edge, but a resigned lowering myself over the side of it by my fingertips and a prayer, hoping the rock bottom to come isn’t as painful as I remember.
And so on Monday, as with the Monday of ten years past, I’ll be walking into a pawnbrokers with a fistful of my worldly goods and a slightly more world weary demeanour than the last time I had to. My hair is greyer, my hips thicker, my bones more brittle, but I’m still trying to consolidate arrears, financial chaos, and the threat of unopened letters, with home security, and it’s still a day to day exhaustion. So I’m stripping back the things that I can call my own. Again, in a Groundhog Day of emotional fuckery and rage and sadness and quiet resignation. Questioning how much I need clean aesthetic lines and matching furniture. How much I need a TV. How much I need to have the big gorgeous American fridge freezer, and the space to put it in. Not as much as I need a home, and more importantly, not as much as Small Boy needs a home.
Once again, and quite a while ago now, I took my lightbulbs out. I replaced them with solar lanterns meant for garden decor, and they work just fine. A little dim on overcast days, but fine. And importantly, free. I stopped getting my hair cut; what used to be a regular essential is suddenly a gross luxury, so you throw it back in an Alice band and tell your friends that you’re growing it, not that you can’t afford to maintain it. I haven’t bought shampoo or conditioner for two years, and I make my own shower gel by boiling cheap soap bars in plenty of water until they dissolve, and then leaving them to set. Everything in my home is cleaned with either basic disinfectant, 27p bleach, 29p washing up liquid, vinegar, or bicarbonate of soda. My food shop is still around £20 a week. I’m running out of corners to cut and holes in the belt to tighten it; it’s already hard enough to breathe without constricting myself further.
People often mistakenly call me strong. People say to me that they admire my spirit. In times like the last few weeks but especially the last few days, sitting on my sofa under a pile of blankets or beneath my duvet, numb and staring and losing hours to staring into the void of a (thirteen months sober) disassociated mental blackout as I try to work out where the hell to go from here, I don’t feel strong. I don’t feel spirited. I just carry on, hour by hour, dragging myself through the day. I work long, hard hours, doing often difficult and exhausting work, and I deserve better than to feel like I’m merely wearily congratulating myself for surviving.
There’s a saying in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous about reaching a point where the pain of staying where you are finally outweighs the pain of making a change, and I think I’ve hit that tip of the scales. The next few months are going to be incredibly difficult: going through every single item I possess and condensing it by about 80% so that what I have left will fit into a one bedroom flat. The bedroom will be for the growing teenage boy; I’ll be on a sofa bed in the lounge. 34 years old, writing my 8th and 9th books, sleeping on a couch. Maybe the Lee Andersons and Martin Daubneys and the rabid anonymous cabal will finally cease to falsely claim that I’m ‘richer than the Prime Minister’ when I’m cooking out of a kitchen the size of a shoebox again, but I don’t hold out much hope that they’ll suddenly start dealing in facts rather than poisonous, libellous, contrarian bile. I’ve more chance of finding the mythical pot of gold, I think, than hoping that their ilk find some conscience and honesty. But I’m not doing it for them. I’m doing it for me and my family, and my sanity, and my health.
This isn’t a polemic for pity; I’ve survived every single curve ball and rock bottom that life has thrown at me so far. In the cold light of reason, it’s a step away from the wreckage of my past and into something more manageable. Having no stairs will be good for my arthritic bones. Fewer rooms to clean will be a godsend for my ADHD and overwhelmed feelings of being unable to cope. Clutter makes me feel frantic; ironic for someone with hoarding tendencies, but an untidy environment does a real number on my mental well-being. In the current energy crisis, having a far smaller space to light and heat will be a blessing. Having somewhere with much smaller bills will buy me some breathing space and perhaps even occasional peace of mind. The process of letting go of things is going to be a long one; I’ve given myself the six months between now and the end of my lease to do it because it’s going to take that long to do it properly, but I’m also blessed to have good friends and family around me who will muck in and help out along the way. I’ll be okay. I’m not, right now, and leaving this house is going to be heartbreakingly sad, but it’s a step towards having a more sure foundation from which to build the rest of mine and Small Boys lives.
Poverty isn’t just the place I was in ten years ago of having no heating, or not quite enough food, or unplugging the fridge and turning the hot water off. (Although I have turned the hot water off: it’s a daft enormous tank system that costs a fortune no matter how frugal I try to be with it, so I’ve just switched it off at the mains and to hell with it.) Poverty isn’t just the sinking feeling when my small boy, aged three, finished his one weetabix and said ‘more mummy, bread and jam please mummy’ as I was wondering whether to take the TV or the guitar to the pawn shop first, and how to tell him that there was no bread or jam. Poverty leaves scars that flare and itch for years down the line; ticking time bombs of chronic illnesses from malnutrition, mental distress, trauma, and living in the cold and damp and dark. Poverty is not just the period where you can’t pay your bills, but the years and years of financial penalties and punishments that follow in its wake. Poverty is not something that sitting on a breakfast television sofa once in a while helps you to get over, nor writing a couple of books. I may not be where I was ten years ago, but I’m sure as shit not going to be there in ten years time either. A change is gonna come, and it starts with me. Unbuilding the life I have carefully and relentlessly worked for over the last ten years, back to its foundations, so I can build a new one with whatever pieces I’m left holding at the end of the year. Don’t be sad for me, please. This will be a good thing, even if to get there will be an incredibly labour intensive and difficult journey, the bittersweet reward at the end of it should be well worth it. We should not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it, but neither should we stand stock still and stare at it either. It’s time, mentally, emotionally, and physically, to move on.
All text copyright Jack Monroe, not to be reproduced without the explicit written permission of the author.
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