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First Time At The Food Bank

A lot is being written about poverty in the UK at the moment, but hardly any of it by real-life poor people. I want to change that, and I can start by telling my own stories. This is how I ended up using a food bank, after having lost my well-paying job due to illness and a toxic work environment.

Image by Lance Cpl. Calvin Shamoon ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve finally reached the point where I can’t afford to feed myself. I’d been holding on as long as I could, hoping that success would come quicker than it has, while also possessing a pathological fear of dealing with the benefits system. Things are difficult for me in a number of ways at the moment. I’m dealing with past trauma that had an effect on me that I didn’t recognise until I couldn’t hold it in anymore. In spite of three complete breakdowns in my twenties, I just kept on going, shoving it all away in a locked box, never to be opened. It felt safe keeping it all locked away, never to be discussed, and definitely not confronted.

But there was so much shoved into that little box that it sprang unfastened, and everything poured out at once. The only good thing about this utter clusterfuck is that it forced me to access proper mental health treatment. When my most recent mental overload occurred, I was working for an employer that offered private healthcare — so I was able to jump the queue (NHS waiting lists are over a year long for psychiatric treatment) and get seen by a specialist within weeks. I was very lucky.

And the treatment I received did help me to overcome some major mental health issues. I’m almost rid of my OCD symptoms, which was the main reason for my admission, yet there is a lot more still bubbling under the surface. The therapy concentrated on the present, and how to move forward in life by treating the symptoms — and not speculating on the cause of the disorder. In my case, OCD is something that I always remember having, but it only became a life-limiting problem when I experienced ongoing domestic abuse.

The abuse was something that still haunted me, and it does now, to an extent. The damage that it did to my self-esteem, and even my sense of self, was immense. I had experienced depression in my late teens, but that abusive relationship ensured that I remained stuck in the fog of depression for most of my 20s and some of my 30s. I feel sometimes that I had 12 years of my life stolen from me.

During that relationship, but mostly after leaving, my OCD flared up with a vengeance. It was paralysing. I was so paranoid about not having completed a domestic chore in the “correct” way, or having left the gas on and the house burning down, or leaving the front door unlocked and us getting burgled, that it would take me hours to even step outside the front door in the mornings. My abuser noticed my behaviours and played on them to demean and control me.

Some of the therapies and support services that I have been able to access through the NHS have helped me in addressing my traumatic past. I’ve been to domestic abuse support groups, one-to-one sessions to help me get back to work, and meditation classes. I’ve seen a counsellor who helped me to pick away at exactly what was holding me back, and to use that information to make changes in my life now.

But these processes take time. Sometimes I feel like the Ancient Mariner, with the weight of the albatross round my neck lessening every time I retell my story. As well as processing and accepting what has gone before, my brain just needs some time to rest and to heal.

I quit my day job as an engineer about a year ago. I found the work unsatisfying, my prospects limited, and the environment sexist and ableist. It was dragging me down even further, and I was unable to do my best work in conditions where I wasn’t trusted and I had to navigate several levels of bullshit to just get on with my damn job.

And so I handed in my notice, and went freelance. I do something that I love and I’m good at, and I only have myself to answer to. I’m a hundred times happier, but scratching a living from it is a slow process. I work long hours, and I produce quality material. I know that it’s about more than just being good — there are a ton of admin tasks that I don’t get paid for, just to keep my career afloat. And during those hours of necessary downtime, I’m not putting food on the table.

As well as the stresses of starting a new business, I’m also still recovering from the mental load of a handful of chronic illnesses (I’m screwed physically as well as mentally), and those remnants of trauma that still crop up every now and again. My anxiety, in particular, makes things at least twice as hard as they should be.

I made a benefits claim at the end of last year, but I found the process intimidating and I just couldn’t keep up with the constant demands the system places upon a claimant. I was extremely fearful of the face-to-face assessment, in which I’d be asked a series of irrelevant questions to prove how deserving and disabled I really am. It’s not like I don’t want to work, it’s that I can’t work. My body and brain need time to heal, but the current system doesn’t allow such downtime for anybody. Sickness benefit was designed for this very purpose, yet the current government uses it as a tool to punish people back to health. News just in: it doesn’t fucking work.

As a result of sanctions placed on claimants for minor and fictitious infractions, homelessness is at a record high, and food banks have sprung up all over the place. This was unheard of 10 years ago. So much for the Tories’ small-state aspirations — they’ve merely palmed social care off on to the charity sector. There are no guarantees, and they can’t help everyone. The safety net is gone.

I have a meeting in a few days to sort out my benefits, hopefully, so I should be able to scratch rent money together. But I have a dozen other bills to pay and my creditors are starting to lose patience. Being poor in modern Britain is a scary thing — particularly if you’ve never claimed benefits before. Navigating the system is a full-time career in itself, so no wonder that people learn to “play the system”.

So that’s the background to my visit to the food bank. I went there on a Thursday, but the adventure started the day before. Like Old Mother Hubbard, my cupboard, fridge and freezer were bare. I couldn’t even afford milk with which to make a cup of tea. One of the (voluntary, again) agencies helping me to create a normal home routine (I’m struggling to cope with household management and self-care) advised me that I should go to a food bank. But I would need a referral from my GP (or social services, or an approved agency like Citizen’s Advice). It turns out that doctors have a vested interest in their patients not ending up malnourished.

My phone had been cut off, so I walked into town to speak with the receptionist, in person, about getting that referral. When I arrived, I inadvertently approached the receptionist with the biggest mouth, who had never heard of this process before, and was yelling to her colleagues in the back, so that the whole room could hear “do we do food bank vouchers? Nah, ok then”. I felt so humiliated, and anxious, because I’m terrified of being told that I can’t have benefits or assistance with buying groceries because I haven’t jumped through a particular hoop. Or that I might be judged as a scrounger because I don’t look poor enough.

I reiterated to the receptionist that a referral was the only way for me to access the help I needed, and that my GP would be the only person I’m dealing with that could help. The receptionist went into the back room and one of her colleagues googled it and phoned up the nearest food bank, who emailed over a referral form, which a doctor on their break signed. Another receptionist called me into a side room to discuss my needs (finally, a bit of privacy and tact), and explained how to redeem the voucher. The food bank isn’t open on Thursdays or weekends, so I’d have to wait until the morning.

I volunteer for a local charity myself — it’s a helpline, not one that hands out food or other supplies — and that took up the rest of my evening. My dinner consisted of as many chocolate biscuits as I could make my way through without looking like a total pig. That’s how desperate things have become — I needed the calories. I woke up this morning, still hungry. I was feeling anxious about leaving the house — I’ve suffered with this particular problem for several years and no amount of therapy or medication has really cracked it. However, I was also anxious about the prospect of starving to death, so I suppose replacing one fear with a bigger one is a means to conquering it.

Anyway, on Friday morning, I got dressed and headed out. I didn’t shower or brush my teeth, I didn’t feel up to it. Yes, I was a bit gross, but I’m gonna say that the food bank is one of those places where I can let my standards slip a bit. It was located in the middle of an under-utilised industrial estate, in a big Victorian warehouse. A very good location for it: discreet, cheap, and bringing a derelict space back into use. Inside it was a hive of activity. Volunteers were sorting food and clothing into piles, ready for distribution, and something delicious had been cooked up for those unable to cook at home.

Upon arrival I was greeted by a volunteer who discussed my needs with me, and she was completely non-judgemental. I really appreciate that — this is a difficult time for me and I’ve felt convinced that at any moment the safety net might be whisked away from underneath me. So my anxieties about looking “poor enough” were quashed, for this time at least. I waited in the lobby while the volunteer dashed out with two strong carrier bags to get me three days’ worth of food. It was quite surprised at the volume of food they included in their care package, although I guess it’s difficult to divide large packages up and they have to prepare three days’ food for people of all sizes (I am tiny, even prior to food shortages). Here’s what they included:

Carb overload. I suppose it’s the most efficient way to deliver those calories.

A 500g pack of spaghetti, twelve white finger rolls (just out-of-date), two tins of tuna, one tin of chopped ham, a big bag of salted pretzels, two packages of trail mix, a can of peaches, a can of chicken curry, a can of beef in gravy, two sachets of microwave rice, one pack of instant pasta & sauce, two tins of peas, two cans of baked beans, a can of chicken soup, one tin of spaghetti hoops, and a box of tea bags (but no milk to go with it!).

(They did check that I had cooking facilities at home — it’s important that they do because some people will be living in hostels, or will have had their utilities cut off.)

That is a lot of food, which will probably last me a full week. But when I returned home I was so hungry that I ate one of the packs of 6 bread rolls in one go. They were absolutely fine even though they were out of date. I was quite surprised to get anything fresh, but I was just grateful that I wouldn’t go hungry this week, mainly.

What will I do next week? Well, right now I’m just hoping that I can rake in some extra cash from somewhere, be it from my writing, or the meagre allowance the benefits system provides. I know my current situation isn’t sustainable, and I’m trying to improve it. This can happen to any of us — to be dropped right in it by an uncaring society, precipitated by just about any personal difficulty. People are saying that we’re each only two paychecks from homelessness, and it really feels like it. I just hope I make it out the other side unscathed.