Getting out of debt can push people to breaking point. On day 3 of #ThePerfectStorm, one local ex-debtor recalls how she worked herself to the bone while living on the bare minimum. As told to Lois Borny
I had been travelling for two months around Asia with friends, and after a flurry of spontaneous flights and carefree nights out, I returned home, tanned, happy, and £1,700 into the red. Every morning I would wake up to messages from the bank – texts on my phone and letters on the doormat – it was horrible. I was living with my parents at the time, but in two months I was due to move into a shared house in East London, and any incomings would go straight into rent, food expenses, travel and bills. If I was going to pay the £1,700 off, I had to do it now, and it would have to be quick.
Looking for jobs didn’t fill me with hope – I had a degree, but the jobs on offer had a low starting salary, and I didn’t have time to start climbing the career ladder. I needed to think beyond the kettle-boiling, photocopying nine to five – how to fit as many working hours into my day as possible. So, I started working two jobs, back to back – pub by day, cocktail bar by night.
And when I received a request for pictures of my feet from a man for money, I agreed. I had posted a picture of myself in a dress I was trying to sell over E-bay, and my feet were just in view. I had heard of this before, that people – presumably with a foot fetish – are willing to pay quite a bit for them. I ended up getting £150 for the pictures, along with a pair of my well-worn heels. I just thought to myself, people see my feet all the time, so I might as well make some money from it – and at the end of the day, I was broke.
I soon entered a strange headspace where I was obsessed with money – how to make it, and how to save it. I would take food in to work and graze on leftovers. Whenever an order went wrong, I would sprint to the kitchen to make sure I got first dibs. And not a single penny of my own money went on drinks – anyone who sold the most cocktails at the bar would win a bottle of wine, and I made sure that I won every single time. I would hop the train barriers almost every day.
I was becoming more and more exhausted, waking up every morning at 8am, to be at the pub by 9am to work until 5pm. From there, breaking into a swift jog, I would make my way to the cocktail bar, to work from 6pm until close. I was surviving on just five hours sleep, and after a month of these relentless hours and messed-up eating times, I finally reached my breaking point.
It was a deep clean day at the pub – scrubbing and sweeping and mopping – followed by a rowdy, drunken wedding party at the cocktail bar. There was a lot of dragging tables and circulating with canapés, of which I managed to sneak two. I’d been knocking back expressos to stay awake, and things had started to feel far off and strange. I was certain I was going to vomit.
By 4am we finally managed to kick out the party and start packing up. I was carrying a table when I fainted, smacking my chin on the table in front of me. But when I came round, I didn’t go home; I couldn’t let myself miss out on two hours of pay – £14 is nothing to me now, but I was so caught up in the money-making mentality by then. I downed a few glasses of sugary water and went back to work, as my chin swelled up and turned purple-ish blue.
When I finally got home, I caught a glimpse of myself in the hallway mirror – pale and sallow, no longer a human. I slumped on the sofa and tried to sleep, but felt so awful that I took myself to the hospital. Sitting on a bed in the hospital corridor, I was told that, because of pure exhaustion, my blood pressure had dropped dangerously low. But instead of resting, I discharged myself, dabbed makeup on my chin, and went straight back into work.
It was a time in my life that I never ever want to relive, and had I not been living with my parents I don’t know what I would have done. Yes, I ended up paying off the debt before moving out, but for minimum wage workers with bills to pay and food to buy, those two months could have mutated into a never-ending nightmare.