Dec 10, 20194 min read

How it really feels to be in debt.

Daisy Buchanan portrait

by Daisy Buchanan

I used to be terrified of post.

It became a phobia. Every day, I’d feel the tension twist and build in my body as I walked up the stairs to my flat. I’d slide my key into the lock and hold my breath. Was this the day that I’d discover something life altering on the doormat? Was I enjoying the last moment before my life caught up with me, and the ignored white envelopes turned brown, filled with consequences and penalties and threats? On a good day, my door would glide open, and I could breathe out, but if I heard the rasp of paper under the frame, I’d have to concentrate very hard on not being sick. I’d try to gauge the contents of the bills and statements from the outside of the envelope, before throwing them unopened into a drawer and trying not to think about them. Until next time.

I knew I was in debt, but I couldn’t bear to think about how much debt I was in, because I didn’t think there was any way to get out. Denial kept despair at bay. Every month, I’d go to the bank and pay off as much of my credit card as I could afford. Inevitably, this meant I’d run out of money after a week or two, and I’d have to start using the credit card again. I felt trapped, and I didn’t think I could ask anyone for help, because the situation I was in was all my fault. I was ashamed of the fact that I didn’t earn very much money, and ashamed of the fact that I sometimes bought things I didn’t need and couldn’t afford. I felt alone, isolated and scared.

A 2010 study from the Royal College of Psychiatrists found that half of UK adults in problem debt are also living with mental ill-health. At the start of 2019, Britain’s levels of personal debt peaked, with the average household owing £15,835 to banks and credit card companies.

Hundreds of thousands of people are suffering and struggling, yet there is still a stigma that surrounds debt. When your mental health is affected, and your debt is making you very anxious and depressed, it becomes very difficult to come up with a practical plan to address your problems. I desperately looked for better paid work, but struggled to find the energy or confidence to do this effectively. According to the Mental Health foundation, worrying about debt often causes sleeplessness, which makes it difficult to make positive or practical decisions.

At the time, I wish I’d known that I wasn’t the only person who was struggling with debt. If I’d been aware that being in debt didn’t make me a bad person, and that thousands of people were in the same position as me, I would have been able to take practical steps to change my situation, instead of being overwhelmed by my emotions. Now I know that organisations like Citizens Advice, and charities such as Step Change, exist to help people like me. They’re not there to judge you or make you feel bad – but they can work with your creditors to help you to make a repayment plan that you can stick to, and make sure your debt is manageable.

It doesn’t matter whether you owe fifty quid or five hundred thousand pounds – the actual numbers on your credit card statement matter much less than the way they make you feel. It’s OK to be in debt. It’s not OK to be scared, sleep deprived and constantly anxious about what might be waiting for you on your doormat when you get home. Dealing with debt seems frightening because we fear the unknown. My life changed for the better when I realised that the reality of my situation couldn’t be worse than anything I’d imagined. Just paying off ten per cent of my debt made me feel a hundred percent better, and that’s how I found the confidence to take charge of the situation instead of letting it define me.