To be in Recovery for the most part is a good thing, in terms of taking steps to make a better life for yourself. This means, however, for a lot of people that you are starting from scratch with everything and having to rely on benefits to support you while you’re unable to work. So often is the case that you have lost everything; life, job, home, relationship, family, friends and other aspects of your life.
It would be wrong for me not to mention poverty, a lot of working class families working over 40 hours a week are struggling to manage on their wages. However, I can only talk about poverty within my own experiences and context.
When I first approached my GP with substance issues, and was subsequently referred to Lifeline, everything in my life was broken. This was despite having just completed my Contemporary Fine Art degree at York St John’s University, upon the fourth time of trying over two decades. I thought this achievement would solve the issue of feeling like a failure and change my life for the better. Despite suffering from severe depression and anxiety I had managed the condition quite well during the three years of University despite finding the social aspect very difficult.
However, when I finished studying I realised that the issues of severe depression and anxiety were dominating my life alongside symptoms from a period of domestic abuse. I started drinking again and it was escalating out of control. I approached my GP and was referred to Lifeline in September 2013. At the same time my benefits had been stopped owing to the fact I hadn’t informed them of a new address and had missed an appointment for a review.
This is when poverty crept into my life yet again. I had no money to pay rent in the property I was living in with my artist friends, no money for food or bills, I literally had nothing. This had a significant impact on my mental health. Everything seemed hopeless; having to rely on my Dad sending me money each week to live on, money I knew he didn’t have. At age 39, the guilt and shame I felt at not being able to support myself left my self-esteem in tatters.
My keyworker at Lifeline spent months in discussion with the DWP regarding my benefits before the matter was resolved and, at times, I was sick with the waiting and the constant pressure of worrying about my finances. Lifeline gave me a lot of support but there were times when I felt completely alone in the world with nothing and no-one in it. Just me and the failure I felt I was.
The DWP eventually started my money up again but because of an overpayment issue (an error on their part) it meant I couldn’t pay the money back to my father he had been sending me, which is something that still haunts me now, three and a half years down the line.
From Summer 2014 I spent nine months in a hostel in York whilst I paid off my debts to the Council from when my benefit payments were suspended, which was the hardest time in my life for a long while. As the room in my hostel was only just big enough to hold a single bed, fridge and a chair, I then had to move most of my possessions back to Shropshire at an additional cost – money I certainly didn’t have.
‘Justifying this money was hugely difficult, but I made the decision to prioritise my recovery otherwise I knew I couldn’t progress how I wanted.’
I had to start to manage what money I did have to live; I had to buy things to start to cook meals with as I had nothing. I had to pay towards all the utilities at the hostel, I had to find £50 a month for a bus pass to get to all my appointments at Lifeline; one-to-one keywork sessions, counselling, SMART meetings (Self-Management and Recovery Training), Next Steps groups, Mindfulness, Art Group etc. Justifying this money was hugely difficult, but I made the decision to prioritise my recovery otherwise I knew I couldn’t progress how I wanted.
I had to find enough money for food every week as well as laundry costs. I didn’t socialise in any way because of the mental health issues I had and even if I was up to socialising then I was unable to afford to.
It was great that I had the Lifeline Project and the different groups and meetings or I wouldn’t have seen anyone from week to week.
Often I would sacrifice money for food for tobacco as I felt I needed the comfort of smoking to ease my anxiety and manage my substance misuse. If I needed new footwear or clothes owing to the fact most of them were worn out I would have to eat unhealthily for a fortnight in order to save the money towards new items. Basic necessities became secondary to me, as I was constantly juggling and prioritising where my money went.
I have not written these words for a sympathy vote, it is merely to highlight the struggles that I have been through on benefits and the mental health issues I had, and still have, to this day.
Sometimes I wouldn’t leave my room at the hostel because it was all too much to cope with managing the substance use, managing the severe depression and anxiety, managing the PTSD from domestic abuse, managing the loneliness and isolation, managing the money I had to live on, managing bills. It all just seems too much to cope with at times, recalling days when I just wanted to die rather than endure another day which was filled with pain, stress and worry at every turn.
In the last six months, with the help of a number of services including Lifeline Project, Independent Domestic Abuse Service (IDAS), Mental Health services, Richmond Fellowship, SMART mutual aid meetings I have been able to successfully move forward with my life. Although my experience has only been with the charities mentioned I know that Joseph Rowntree Foundation do so much for the city in terms of tackling poverty and providing people with accommodation and additional support in improving their lives.
The inspiration for this blog came after JRF gave me the opportunity to attend The Social Media Exchange as a representative of Lifeline along with a member of staff, a conference around storytelling in London. I am very grateful to JRF for this opportunity which has inspired the next stage of my Recovery in sharing my experience with others, and by volunteering at Lifeline in the future to support people going through similar experiences, as well as promoting the services through a regular blog which can be found here.